Kerala Nurses on Strike

Nurses across the south Indian state of Kerala are on rolling strikes for pay increases against private hospitals which have been unwilling to meet the minimum wage demands of the state. Just as one strike ends (at SH Hospital in Paynkulam) another one begins (at Amrita Insitute of Medical Sciences). In many instances (like at Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church Medical College) nurses are winning their demands, in part because of the strength of the unions and in part because of the outpouring of support they are receiving from individuals everywhere. Despite demands of 85% increase in wages, throngs of people rallied in solidarity with the nurses.

The strikes were quite militant, causing hospitals in many instances to close down entirely. Even more astonishing has been the rapid growth of the nurses’ unions. Despite being relatively unorganized, the newly minted United Nurses’ Association has grown remarkably, adding over 400 branches in the first months of 2012. Part of the reason for this is clearly the conditions under which nurses labor. Despite the state’s fixed minimum wage at Rs. 9000, most nurses make barely half of that, and new “trainee” nurses make Rs. 1000 in some conditions.

Here’s how Nissar Adoor describes working conditions for Keralan nurses:

Some of the issues faced by the nurses include the following. All hospital management says duty time is only 8 hour, but in reality this hardly the case with most of them made to work beyond the duty time. Most of the hospitals are not providing medical insurance or free health coverage especially given the fact that nurses are more prone to get diseases and infections. Many of the hospitals pay a very low wages, as low as Rs. 1800 a month (which is nowhere near even pathetic the labour minimum wages of around Rs. 6000). While hospitals charge patients anywhere from Rs. 1500-2500 (per day) as nurses fee but nowhere is this reflected in the nurses salary. Private/ corporate hospitals demand bonded contracts, which if broken, nurses are forced to pay more than Rs. 50,000. Even the so called ISO certified hospitals hire untrained nurses thus bringing down the wages of skilled nurses and putting the lives of patients at risk. Male nurses are denied opportunities often because of flimsy reasons, while they cleverly over exploit female nurses by under paying and over-exploiting them. Nurses are punished on flimsiest grounds, cuts in their salary or double duty time are rampant. Besides all these, none of them enjoy any basic rights as workers and are denied trade union rights. Moreover, many nurses are made to endure psychological abuses from the management.

The strikes in Kerala come on the heels of strikes that happened last year in Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta, where similar conditions provoked industrial actions in hospitals there.

In February, hospitals demanded that the Kerala state government impose sanctions against nurses using the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) which requires certain necessary jobs continue during industrial disputes. The Kerala state government responded by accusing the hospitals of doctoring the books and misrepresenting nurses’ wages. Local courts, though, did provide hospitals with police to keep the nurses out and to keep operations going in some place.

The main demands of the strikers include:

  • Minimum wages
  • Extra pay for night shifts
  • No overtime without extra pay
  • No bonded labor
  • Ending the use of student nurses as free labor

Image from Gulf News.

The most puzzling part of the story has been the support from parties across the political spectrum. The CPI and CPM are not big surprises, nor are the Congress and the Congress-led INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress). But somewhat surprising are the BJP and the Shiv Sena, who declared hartals in support of the nurses. My best guess is that the massive popularity of the issue has meant that everyone has jumped on the bandwagon (though luckily this means that the nurses are likely to move from success to success even if this muddies the political waters in the long-term).

Afghan/Pakistani left coming together

From DAWN Newspaper

AfPak left-wing parties to work together for peace

LAHORE, Dec 21: Left-wing parties of Pakistan and Afghanistan have got together for the first time and agreed on working jointly for regional peace and progress. They have rejected any military solution to the problems of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The consensus was developed at a two-day consultation of Leftists from both countries on `Regional Political Context and its Impact on Pakistan and Afghanistan` here on Wednesday.They pledged to devote all their energies to building concrete alternatives to the false choice between Nato and the Taliban. They sought the right to self-determination for Afghanistan as well as adequate and relevant mechanisms to support and sustain it.

The participants belonged to the Awami Party, Pakistan Workers Party, Labour Party Pakistan, Solidarity Party Afghanistan, Afghanistan Revolutionary Organization, Afghanistan Labour Revolutionary Organization and the event was sponsored by the Swedish Left Party.

Alleging that in both neighbouring states the progressive forces had been pushed to the wall through controlled democracies, they set their aim at working together to resist Nato strikes and standing up as a “third option” to bring peace and make progress on both sides of the Durand Line.

Swedish Left Party representative Ann Carin Landstorm said they supported the dialogue to strengthen left-wing progressive movements and parties. She called for a joint and meaningful peace revolution in the region with the moral support of her party.

