Tailoring to Needs: Garment Worker Struggles in Bangladesh

The class struggle in Bangladesh is fought at a consistently high level and concentrated in the ready made garment (RMG) sector, the country’s dominant industry.[1] Mainly unmediated by trade unions, struggles frequently assume an explosive character. In Part 1 we give some idea of the content and extent of these struggles – followed in Part 2 by some historical background.

Part 1

Chronology of some high points of class struggle since 2006

The events listed below are only a small selection from incidents occurring on a regular basis in the garment sector. There is a large selection of articles covering disturbances over the past four years, and also a 15 minute video.

Strikes are generally sparked by either middle-management/supervisor brutality or non-payment of wage arrears. Workers walk out and march to picket out neighbouring factories. Roads are often blocked and barricaded. Cops and paramilitary forces are used against workers and things often turn violent; security forces are indiscriminate in their methods and as they invade workers’ slum areas adjacent to industrial zones this can draw in the wider community; strikers’ demonstrations often become mass riots attacking factories and vehicles. So workers’ protests have a tendency and potential to overspill into a larger class confrontation.

Women do participate in street protests. But despite a predominantly female workforce, evidence of the remaining deeply patriarchal traditions of Bangladesh and their divisions of labour can be seen in news footage of garment worker riots; violence has been the almost exclusive act of males. (A few recent examples suggest this may, however, now be beginning to change.)

May-June 2006; the Dhaka explosion

At certain times the generally high level of struggle reaches a peak. In late May and through June of 2006, there was an explosion of fierce class conflict in the Bangladesh garment industry. To illustrate the scale of events: around 4000 factories in Dhaka went on wildcat strike, 16 factories were burnt down by strikers and hundreds more ransacked and looted, pitched battles were fought with cops and private security forces in workplaces and workers’ neighbourhoods, main roads were blocked. Casualties include 3 workers shot dead, thousands injured, several thousand jailed. The Government eventually felt compelled to bring in the Army to restore ‘order’. With hundreds of thousands participating, it was a working class revolt that spread beyond the workplace and generalised to involve the wider working class community.

The revolt began on Saturday 20th May in Sripur in the Gazipour district of Dhaka. 1,000 garment workers gathered at FS Sweater Factory, refusing to work until 3 arrested fellow workers were released from custody. The factory bosses locked the striking workers in the factory, cutting the power and water supplies. Eventually, the sweltering heat proved too much and by 11 am the workers fought their way out, then gathered on the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway. Now joined by locals, they barricaded the highway for 6 hours and fought pitched battles with the cops. One person was killed and 70 others, including cops and journalists, were injured. The revolt then rapidly:

spread to more factories as more workers were picketed out and the industrial areas of Dhaka were shut down by a generalised strike. Workers took the revolt from the industrial suburbs, where factories were now being looted, into the capital city itself, destroying cars and attacking commercial buildings. Mass demonstrations demanded an end to repression, release of arrested workers, higher minimum wages, weekly time off, overtime pay for extra work, public holidays, payment of wages due etc.”

Years of accumulating resentments boiled over into a month of mass unrest with repeated clashes and attacks on bosses’ property.

Although trade unionism is legal, garment bosses have consistently refused to recognise or tolerate trade unions. But in the absence of normal union mechanisms, previously marginal union-type groups (with little or no real influence on workers’ struggles) were quickly drafted in as negotiators on behalf of workers. A new minimum wage was agreed (along with other improvements), but it was inadequate, soon made irrelevant by inflation and only patchily implemented. See a detailed article on the events.

