Bangladesh garment workers resist intolerable conditions (AWTWNS 21 October 2013)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 21 October 2013 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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Bangladesh garment workers resist intolerable conditions

21 October 2013. A World to Win News Service. Another killing fire broke out in a Bangladesh garment factory in early October. Ten people died and scores more injured when four buildings caught fire in a clothing manufacturing zone outside Dhaka. Just days earlier, in late September, as many as 200,000 angry workers closed down 300 factories for a day, set some on fire and clashed with police for three days demanding a minimum monthly salary of $100, while companies offered only $46. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the demonstrators, injuring dozens in this overall volatile situation. Ongoing events bring forward actions by the garment workers as their anger continues to boil over.

The garment industry produces never-ending tragedies for workers, four million people, mainly women. It is the main industry, second in size only to China’s clothing manufacture, in a country of 155 million. This on-the-job slaughter continues, despite the spotlight shown on the  major international clothing retailers and their claims and vows to change working conditions after the Rana Plaza building collapse in April that killed 1,200 workers, The trail of blood leads to the imperialist towers of capital in New York, London and Paris, where brands like Carrefour, Walmart, H&M, Tesco, IKEA, C&A, Gap and Sainsbury intensely compete for market share. Extremely low wages, child labour, repression of the people, no building or safety codes, and corrupt and pliable local governments are in fact the necessary conditions for profitable imperialist investment.

The following is a slightly edited version of an article sent to A World to Win News Service from comrades in Bangladesh.

After the Rana Plaza incident, the high-intensity outbursts of the garment workers ended, but the movement continued on various levels, particularly around working conditions in the industry, concentrated on efforts to raise wages. The minimum wage has been 3,000 taka, or $38 per month ($1=80 BD taka) since 2010. With this wage, one person can barely survive. The new wage scale was not even close to sufficient, and at the same the cost of living rose. So, the new salary made very little change in living conditions.

A major portion of the salary goes to landlords. The workers are required to work at least two hours overtime, sometimes as much as five to ten hours. If they do so, they can earn 1-2,000 takas per month more and are thus able to survive and send money to their families in the villages. Not all workers receive the minimum entry wage. Expert workers get 4-6,000 takas as a basic salary plus overtime (which can be 1-3,000 takas more). Many of the woman garment workers are unmarried, divorced, widows or have  husbands who are physically unable to work. Many married couples are in the workplace, so there are often several members of the family at work, including children. This is the only way they survive.

Even though life is very difficult, garment workers are not fully dissatisfied with this situation. In the villages where there are few jobs, especially for young girls or women, life is impossible. Women there basically do their household chores which are considered of no value.

In these circumstances, together the ruling class, the imperialists and the garment owners propagate that the garment industry saves the economy, creates many jobs, especially for women, and this is a great achievement of this system. With the exception of some progressive and Maoist organisations, all the other political forces think like this. The “left” among them wants to reform this situation and concentrate on raising wages and improving working conditions of the workers.

Now, after Tazreen [121 garment workers died and at least 200 were injured last November in a fire that spread rapidly throughout the Tazreen Fashions factory] and especially the Rana Plaza tragedy, the workers’ movement was revitalized around the question of wages. After the Rana Plaza tragedy, the government and factory owners became very frightened and cautious. The pressure from Western NGOs, trade unions, and humanitarian organisations, etc., also gave them problems. Worker organisations (mainly some NGOs and some left and reformist trade unions) now demand a minimum wage of 8,000 takas. Due to upcoming elections the government is calling for a new wage scale. After a long time, the owners said they will raise wages to 3,600 takas. This created a furious reaction among the workers giving rise to the recent upsurge.

Due to the momentum of the workers’ movement, the government and the factory owners complained that the workers are conspiring to crush the garment sector. The so-called secular government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina even propagated that fundamentalists Islamists or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, the main bourgeoisie rival party) are behind the conspiracy. On the other hand, BNP is blaming the governing Awami League (AL) for ruining the garment sector. Everyone blames their opponents, in an effort to be in the best position for upcoming elections. The current situation will definitely influence the outcome.