She welcomed the gathering after devastating periods of history in the region that led to anarchy, chaos and terrorism instrumented by international imperialistic powers.

Afghanistan Revolutionary Organization`s Faridoun Aryan, Afghanistan Labour Revolutionary Organisation president Arif Afghani and Abdul Qadir Ranto and Nasir Shah of Solidarity Party Afghanistan called for peace in their country and condemned the US-led Nato invasion. They urged the Left to get united on a single platform and resist this regime with sincere efforts.

They called for better relations with Pakistani left-wing parties and expediting the efforts to resist the “war on terror”.

Dr Lal Khan, Jamil Umar, Abdul Qadir Ranto and Farooq Tariq of the Labour Party Pakistan also spoke. — Staff Reporter

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:

Workers in Pakistan combative despite flooding

More than 25,000 telecommunications workers have been out on strike in Pakistan since the middle of August. They are striking because they were promised 50% wage increases by the government, but the semi-privatized Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL) has refused to abide by the government’s promise. The management of PTCL has argued that since they are semi-private they are not bound by the promises that the government makes. The company initially announced that it would raise wages, hoping to head off protests, but the wage increases were lower than what was promised (20% as opposed to 50%).

At the same time, management at PTCL is accusing workers of sabotaging its efforts at helping out the country in a time of need (and simultaneously saying that it has also taken a hit because of the flooding). This appears to also be having an impact on the UAE-Pakistan relationship as well, though reports are vague on what this will mean.

On Thursday, striking workers stormed the PTCL headquarters and faced off with police who charged them with batons. A few workers were injured, but the workers were able to get past the cops and storm the building. On Friday, PTCL workers blockaded three of the main roads in Islamabad. They held the road for 6 hours and shut down traffic. The police faced off with them on the main Kashmir avenue but they didn’t make a move against the workers for the duration of the protest. As the rally broke up, the police charged (apparently at the request of management) and arrested 40 and injured several more. It’s a sign of the determination and combativity of the workers that they are able to stand up to the ideological and physical onslaught that they are up against (many of them are also Muslim and fasting during Ramadan!).

PTCL is run by Etisalat, a UAE-based telecommunications firm. They tried, from the outset, to have the strike declared illegal and to get the police to intervene decisively against the union. Management even went to the Lahore High Court to try and have the strike action declared violent, but the High Court refused and ordered PTCL back to the bargaining table. In response, PTCL is withholding wages. Meanwhile, PTCL announced higher profits for FY2010 than they originally anticipated.

But the strike action is having a very serious effect as phone service has been affected throughout the country, and it’s also beginning to have an impact on other industries in Pakistan, too. PTCL is losing clients as capitalists are switching to other communications providers. There seems to be an overall loss of confidence in PTCL’s ability to get its service running (the biggest complaint is that service requests are going unanswered) and effectively handle the labor unrest (other industrialists are accusing PTCL of using the strike as an excuse not to make repairs).

The first month of Labour Relief Campaign Pakistan

I’ve been advocating that people contribute to the efforts of the Labor Party of Pakistan when they are donating to give aid to Pakistan in response to devastating effects of the flood. I’m reposting in full a report from the LPP on their efforts, which have been fantastic.  You should be able to click on the link below to donate.

The first month of Labour Relief Campaign Pakistan

The Labour Relief Camp first camp was organized in Lahore on 1st August 2010 at Regal Chouck Lahore. Earlier on 25th July 2010, we decided to launch a Baluchistan appeal.

It stated,

“Torrential rains have unleashed flash floods in different parts of Baluchistan over the few days.  Water levies broke leaving the people exposed to flood water. At least three villages in district Sibi have been destroyed. Houses, live-stock such as cattle’s and goats, household goods, clothes, shoes and other items have been destroyed. Residents of villages are currently without drinkable water, food, shelter and in need of clothes.  In particular, the situation is dire for children and women and they are in desperate need of food and clothing. Disease is spreading fast in the areas affected due to lack of drinkable water. In particular, flu, fever, diarrhea, cholera have been noted and are spreading.  The government’s response has made matters worse. They failed to act immediately, leaving tens of thousands of people unaided.  They came after twenty four hours to the make-shift camps with paltry amount of food bags to distribute. The gap between the food being distributed and the large number of people desperate to eat led to fighting breaking out making matters even worse for these desperate people. Rubina Baluch, Women Secretary LPP Baluchistan, who is a resident of one of the affected villages said, ‘there is absolutely nothing left here – food, water, and clothing – and we are in desperate need of these’.  At least, 10, 000 people are said to be in suffering in these grave conditions”.