The fire next time

The recurring use of arson by workers must be put in context:

Health & Safety regulation are routinely ignored by management and are hardly enforced by government (many politicians have business interests in the industry); factory fires break out on a bi-monthly basis. Most are smaller incidents with regular injuries but fewer deaths, but over 240 workers have died in major fires since 1990. […]

Many garment workers will have experience of fires in the workplace, many will have sustained injuries, lost friends and workmates to them – and all know that this is due purely to bosses’ greed and negligence. The fairly regular use of fire by garment workers in their struggles against their employers must be understood within this context. Garment workers have often burned down factories in retaliation for non-payment of wages, lockouts or management brutality.(1) Many garment workers are malnutritious due to low income, living hand to mouth. Arson is a readily available means of hurting the bosses and depriving them of something when they refuse to pay; and there is certainly a poetic justice in the fact that those forced to live with a constant fear of fire at work can also utilise it as a weapon against their exploiters.”[2]

Jan 2007; A state in a “State of Emergency”

After months of conflict between the two main parties – the Bangladesh National Party (NBP) and the Awami League (AL) – as they squabbled over the details of rules and procedures for the General Election, a military-led caretaker government was put in place in January 2007. It’s likely this move was encouraged or even proposed by foreign diplomatic pressure:

“Events leading up to the emergency are widely seen as having been orchestrated by the military, which acted after the UN threatened it with the loss of its lucrative and prestigious peacekeeping duties if flawed elections went ahead.

The day after the emergency was declared, former central bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed was installed as head of a new caretaker government.” (Bangladeshinfo.com, May 6 2007)

Over 100,000 were arrested in mass arrests during “anti-corruption purges” targetting the business and political communities. Strikes and demonstrations were banned, but by May garment and other workers had ignored the ban and again begun to assert themselves against the bosses with wildcat strikes, street protests and clashes with police.[3]

Sept 2008; the “Ghost Panic”

The calorific intake of ready-made garment (RMG) workers is deficient, causing stunted physical development. With income reduced by static wages and rising costs of basic foods, malnutrition has become so widespread that in 2008 some workers were reported to be hallucinating in a delirious state during long shifts. A wave of mass hysteria is said to have spread through RMG factories where workers reported ghost attacks – hallucinatory experiences based on the symbolism of the prevailing religious and cultural beliefs and superstitions. Psychologists labelled the ‘ghost panic’ as ‘collective obsessive behaviour’ or ‘mass sociogenic illness’ and attributed it to stress, overwork and malnutrition.

The so-called ‘ghost panic’ in factories first surfaced after a section of workers vandalised Diganto Sweater’s factory in Gazipur, following rumours of the deaths of a few workers as a result of ‘ghost attack’ in a toilet of the factory. Production in the factory remained suspended for four days as workers went on a rampage, damaged factory property and blocked the roads for hours.

In May this year, vandalism triggered by ghost phobia forced a factory in the Chittagong Export Processing Zone to suspend production for two days. At least 10 other garment factories have come under attack in the last two months in Gazipur alone after the spread of almost identical news or rumours that workers fainted in factory toilets and some of them even died.

The latest incident occurred at Pandora Sweater Factory on the Joydevpur road intersection on September 5, three days after workers vandalised Diganta Sweater and clashed with law enforcers in the same area.

Five workers of Diganta Sweater claimed that they saw ‘witches’ before they fainted inside factory’s toilet. They were taken to a nearby clinic where physicians found that none of them had sustained any injury.

‘They fainted because of weakness. I found that their blood pressure and heart beat was too low,’ said Abdur Rahman, chairman of Sheba Diagnostic Hospital. He said that all the patients were cured after initial medical treatment. The hospital and some 80 other clinics have become used to get patients with such symptoms in Gazipur which has a concentration of apparel factories.

He said his hospital treated, on an average, 100 garment factory workers suffering from anxiety-related illness every month. ‘Poor garment workers suffer mainly from malnutrition and anxiety, which make them weak and vulnerable to nervous breakdown,’ said Rahman.

He said the stories of ghosts were either fabricated or hallucinatory. (New Age, Sep 13 08)

In at least one factory a religious exorcism rite has been performed.

