Bangladeshi garment workers — up from the ashes

The refusal of some factory owners to pay the traditional Eid bonuses has resulted in factory workers at two major garment factories to go on strike and block two highways (in what is becoming a standard tactic of the garment workers).  The factory owners at Zirani (one of the factories) have reported that they will now pay bonuses.  At Monno Attire Ltd. on the other hand, workers went out on strike over being forced to work for 24 straight hours without a break so that the bosses could fill orders on time.  (It’s also problem since many of the workers are fasting for Ramadan and are forced to eat the low-quality food that bosses provide).  Owners of that factory were also forced to make concessions as soon as the strike occurred.

The Financial Express of Bangladesh, at least, thinks that this may be the beginning of a new wave of combativity in the garment districts near Dhaka:

The fresh wave of protests in Manikganj and Gazipur signals the recurrence of violent unrest in the apparel industry ahead of Eid.

Police said thousands of workers of two garment factories in Manikganj and Gazipur blockaded Dhaka-Aricha and Dhaka-Tangail highways as authorities of the units are yet to settle workers’ wages, dues and bonuses.

What seems to be at the heart of this new round of protests is the breakdown (tacit or organized) of relations between the bosses federations (BGMEA and BKMEA) and individual factory owners.  While the federations are at least publicly mouthing support for paying bonuses on time, individual owners have been reluctant to comply (one feels a need to turn this into an object lesson about what Marx called capitalists: “a band of hostile brothers”).  And so workers are forced to take matters into their own hands and win some concessions.  Labor groups have been warning for some time that the bosses would renege on promises to pay bonuses and wages on time.  Should the practice of reneging continue, it will spark some fightback from the workers:

“We will gherao the houses of apparel manufacturers if they fail to provide workers with the dues, bonuses and overtime bill by tomorrow,” federation president Abul Hossain said.

“We don’t want any violence. We just want workers’ legitimate demand to be met within the deadline. Otherwise the consequences will not be good for the owners,” he added.

Also, Bangladesh is coming under some pressure internationally to improve the conditions for garment workers.  Aside from celebrities visiting the garment district, several major multinational garment importers (like the American Apparel and Footwear Importers Association) have called on Bangladesh to resolve the conflict by paying better wages and improving working conditions for garment workers.  Undoubtedly the split between importers and exporters on the issue is because importers have to deal with PR issues but none of the shop floor issues.

The Global Post did a moving piece on the lives of women garment workers that is definitely worth taking a look at:

Bangladeshi industries facing fights with labor

AIRLINE INDUSTRY

On August 31, workers at Biman Bangladesh Airlines demonstrated at the national headquarters of the air carrier and demanded that the airline stop its attacks on their wages.  When the managing director Zakiul Islam refused to meet with them, his staff locked him inside his office.  They protested for most of the day and agreed to leave and reconvene at the Board of Director’s meeting that was taking place the following day.  They did also threaten to strike and bring the airline to a standstill if their demands were not met.

At the heart of the conflict between managers and workers are the new pay scale that the airline is implementing in order to boost profits and the elimination of the pension scheme.  Some 3,000 workers will lose their pensions if the restructuring goes forward.  The airline company, incidentally, also just recently went public, making it the country’s largest public limited company.  The workers were demanding a return to the government pay scale that they had in place before.  The new pay structure would mean that workers would not see their wages rise as much as they had been promised.  And since they are government employees, they had been counting on see their wages rise as much as their counterparts in other public industries.

According to the Financial Express, “The demonstrating workers and employees’ unions are the Biman Sramik League, Biman Sramik Dal, Society of Aircraft Engineers of Bangladesh (SAEB), Biman Sramik Union, Biman Employees Union (CBA) and Biman Officers Association.”