Perhaps this was the first appeal by any political group in Pakistan to ask people to help the victims of torrential rains in Baluchistan.

After an informal consultation with several social and political groups in Lahore, we decided to set up the first camp. Already a group of 42 activists including 35 women belonging to Labour Education Foundation were trapped in Kalam, Swat valley. The flood in river Swat had flooded away all the bridges and the road links were delinked from the rest of the country. They were eventually evacuated by a military helicopter after 8 days of ordeal.

The camp in Lahore was supported by many activists and on the first day, we collected nearly 18,000 Rupees within two hours. Next day, it went up to nearly 50,000.

A LRC committee was reestablished with 8 members from eight different organizations. They included, Cindy Kariaper, Pakistan for Palestine, Farooq Tariq Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, Qalandar Memon Labour Party Pakistan, Bushra Khaliq Women Workers Help Line, Khalid Malik Labour Education Foundation, Ammar Jan Progressive Youth Front, Khaliq Shah CADTM Pakistan and Niaz Khan National Trade Union Federation. The committee decided to meet at least twice in a week to discuss all aspect of the campaign.

The LRC committee agreed to campaign on two fronts, collecting funds for the immediate relief and to change the priorities of the national budget demanding a total no to repayment of foreign debts and reduce the military budget, no cuts in development budget and no new taxes, no new loan, but grants and aid.

On 7th August, we issued a new appeal and here is a part that we wrote,

“Please donate to Labour Relief Campaign to help people of Pakistan is facing worst ever floods of its history. Torrential rains have unleashed flash floods in different parts of the country since last three weeks. Water levies broke leaving the people exposed to flood water. More than 12 million people have suffered due to these floods. More than 650,000 houses have collapsed, mainly in villages. Thousands of acres of crops have been destroyed due to flood water. Houses, live-stock such as cattle’s and goats, household goods, clothes, shoes and other items have been destroyed.  Residents of villages are currently without drinkable water, food, shelter and in need of clothes”.

Five days later, the situation has even more worsened and it was estimated that over 20 million people are affected by the flood by then,

We wrote on 12 August,

“The flood is still on dangerous levels in several parts of Pakistan. The numbers of people affected by the flood have crossed 20 million. More torrential rains are forecast by the weather department. This is been considered one of the most devastating flood in world history. The UN has once again appealed for donations for Pakistan. But there has been a very slow response internationally to help Pakistan in this period of great devastation. After destroying most of Khaiber Pukhtoonkhawa and Southern Punjab, the water has now washed down the Indus River Valley, causing a deluge in Sindh. The water has been powered by unusually fierce monsoon rains that began in country’s northern areas some three weeks ago. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure have given way, overwhelming the government’s ability to cope. At this point an estimated 1,600 have been killed with another 5 million left homeless”.

Camps were set up in different parts of Pakistan including Rawalpindi, Mardan, Hyderabad, Moro, Karachi, Sanghar, Layya and Sibbi.

We send the appeal to all our international friends and by then, the world was awakening to the most catastrophic incident of Pakistan history.

In one month, we have raised the following

Lahore Rs. 654587 (cash)

Lahore Rs. 45000 (goods)

Rawalpindi Rs. 5000 (cash)

Hyderabad Rs. 184100 (cash)

Hyderabad Rs. 299550 Goods and medicine

Moro Rs. 766,190 (cash)

Karachi Rs. 450,000 (cash)

Karachi Rs. 250,000 (goods)

Mardan Rs. 70,000 (cash)

Sibbi did not have information

Sanghar no information yet

Layya no information yet

International appeal Rs. 371784

Confirmed commitments and information received

SAP Netherlands Euro 5000 (Rs. 550,000)

Olof Palme International Center Sweden SEK 50,000 (Rs. 589,500)

Cultural Life Buoy campaign NOK 10,000 (Rs. 138,000)

Yasmeen USA US$ 2000 (Rs.172,000)

Pakistanis in Denmark US $ 1000 (Rs. 85000)

A total in cash raised from Pakistan: Rs. 2,129,877

International Rs. 371,784

Commitments Rs. 1,534,500

Goods: Rs. 594550

Total cash, goods and commitments on 3 September 2010, 4,630,711 (US$ 54478)

Apart from the relief campaign, we have also launched a political campaign for non-payment of foreign debts of Pakistan. We held our first press conference in first week of August in Lahore and we said, “Pakistan must refuse to pay the foreign debts and divert the amount into the relief and rehabilitation of the flood affectees. It is high time to change the priorities of the national budget and all those suggestions to cut the development budget and spend on flood affectees be stopped. There is an easy way out. Stop paying the debts owed to International Finance Institutions, donor countries and clubs.