One explanation of the ‘ghost panic’ may lie in the fact that so many reports place the ‘sighting’ of the apparition in the factory toilets. In the present climate of intense class conflict a worker is surrounded by openly hostile forces in the factory – and only protected by the solidarity and presence of fellow workers. Exhausted and malnourished, they feel the threatening presence around them even when alone in the toilet – leading to paranoid hallucinations. Also, the toilet is where many actual attacks on workers by factory management and security staff have occurred, so the feelings of vulnerability and paranoia are not without reason.

While RMG workers’ working and living conditions are undoubtedly bad enough to destroy workers’ health, it is hard to gauge the wider truth of these strange events – what may have been true in some factories may have then spread as a running joke among workers (and been swallowed whole by gullible media and doctors always on the lookout for a new phenomena to categorise); an ironic excuse from striking workers smashing up bosses’ workplaces – ‘It’s not our fault – you’ve driven us mad!’.[4]

(Surprisingly, considering its positive discussion of the class struggles of garment workers, this article–containing phrases such as “…half starving wage slaves worked to exhaustion–yet still bravely maintaining a high level of autonomous class struggle outside of any union control…” was taken from the libcom website and, to the surprise of the author, quickly published in a national Bangladeshi newspaper (The Bangladesh Today) and on the front page of its website.)

Jun09; 50,000 on the streets and 50 factories burning

In late June a dispute over pay and sackings in the suburb of Ashulia led to police shooting dead a garment worker. Trouble quickly spread to other Dhaka factories:

“On the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital city, in the industrial zone; workers’ rioting and demonstrations yesterday escalated to new heights. As thousands of workers gathered in the morning, at 10am a group set off towards the nearby Dhaka Export Processing Zone where many garment factories are located. Police blocked their way and fierce fighting began – in the pitched battle police use of teargas and rubber bullets left 100 workers injured.

Other workers soon joined the protesters and informed them that work was continuing as normal at the Hamim Group factory complex. Twenty thousand workers began to march towards the complex. As the numbers of protesters in the area swelled to 50,000 the security forces were simply overwhelmed; the Dhaka District Superintendent of Police said; “An additional 400 policemen stood guard in front of the major factories. We tried our best to disperse the crowd, but they were too many and too fierce.”

[…] The workers split into smaller groups and stormed the complex at around 10.15am. They sprinkled the buildings with petrol; a sweater factory, three garment factories, two washing factories, two fabric storehouses … over 8,000 machines, a huge quantity of readymade garments, fabrics, three buses, two pickup vans, two microbuses and one motorbike were all reduced to ashes.

The crowd was thinking strategically. Once the buildings were ablaze some workers returned to the highway and blockaded the road; consequently, the fire services were unable to reach the blaze for several hours until 3.30pm–by which time the buildings were burnt to the ground.

Meanwhile, groups drawn from some of the other 50,000 workers and participants (undoubtedly other sympathetic non-garment workers and slum dwellers would have been drawn in) roamed the area and attacked and vandalised another 50 factories and 20 vehicles. Thick black smoke could be seen across the city.”[5]

July 2010; Rage over the wage

At the time of writing, a new minimum wage has finally been set after long tripartite negotiations of government, bosses and (largely self-appointed) labour leaders;

Dhaka, capital city – last Friday morning (30th July), the day after the wage announcement ; in the Gulshan, Banani, Kakali, Mahakhali and Tejgaon areas of the city thousands of workers streamed onto the streets and began blockading the main highways with burning tyres. Police responded with teargas, truncheon charges and water cannon (the water is mixed with an indelible dye to aid catching demonstrators). But, heavily outnumbered, the cops could not contain the workers and the protests spread outwards. Making the link between their class status and the contrasting concentrations of wealth in the city landscape, workers were quite specific in their targets; as well as attacking garment factories, 200 businesses were targetted. In an unusual development that shocked many, the wealthy Gulshan Avenue neighbourhood – close to the diplomatic zone and embassy area of Baridhara – was invaded by 5,000 workers who smashed up offices, banks and shops. Media and TV offices were also attacked. “Gulshan police chief said the protesters had targetted the area’s high-end shops.”[6]

In the following days clashes continued; thousands of workers fought police, blocked roads, attacked and looted factories and forced hundreds of others to suspend operations, attacked hundreds of businesses, shopping centres and banks. Police arrested workers and raided offices and homes of those union leaders who refused to accept the deal. (The majority of labour leaders accepted the deal; see further comments on trade unions in Part 2.)