Most of the factory owners are the hooligans of the ruling parties or ex-bureaucrats or other rich people. They might have some land in rural areas, but they are not large landowners. For example, Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, was not a landlord but a mastan [“godfather”, a leader of an organised crime syndicate in league with politicians who benefit from them financially and in turn protect them] of the AL party now in power. Through many means and with the help of those in power, he became the owner of Rana Plaza. Now he is a big, rich businessman. Feudal relationships are incorporated into this type of capitalism.

People do not support these bourgeois parties. They think they are all the same, they exist for the betterment of the rich and not for the poor. Yet they continue to participate in elections and in each election round, vote for one party, then in the next, change and vote for the other. During the last 23 years of “democracy”, no party was elected for two successive terms. The opposition BNP party will benefit from this situation, because the workers and people blame the current ruling party for their misery.

The AL knows they will lose to the BNP in the coming election, so they are trying to gain control of the NGOs and revisionist trade unions. They already assigned Shajahan Khan, a notorious mastan and bourgeoisie trade union leader, to lead this organisation.

All these bourgeois and other forces claim that the garment industry has saved the country by creating so many jobs. They say that jobs have even made women self-sufficient, so the industry should not be destroyed and if the workers continue protesting, they themselves will be jobless and the women workers will be compelled to become prostitutes.

Many workers also think this. But paradoxically, they continue fighting against their low salaries and horrible working conditions. They attack the institutions of the state and the rich, including their industries. They practically want to attack the system, but do not know how to do this or what the alternate system would be.

All these issues are part of the cruel reality on the ground.

And hiding behind all this is the most important reality – the role of the capitalist-imperialists who really dominate the garment industry – the foreign buyers. The government, the bourgeoisie parties and the garment owners insist that the buyers will take their business to other countries if labour unrest continues. They say the workers must accept whatever is offered to them.

An article by Dr Muhammad Yunus exposed the imbalance in profits gained by the local producers and big company buyers like Walmart, Gap, etc. He concludes that the domestic factory owners get about $5 for a shirt. The price of this shirt in the U.S. is $25. The other costs for the imperialist corporate owners is not more than $10 per piece. Their profit is a minimum of $10 per shirt. [Yunus is a Bangladeshi economist who is a leading proponent of the need for capitalist economic development in the third world by means of a “micro-credit” system to encourage poor women to become small-scale entrepreneurs, a scheme for which he received a Nobel prize in 2006.]

Dr Yunus’ exposure was not widely propagated. He did not want to disturb the local bourgeoisie nor the  imperialist bourgeois buyers. Instead he appealed to Western consumers to pay 50 cents more for an item of clothing, providing this money be used to increase the wages and improve working conditions. This is all part of the discourse in Bangladesh.

All this avoids seeing imperialist penetration as the main issue. The garment industry is not a national industry. It is solely dependent on imperialism and is a feature of the globalised economy of imperialism. If you want revolution, and want to proceed towards socialism and communism, you must break with this economy, not try to reform it like Hugo Chavez and others.

To make this happen will be a very hard and complex process because workers and people generally are not thinking like this. You must propagate revolutionary politics and build a revolutionary organisation that shows them the road to liberation. It may be an easier task in the rural areas. At the same time most of the workers are rural people.

To break with this type of imperialist-dependent economy is not easy. Bangladesh is a small country with a huge population. There is not sufficient land to distribute among workers. At the same time, you cannot build the necessary number of industries overnight to solve the jobless condition of a huge population of this sector and other sectors like it. But that is what is needed. The economy also can and must be reconstructed through the process of protracted people’s war. Many small industry and work-sectors must be created in villages, first in support of agriculture, and then meeting other important needs of the population.

Many things in the villages – the economy, class structure, culture, the environment, etc. are changing rapidly. And important changes are taking place in towns and cities also. There is a need to study the effects of all these things.

The capitalist system and its proponents and the revisionists hide Bangladesh’s imperialist dependency.  And as long as the economy is dependent on imperialism, you can do very little for the safety and welfare of the workers. The owners are the worst type of compradors, one of the main pillars of the ruling class, and the main beneficiary of this man(woman)-eating big economy. They are the main financiers of the ruling class parties.

The government and the ruling parties are trying to cool down the revolt of workers through suppression and phony “workers’ leaders”. With the elections ahead, the contradictions among the ruling class parties will intensify. At the same time, they are all in unity against the workers’ movement.

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