The press conference was the first voice in Pakistan on the issue. We contacted like-minded groups and parties to raise the issue and the idea was well received. Social and political groups in Islamabad met and decided to take on the issue. In Lahore, on 29th August, LRC organized a multi-party conference to oppose the debt retirement and 28 political parties, trade unions and social movements agreed to participate in this campaign. On second September several hundreds marched to Islamabad to demand non payment of foreign debts. One of the largest private television channel Dunia took up the issue on a prime time talk show, “Dunia Mery Aaghey” and invited one of the organizer of the demonstration to put up the case. There is now a beginning of the awakening of some main stream political parties to take up the issue.

Three more rallies will be organized to press for this demand. One such rally will be held in Lahore on 19th September from GPO Chouck to Punjab Assembly demanding an end of payments of debts while people are in danger of dying in the aftermath of the flood. In this campaign, we have got the material support of OXFAM.

Where the money spent?

We had decided to spend the amount on flood victims on selected areas where we have local teams to deal the question of distribution in more organized manner and also to the most needy ones. The initial three areas selected were Union Council Tully in Sibbi district of Baluchistan, Pir Sabaq union council of district Noshehra of Khaber Pukhtoonkhawa and Southern part of Punjab. We held in food items, kitchen items and construction material in two areas, while we were unable to do anything in Saraiki area. Lately, LRC has send amount to Hyderabad jamshoro, Moro and Thatha area of Sindh through Sindh Labour Relief Committee. The local teams in Baluchistan reported wide spread disruption in food item distribution and they had to take special measures to avoid that. they issue tokens of particular food basket after conducting surveys of three villages and then asked them to collect food from a special place designated for collection the food items. Same process was carried out in Pir Sabaq area where distribution of food items and construction material was done with a very disciplined manner. The main reason of smooth distribution was our local committees which included political and trade unions activists.

In Hyderabad jamshoro, we set up medical camps and distributed medicines through our doctors association. Here in Hyderabad, we were jointly working with Communist Party Pakistan, Aadersh, A Sindhi literary magazine. In Moro, our local relief committee was formed in association with local traders and trade unions. There were the most successful in collecting amount and good from an area which was itself affected. Through joint effort, they have won the sympathies of many in the city and are the main distribution group of the area. Several other organizations have contacted and asked help in distribution to the flood affectees of Moro and Dadu district. In Karachi, SRLC set up four camps and sent four trucks of good to Moro and at present busy in Thatha district to help the flood victims who are sleeping on roads and schools.

The International Response to LRC appeal

This was to give you some idea of our activity during the first month of our relief work. Most of the amount collected in Pakistan are from ordinary people. They have donated us generously. BY setting up camps and distributing aid to flood victims in some selected areas, we have tried to counter the influence of the right wing forces particularly the religious fundamentalists groups. Several hundreds activists of LRC are busy in collecting funds locally and we are also encouraged by different responses from abroad. Political groups associated with Fourth International in several countries particularly in Netherlands and England have send us amount already, while several individual and Left groups efforts in US have brought some cash to the relief. From Sweden, we have already received information of 50,000 Swedish SKR and in Norway, an initiative by actor Toni Usman for a theater show on 19 September has already won support of Norway artist association with leading actors of Norway taking part voluntarily to help the campaign. In Australia, Socialist Alliance is helping to collect funds and APHEDA, the official Australian trade unions international assistance is collecting funds for LRC.

We had the great arrival of South Asians at Lahore relief camp to collect funds from Pakistanis. Social and peace activists from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka came to Lahore and brought some amount from their own countries and contributed to LRC funds. They have brought with this a consciousness of South Asian solidarity in real terms.

We appeal to all our international friends to continue collecting funds for our future planned aid and political activities. Apart from the campaign on debts, we have decided to organize peasant rallies in Sindh and Punjab to demand land rights and end of feudalism.

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.

Bangladesh: where the bosses lie for Eid

The President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Abdus Salam Murshedy announced this week that the garment bosses will pay their workers their annual bonuses before Eid this year.  I’ve never celebrated Eid in Bangladesh, but if it is at all like it is in other parts of South Asia, it’s a very big deal – and not having money to spend for Eid presents and festivities is pretty demoralizing.  During the strike that happened earlier this year, the bosses had threatened to delay the annual bonuses (partly to intimidate the workers, and partly to blame the workers for tighter profit margins).