On Thursday, September 2, the Board of Directors announced that it would meet all of the demands of the protesting workers.  I’m providing a link to a video of the victorious workers:

GARMENT INDUSTRY

A new study from Dr. Sanchita Banerjee Saxena and Véronique Salze-Lozac’h entitled “Competitiveness in the Garment and Textiles Industry: Creating a supportive environment” argues that countries like Bangladesh which are dependent on textile exports have to cultivate other competitive advantages other than cheap labor inputs.  This may be part of an attempt of reforming capitalism from within, by showing (as many liberals have) that better working conditions improve productivity and quality and that infrastructure improvements can offset attempts to squeeze workers:

As indicated in this study, the main actors in the sector are convinced that there is more to competitiveness and productivity than just low labor costs. If investment in infrastructure to improve lead times and facilitate trade is key to Bangladesh’s competitiveness, developing and implementing supportive policies, and improving governance at the national and factory levels is also crucial. International buyers are not simply focusing on cost and the bottom line. Because buyers are looking for “more,” it is in the interest of government officials to enact policies that will increase worker benefits (wages, health care, etc.). It is also in the interest of factory owners to implement these policies, so that they will gain a workforce that is better skilled and more productive. Bangladeshi factories are no longer sweatshops with minimal labor standards and workers toiling away for 20 hours a day. Many factories are now focusing on becoming more efficient, with a happier and healthier workforce. Labor awareness, compliance issues, an improved public image, and changes in the conditions of global competition have all led to these improvements.  Further positive developments in this area will compel the developed nations to look on the country more favorably.

One of the problems that a study like this one overlooks is that there are structural impediments to reform in the garment industry, including the deep connections between the factory owners and the government which means that they are both inclined to use their power to extract concessions from workers rather than from themselves whenever possible.  Here’s how Jeremy Seabrook puts it:

More than 30 MPs of the ruling Awami League are factory owners. This is reflected in the government’s response to unrest. After the April disturbances, the Home Minister said: “No one will be spared if found to be involved in creating unrest in the garments sector.” Government said it had “information that outsiders often fuel trouble in this sector.” The ruling elite cannot imagine that poverty, and not malice, drives people, although owners spend as much on a night out as their workers earn in a year. In any case, they prefer to see in the unrest evidence of conspiracy or sabotage by their political opponents.

As a result (and as I’ve argued previously), the workers in the garment industry are compelled to fight back.  As Bangladesh News reported, some of the more militant unions are focusing on the non-payment of Eid bonuses this year to organize workers in a more combative posture.  In fact, the organizing seems to have reached a substantial enough pitch that the Bangladeshi police are encouraging factory owners to pay the Eid bonuses on time to avoid another round of labor unrest.  They have collected reports that there is substantial organizing activity in more than 110 factories (there are more than 6500 garment factories in Bangladesh).

In other news, India is attempting to reorganize its garment exports to become more competitive with Bangladesh and China.

SHIP-BREAKING INDUSTRY

In response to the environmental problems produced by Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry (an industry which it needs to provide steel for national industries since there are few iron deposits in Bangladesh), a Dutch company is proposing building the world’s first “green dock wharf” in Bangladesh.  It would be equipped with the necessary technology to deal with the hazardous chemicals on board these ships and safely recycle them.  I’m interested in seeing how this develops.

The struggle heats up again in Bangladesh

This time it looks like the garment workers are not going to be easily cowed into submission.  Even though I’ve been writing about the challenges that the labor movement in Bangladesh is facing from the state and the bosses, there are signs that a section of the movement is drawing some fairly combative conclusions and reaching out to other sections of the labor movement in the hopes of pushing things forward.

On Saturday, for instance, 4000 garment workers blockaded the Dhaka-Sylhet highway and had a standoff with the police that lasted four hours.  Their demands included an implementation of the government-mandated wage increase in August (rather than November which is when the minimum wage increase is supposed to take place) and a eight-hour work day (work days are currently between 11 and 15 hours long) and an end to intimidation by factory owners.  In a principled defense of their unions, the protesters also demanded the immediate release of Mantu Ghosh, one of the leaders of the Garments Trade Union Center and the Communist Party of Bangladesh.  Early reports seem to indicate that the protesters left peacefully after negotiating with the police and winning some of their demands.  But there are also reports that several people were injured in the fierce fight between the protesters and the police.  There are also reports that most of the factories in Katherpul were shut down today.

The police repeated the claim that striking workers are lazy and vandals and have used that as a pretext to arrest several of the protesters.  Meanwhile, there are reports of workers being injured on the job in the garment industry every day.  The bosses will spend more money on covering their asses than they will on helping Badal’s family deal with his death or in compensating them for the unsafe working conditions that caused his death.