The continued labour unrest and disruption in the garment industry – alongside infrastructural problems of energy supply shortages that regularly interrupt maximum productivity – are worrying both foreign buyers and local suppliers. [It has rarely been mentioned that the new wage structure only applies to the ‘woven’ sector – but not to the RMG knitwear sector.] The narrow national economic dependency on a single export industry’s ability to deliver competitive rock-bottom prices and reliable fast delivery times means garment workers still have considerable weaknesses to exploit in the class struggle. The government and employers may finally – after years of hinting at it whenever labour unrest reaches a certain peak – begin to allow full trade union representation in the sector. But the majority of labour leaders, having now been courted to play the role of giving legitimacy to the miserable settlement, may have lost more than they’ve gained. The state and bosses could easily again break their promises on union recognition – and, as they continue their struggles, the most militant workers will not look kindly on the unions’ class collaboration and meek acceptance of the poor wage offer.”[7]

After several days of disturbances, a massive deployment of security forces in the industrial belts along with sweeping raids and arrests have, for the moment, quietened the unrest. But, with little resolved, the antagonism is set to continue.

Part 2

Some historical background of Bangladesh and the garment industry

The region of Bengal is known to have been a trading centre with active trade routes and shipping ports for over 2000 years. It produced both high quality raw cotton, cloth and clothing for hundreds of years; from the 16th century on, the European aristocracy came to prize Dhaka muslin as the finest textile in the world. With the decline of the Mughal empire British imperialism beat off its rivals and the East India Company established its rule in the 1750s. Policies were imposed that favoured the emerging British textile industry; by a protectionist system of tariffs Bengal was forced to only supply cheap raw materials and leave finished articles to be produced in the “dark satanic mills” of early British capitalism. This economic restructuring, being imposed upon communities of relatively prosperous artisan producers, brought impoverishment and forced relocation from agriculturally desirable areas to previously uninhabited flood-prone areas.

In 1947 India won independence from the British Empire. In response to religious and ethnic tensions Muslims were given a separate nation-state homeland of Pakistan. This was comprised of two distinct territories, West and East Pakistan, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory.

The two regions had quite different cultures, languages and traditions and these were reproduced within the new state boundaries. West Pakistan’s political and economic structures were dominated by merchant and bureaucratic classes developed under British rule to service, supply and administrate the colonial regime. The West therefore became the political and economic centre of Pakistan, while the East remained a predominantly agricultural producing area. The Islamic cultures of the the two regions were also quite different; in the East the older pre-Islamic Bengali culture – though still strictly patriarchal – cushioned against the harsher interpretations of Islamic code.

In many ways, the impetus for an independent Bangladesh was a logical byproduct of the ‘decade of development’ inaugurated under the regime of Ayub Khan and cited as a model of capitalist success by the international planning community. Development policy in the Pakistan era identified economic growth with the creation of an industrial base. To finance this, the government followed a deliberate policy of fostering economic disparity, by diverting the surplus generated in the agricultural sector into the hands of a small class of entrepreneurs based in West Pakistan. The rationale for this strategy was summed up in a succint fashion by one of the US advisors to the Pakistan Planning Commission: ‘Great inequalities were necessary to create industry and industrialists … the concentration of income in industry facilitates the savings which finance development.’[8]

These imbalances created growing resentment in the East, which eventually led to the very bloody War of Independence in 1971. Led by a leftist faction in the Eastern section of the Army, a decisive intervention by Indian troops secured victory for the East and led to the establishing of the nation-state of Bangladesh.