Their announcement that they will pay out the bonuses now seems to imply two things.  First, the bosses clearly need to get back to work and another round of protests is something that they cannot afford right now – paying bonuses now is a down payment on labor peace later.  As it is, there is a fight within the mill owners about whether or not to pay the minimum wage increases, with the majority of the owners wanting to fight any wage increase at all.  Second, the more moderate unions are clearly feeling the heat from the organizing efforts of the more radical unions and they need to be able to deliver some tangible gains for selling out the garment workers – the bosses have been tapped to help out in this way.  There are already rumors circulating that the leftist unions are going to be organizing strikes and rallies after Eid.

At the same time, the BGMEA and the BKMEA have been making statements to the press about how Bangladeshi textiles are not getting a “fair price” on the market and that it is the international markets that should be asked to pay more.  As I understand it, cotton prices have gone up this year (I’m sure the flood in Pakistan can’t be helping matters much) and there are chronic electricity shortages all throughout South Asia.  That, in addition to the minimum wage increase means that the prices for which these commodities sell on the markets have to rise to keep up with the cost of the inputs.  I haven’t found good data yet on the profits in the textile industry, yet, though I suspect that the bosses aren’t doing as badly as they’re claiming.  After all, the BKMEA and BGMEA have been working overtime to get contracts in countries like China and Japan and have big plans for expansion.  And, Murshedy’s speech was at a fancy Iftar party at a posh hotel in Dhaka.  The hand-wringing seems to be for show (learned by watching Sheikh Hasina) – I don’t believe a word of Murshedy’s concern for his female workers:

“I request you (buyers) to provide fair prices for our products so that we can make our workers happy, and jointly build a secured society and economy,” …  He said Bangladesh’s garment industry has reached this height following continuous support from the buyers. “Without your support 2.8 million under-privileged women could not come to the mainstream of the society.”

Interestingly (though I haven’t thought this aspect out fully), the minimum wage increase is going to have effects in the financial sector in Bangladesh.  In order to limit inflation, the Bangladesh Bank has imposed severe limits on the ability of banks to borrow money.  At the same time, a rampant increase in speculation on the stock market has meant that consumers are taking their money out of banks and investing in stocks.  At the moment, the banks in Bangladesh are more than a little worried about where the money to pay for the minimum wage increase is going to come from.

The ship-breaking industry is under fire from the government, which has been pursuing environmental legislation to limit the kinds of toxic materials that are brought into Bangladesh on these abandoned ships.  Bangladesh dismantles about 30% of the world’s abandoned ships and then uses the scrap metal in its steel mills (Bangladesh has no natural iron deposits and so it relies on recycling steel for its growing steel industry).  The problem is that the toxicity of the chemicals in the ships has already been responsible for more than 400 deaths, as workers dismantle the ships by hand without proper equipment, protective gear, or training.

“It is a nightmare situation, as a consequence, with no formal appointments or arrangements for workers’ minimum needs, such as safe drinking water, food, toilet, living conditions. They toil amid blinding smoke and dust, suffocating fumes and burning heat, a virtual hell on earth, according to one witness. Workers rip apart the dumped vessels — from ocean liners to dirty freighters or monstrous tankers, weighing from a few thousand tons to as much as 60- 70 thousand, and costing millions of dollars to the importer — armed with just a blowtorch and other rudimentary tools.”

(Incidentally, the working conditions are no safer in the re-rolling steel mills).  Workers went out on strike earlier this year when the government tried to impose a decree requiring all ships coming into Bangladesh to be certified as toxic-free, since that would mean essentially that they would be out of work.  This week, the Department of the Environment imposed fines for the first time on a ship-breaking firm that dismantled a ship carrying toxic chemicals.

The machinations of Bangladeshi capital

In order to put the labor unrest to bed, the Bangladeshi government has been holding meetings with labor leaders and industry heads to make sure that the garment industry can get back to business as usual as quickly as possible.  This time, they met with the Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SKOP), the largest trade union federation in Bangladesh, to get all parties to agree to a joint front against labor agitation in the textile mills.

I can only speculate about the thinking here, but my guess is that SKOP has made a calculation based on the following: 1) a sense of competition from more radical trade unions in the garment industry, 2) accepting the logic of the bosses that the profits really are under attack and so workers have to get back to work, and/or 3) the presence of unions directly allied to the Awami League (Jatiyo Sramik League) within SKOP affecting the decision-making calculus.  I don’t know enough about the history of SKOP to conclude, but my guess is that it is a fairly conservative formation.  The bosses, on the other hand, are trying to find ways of spreading the costs of the minimum wage increase around internationally.  The government continues to have fanciful aspirations of impossible growth rates, fuelled primarily by textile exports.  All of this depends on keeping the peace in the garment industry.