There are two outcomes possible now: either the left unions are able to win increasing numbers of garment workers to their side and continue the agitation or the police are able to repress the more militant actions while the conservative unions pressure their members to go back to work.  Right now it seems that the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of the left unions, though it has to be said that this weekend’s protest was much smaller than the ones that took place two weeks ago.

Most of the mainstream commentary still makes this an issue about what consumers are willing to pay rather than how much profit the bosses make.  It seems fairly obvious that there is money to go around — and that the bosses are trying as hard as they can to keep as much of it for themselves.

Bangladesh

There appear to be three inter-related processes at work in Bangladesh that are producing the current crisis.

The first is the Bangladeshi economy which last month produced some spectacular strikes in Bangladesh’s large garment sector.  The cost of living has quickly outstripped the meager wages that Bangladeshi textile workers receive (approximately 25 dollars a month), and in response they staged a massive general strike which shut down Dhaka.  In response, the textile mill owners shut down some 250 factories and asked for police support to crush the strike.  Some 100 workers were injured in the clashes that followed, in which police used tear gas and water cannons against the strikers.  There were also some fairly serious attacks on children who live in the area.  The workers were eventually forced back to work with some vague assuraces that wage increases would be forthcoming (sometime in the next three months).  Unfortunately, the global economic downturn has put a squeeze on the profits of the textile industry in Bangladesh, which is looking to survive the problem by squeezing wages.  And as the garment industry is the largest industry in Bangladesh (employing some 2 million workers) and responsible for most of the country’s exports, it’s unlikely that the state will intervene on the side of labor decisively.

Added to this is the massive power crisis that Bangladesh has been suffering from.  The poor infrastructure of the country have made it difficult to attract foreign direct investment as well as drastically increased the cost of living for ordinary Bangladeshis.  Perhaps most disturbing is that a country that is ravaged by the effects of global warming routinely is now looking at overcoming its power shortages by investing heavily in coal-based power plants.

The second is the long-standing political fight between the Awami League and the Bangladeshi National Party (and its partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami).  This is manifesting in charges being brought by the AL against the Jamaat for its involvement in the events of the 1971 war that partitioned Bangladesh and Pakistan.   The Jamaat’s senior assistant secretary general Mohammad Qamaruzzaman and assistant secretary general Qader Mollah were detained for their involvement in the Islami Chatra Sangha and the al-Badr militia movement which opposed the independence of Bangladesh and fought against the Indian-backed Mukti Bohini forces.  The charges against them — compiled by an inquiry conducted in 1995 — include killing civilians during the 1971 war.  In response, the Jamaat has produced a list of figures in the Awami League who may also have been involved in targeted assassinations of civilians in 1971.  Three other leaders of the Jamaat were arrested for “hurting religious sentiment“.

Earlier this month, the Jamaat and the BNP staged joint demonstrations against the rounding up of senior Jamaat party heads, arguing that the detentions were politically motivated rather than genuine.  The Awami League countered that it was merely fulfilling campaign promises to go after “anti-patriotic forces.”  It is more likely that Sheik Hasina is pursuing a cynical and opportunist strategy of eliminating her opposition and strengthening her own ruling coalition by relying on tired nationalist slogans (despite the probable guilt of the Jamaat leaders arrested).  If those rounded up are convicted of the charges against them, it could result in the execution of much of the leadership of the Jamaat.  There are also growing signs that the BNP may be looking for opportunities to distance itself from the Jamaat, as it fears that there will be a political fallout from being associated with and defending war criminals.

The third are the massive reforms being pushed through in the military in response to the coup that was attempted in 2009.  Some 824 officers and soldiers are being brought up on charges.  One of the key reforms is the use of military rather than civilian courts to try mutineers (military courts are faster and can now administer the death penalty for mutiny).  Sheikh Hasina clearly has something to be worried about since the mutineers threatened to topple her government — renaming the Bangladesh Rifles and restructuring the unit are part of the process of bringing that wing of the military/paramilitary under more direct control of the civilian government.  It was probably the isolation and the weakness of the forces allied to the mutineers that prevented the mutiny from succeeding, in the first place.  It also seems to be the case that the demands and causes of the mutineers were limited to internal democracy, wages, and ending corruption within the army and not broader demands that could have been linked to the more widespread fears of “civil war” that were being circulated at the time.