Part of the reason that they have to get the larger unions to agree to hold the workers back is because the other unions in the garment industry are continuing to organize (as are bosses who are trying to roll back the minimum wages increases that were won in July).  I argued a few days ago that it looked like the repression was taking its toll on the more combative unions, and I still think that this is true, but the conditions in the garment industry are pretty miserable, and it’s unlikely that workers will continue to tolerate them much longer.

The workers in Bangladesh can at least have some confidence that they have magical supporters.  Harry Potter star Emma Watson recently toured the slums in Dhaka (where the majority of garment workers live) and was horrified by what she saw:

‘I had some preconceived ideas but nothing prepared me for the reality. It was upsetting to see the conditions in which these people live, but I was incredibly moved by their spirit and friendliness in spite of such apparent adversity,’ contactmusic.com quoted her as saying.

‘Having seen the slums in Dhaka and the conditions in which these people live and work to produce ‘fast fashion’, I would say to those people that this is not the way we should be making clothes in the modern world,’ she added.

In another contradiction only capitalism could produce, ship-breakers in Bangladesh are caught between an industry that is poisoning them and an environmental movement that will cost them their livelihoods.  The Supreme Court of Bangladesh has had the foresight to impose strict environmental regulations on the highly toxic ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh, but has given no forethought to the effects that this will have on the workers there (the deaths of many of whom are the reasons that the environmentalists became interested in the issue in the first place).  The logical solution would be to give the workers jobs to clean up the toxic sites, but that doesn’t seem to have entered into the calculations.  The more likely consequence will be the shift of the ship-breaking industry to countries without environmental regulations (lose-lose).

The hazardous conditions are not unique to the ship-breaking industry; Bangladesh has notoriously high-rates of job-related deaths and workplace accidents:

In 2000, the International Labour Office estimated that each year 11,700 workers die in Bangladesh in work-related accidents. In 2005, it also estimated that another 28,600 die from diseases caused by the industries they work in and 8.9 million suffer from work-related injuries.

And because the Minimum Wage Board is now conducting a review of 12 other industries which haven’t had minimum wages adjusted in some cases for more than 20 years, it’s quite likely that there will be labor actions in other industries as well.  The pattern will likely resemble the one in the garment sector: labor action, modest minimum wage increase, split in the labor movement, repression.  We can only hope that the more combative unions learn the lessons of the garment industry strike and organize more effectively.

Textile strike rocks Bangladesh

My piece in Socialist Worker on the garment workers’ strike in Bangladesh:

TEXTILE STRIKE ROCKS BANGLADESH

Snehal Shingavi analyzes the battle shaking Bangladesh’s textile industry–and the international manufacturers who set up shop there to take advantage of low wages.

August 24, 2010

Striking garment workers who gathered to protest low wages flee police firing tear gas and rubber bullets

Striking garment workers who gathered to protest low wages flee police firing tear gas and rubber bullets

OVER THE past month, Bangladesh’s textile industry–one of the most exploitative in the world–has been rocked by strikes and protests.

The level of repression used against the Bangladeshi textile workers, largely women, exposes the dark underbelly of globalization in Asia. Textile manufacturers have been flooding into the country in the last several years as workers in other countries, especially China, have successfully fought for higher wages. When the textile bosses came to Bangladesh, the minimum wage was less than 10 cents an hour.

The strikes began in mid-July when a massive general strike in the ready-made-garment industry shut down the capital city of Dhaka.

The immediate reason for the strike was the increase in the cost of basic commodities in Bangladesh, especially foodstuffs, which have quickly outstripped wages that haven’t risen since 2006, the last time that textile workers went on strike. Textile workers get 1,887 takas a month (roughly $25)–most economists put the basic income needed to survive in Dhaka at around 8,000 takas.

Even though the police attacked the strike and forced the workers back to work, the protests scared the ruling Awami League party into offering a minimum wage increase to 3,000 takas a month (roughly $42) at the end of July.

The workers had originally demanded an increase to 5,000 takas, and in disgust with the meager increase, the protests continued. The workers set up barricades and roadblocks, set fire to cars, and marched through the streets.

The mainstream press was predictably up in arms over the actions of the workers (calling it, in most instances, a “rampage”). They were less inclined to notice the excesses of the Bangladeshi police or of the bosses, who were lobbying to resist even this pay increase another 4 months, giving some of them enough time to move or threaten to move.

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 government even called out the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police unit that normally deals with organized crime and terrorist threats, to go after the workers. Unsurprisingly, there will be no investigation into the workers’ claims that the bosses are the ones involved in organized crime to terrorize the workers. The workers were eventually forced back to work with some vague assurances that wage increases would be forthcoming sometime in the next three months.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufactures & Exporters Association (BKMEA)–the two main organizations of textile mill owners–have both said that they will not raise wages higher than the 3000-takas level mandated by the government, and that it is the government’s responsibility to enforce discipline on the workers.

More than 4,000 workers were arrested, and others were later rounded up after the police used television footage to identify strike “leaders.” Key leftist figures associated with the strike’s more radical wing have been arrested or threatened with arrest.

Mantu Ghosh, head of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB)’s Narayanganj division and affiliated with the CPB-led Garment Trade Union Center, was detained earlier in the month. Mahbubur Rahman Ismail, president of the Narayanganj branch of the Bangladeshi Socialist Party and connected to the Garments Sramik Sangram Parishad, said that his offices and home were raided by the police.

Some of the more recent protests seem to have been a response to this direct attack on the workers’ leadership. This has also become a new point of organizing for the left in Bangladesh, organized in the Ganatantrik Bam Morcha, which has issued demands calling for the release of the arrested garment workers and their leaders.

It’s also clear that the protests are not spontaneous, at least not in the way that the media is describing them, nor are they work of terrorists, as the bosses have claimed. In reality, they are the result of some painstaking work by the leftist unions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE BOSSES have been desperate to get the factories back to work and get police protection for their investments.

Part of the reason is that the protesters have been targeting textile factories and have inflicted some serious damage. But the more important reason is that a slowdown in production in one of the most high-paced industries has a devastating effect on profits. The Bangladesh garment manufacturers are already claiming losses of around $113 million. That includes losses from lost work, damage to garments and property damage. Already, the textile manufacturers are threatening to leave Bangladesh, a country which they just moved to from China, citing the low cost of Bangladeshi labor as the primary factor.

This is why the attacks on the labor unions are so important for the state and for business in Bangladesh. It gives them some wiggle room in a tense economic situation. Part of the way police are making their case against the unions in Bangladesh is by torturing labor activists into making confessions against their respective organizations. As the New York Times reported:

[L]abor and human rights advocacy groups said at least one worker has told his colleagues that he was tortured into giving false evidence against himself and other labor leaders before he escaped from custody. Advocates also said that they were worried about the safety of people arrested in recent days.

The Bangladeshi High Court had to order the police not to torture labor leader Mantu Ghosh, exposing what are certainly ordinary practices for the Bangladeshi police. This, of course, should make one wonder about the fate of the thousands of other laborers who were arrested. Home Minister Advocate Sahara Khatun has already said that she will punish everyone involved in the protests that took place in mid-August.

The garment industry is clearly Bangladesh’s most important export industry, accounting for some 80 percent of the country’s total exports, and the largest, employing some 3.5 million workers. That means that the fortunes of the Bangladeshi economy are intimately tied to this one industry.

In fact, it was the structural dependency of Bangladesh that prompted Bangladesh to try to attract textile manufacturers to the country in the first place. (The other way that Bangladesh makes a dent in its large trade imbalance is from its other major export: workers it sends to work overseas.) Textiles only account for about 5 percent of the economy, but they play a very large role in driving Bangladesh’s growth.

As a result, no matter which party is in power, it needs to woo the garment industry. This accounts for the vacillating position of the ruling Awami League, which relies on workers for votes, but has to do the bidding of the factory owners if it wants to keep the economy afloat in the short term.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE GLOBAL economic downturn has put a squeeze on the profits of the textile industry in Bangladesh, and it is looking to survive the problem by squeezing wages. As the garment industry is the largest industry in Bangladesh, employing some 3.5 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.

But the garment workers haven’t disappeared quietly. On August 14, for instance, 4,000 garment workers blockaded the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, leading to a standoff with the police that lasted four hours.

Their demands included the implementation of the government-mandated wage increase in August (rather than November which is when the minimum wage increase is supposed to take place), an eight-hour workday (workdays are currently between 11 and 15 hours long), and an end to intimidation by factory owners (who have routinely used thugs to attack the workers). The protesters also demanded the immediate release of Mantu Ghosh.

In an amazing show of solidarity, young workers, teachers, artists and writers formed a human chain at Shahbagh in Dhaka to demand that the garment workers receive a decent wage, and that the police stop the “capture and torture” of garment workers and union leaders.

In addition to coercion and repression, the state is also attempting to use divisions inside the labor movement–there are more than 60 unions in the textile industry–to its advantage. Most unions in the industry are illegal and are forced to operate in secret with shoestring budgets.

The new plan, it seems, is for Bangladesh to attempt to expand the base of workers that are represented by the government-backed unions. Labor Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain has announced plans to get trade unions into the ready-made-garment industry. This would be good news for one of the most thoroughly exploited labor forces in the world–were it not for the fact that the unions are being set up to help the bosses keep production running rather than to help workers advocate for their interests.

The government is hoping that the minimum wage increase will seem like a better option than indefinite protests by workers who are already feeling the pinch. Unions like the National Garment Workers Federation are doing the bosses’ bidding in this instance by backing the 3,000 takas minimum wage and encouraging workers to return to their jobs.

This is a nakedly opportunist move: Increase the size of the unions in order to ensure the interests of the factory owners. After all, according to the government, it’s because there are too few labor unions in the factories that the protests became violent–and not because of the sweatshop wages and conditions that persist in Bangladesh.

The strategy is clearly designed to squeeze out the more radical sections of the union movement by making the government-backed unions larger and more “representative”–thus completing the pincer action on radicals who are already facing prosecution from the courts.

At the same time, the state is also committed to isolating the international labor movement, which has set up a number of NGOs to help textile workers organize. Arguing that labor unrest has been the work of outside agitators, the Bangladeshi government has criminalized working in unions as a foreign national and begun closing down offices. Many of these NGOs were set up by unions in the West in order to win better wages for Bangladeshi workers and improve the lot of workers in other countries.

The attack on NGOs in Bangladesh must also be putting a squeeze on the resources that unions could rely on in order to expand their organizing. The NGO Affairs Bureau closed down some 334 NGOs in the last four months, alleging support of militancy in many cases.

Even though the protests have gotten smaller and attacks on the unions continue, it is clear that the current stalemate is unsustainable. Workers cannot survive on the low wages that are offered in Bangladesh, and as long as the textile industry exploits its workers ruthlessly, the Bangladeshi working class will continue to fight back.

Bangladeshi textile industry tries to rollback minimum wage

Even though the government of Bangladesh was able to announce an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers (to 3,000 Takas a month), they may find it difficult to implement it in time for it to make a difference.  The primary reason that the minimum wage increase was forced through was in response to the increasing combativity of the Bangladeshi textile workers who held strikes through July and early August.  The rhetoric of the labor minister and the minister for industry has been about “law and order” issues in the garment factories.  Sheikh Hasina is allowed to make her populist hand-wringing pleas about the poverty that the garment workers face, but the majority of the Awami League is allied to the factory owners and is enforcing their will.

So now the government faces two problems.  It needed the minimum wage increase in order to ensure peace in the textile factories, but those increases aren’t going to happen until November which means that going back to work will be a bitter pill to swallow for most workers who went out on strike.  In order to move things along, there have been meetings between the chief organization of the garment factory owners (the BGMEA and the BKMEA) and the state to try to get them to implement the wage increases earlier, but this is likely to fall on deaf ears.  Already one section of the factory owners is challenging the minimum wage increase as an unfair burden and wants to overturn the law.  The Bangladeshi Financial Express published an editorial piece challenging the logic of the minimum wage increases.

“According to analysts the annual bill for the increased [w]ages will be in the region of $ 1.0 billion taking up roughly 12% of the total export number of $ 12 billion. Even though the disorganised but massive industry hasn’t quite got it right in projecting its’ ducks in a row there is no secret that there are other increased costs that it is having to take on in the form of infrastructure, power, delivery delays and the spiralling cost of raw materials. The squeeze from the other side is the incessant pressure to be compliant-that comes at a cost and reduction in the prices. While the pressure for reduced prices is nothing new matters have been exacerbated by the decline in demand fuelled by the economic downturn in the developed countries.”

The bosses want the state to pick up more of the tab by increasing the amount of government subsidies given to textile workers (health care, housing, etc.).

Another section of the factory owners is projecting an air of liberal confidence, arguing that the minimum wage increase will have no effect on the industry since all of the costs can be defrayed onto buyers.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh is still getting quite a bit of international attention for its garment industry woes, as the EU and the AFL-CIO have been attempting to pressure the government to release striking workers from prison and raise the minimum wage sooner.

There have been no reports in the news about what the labor movement is doing right now, though I suspect that there is quite a bit of regrouping to handle the repression that they have faced and new discussions about strategies that are going on.  The real question will be how soon the textile workers unions can organize a fight back (it took four years for them to organize this round of action after recovering from the repression that they faced in 2006 from other strike actions).

In the meantime, the general economic woes in Bangladesh are finding an expression in cinema.  I don’t know much about Biplob’s work, but I think that I’m going to see if the library carries any of his films and check them out.