From the very beginning, the “pro-Islam” segments of Bangladeshi society and of the army had sympathies for Pakistan and opposed the independence of Bangladesh in the name of Islamic unity. The Jamaat-e-Islami (the main Islamicist party) leadership was at the forefront of mass atrocities on behalf of the Pakistan army on the eve of Bangladeshi independence. (It is only now, almost 40 years later, that war-crime trials are beginning.[9] )

Identities

Assumed identities can be varied and complex in Bangladesh–and most stem from one’s defined relationship to the 1971 Independence War. The lines drawn through Bangladeshi society by that war are still deep divisions today. For some, the national victory is seen as a victory for the Bengali culture embracing diversity and tolerance – in the face of the continued threat from Muslim fundamentalists who resent the split from their fellow Pakistani Muslims. Depending on emphasis, there are various ethnic, national and religious identities composed of different measures of cultural Bengali, national Bangladeshi and/or religious Muslim combinations or oppositions. (The other smaller religious and pre-national indigenous/tribal self-identities do not concern us here). These oppositions embody contending views as to what kind of society Bangladesh should be and are contested at various levels, both politically and culturally.

The internal exile of the left and ideological proxy wars

During the War of Independence there was a left wing element within the army and politics. After the coups of the mid 70s and the resulting repression, the Bangladeshi left was forced to disperse – of those remaining active, many went into NGOs or cultural propaganda work. A few tiny Trotskyist and Stalinist groups now remain, mainly student-based with little connection to the working class. Some parties also have their allied ‘union’ groups – but these ‘unions’, despite aspirations, rarely, if ever, function as workplace representatives.

The NGOs promote micro-credit loan schemes for small business activities, partly as a means of encouraging independence from large landowners in rural areas and for greater economic and social independence for women. Funding is provided to teach and implement small-scale improved farming techniques, co-operative or individual household workshops and subsequent distribution networks etc. They also sometimes act as a type of proxy trade union by offering legal and welfare advice in cities. They have often used traditional cultural drama and folksong forms in village meetings to spread their liberal ideology of cultural tolerance and entrepeneurial micro-capitalist activity.

On the other side of the ideological battleground are the Saudi Arabian-financed Muslim NGO groups who campaign for fundamentalist values and a traditional submissive role for the poor and women in particular (some have also been linked to terrorist activities).

The more than three million Bangladeshi urban female garment workers with a relative economic independence are, for the fundamentalists, particularly unacceptable evidence of the corrupting influence of modern society. For these reasons they have sometimes physically attacked NGOs, unions and the projects they sponsor.

This ideological divide manifests across various political and cultural issues. The most recent election winners, the Awami League (AL), are considered a more liberal and secular party (by Bangladeshi standards, though historically just as involved in corruption) than their Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) opposition, who have a recent history of electoral alliances with fundamentalist groups (though the AL have themselves on occasion flirted with religious alliances).

Enclosures

After Independence, various Aid and Planning agencies appeared in Bangladesh; from the West, via the IMF, came subsidies for landowners to move into mono-culture and cash crops for Western markets. This took land away from tenant farmers who farmed for subsistence or for local markets only. With more modern imported farming techniques applied – which were also ecologically destructive and created dependency on Western-supplied fertilisers, non-reproducing seeds etc[10]–rural unemployment grew. This was a new form of enclosures against the peasantry, similar to those European countries had suffered in earlier centuries.

Emergence of the RMG industry and the female worker

At the same time as these changes in the rural agricultural economy and its gender relations were occurring, the Western economies were also influencing urban industrial development. The Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA) was introduced in 1974 as a means of controlling the increasing imports to the West from developing countries in Asia and South America. Quotas were allotted to various countries, but the poorest countries – including Bangladesh – were excluded from quota limits. This led to “quota hopping” whereby quota-free countries became attractive to entrepreneurs from quota-restricted nations. The combination of low start-up costs and a quota-free environment – as well as government incentives – encouraged local and foreign investment in the Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry.

The industry grew rapidly from the 1970s as exports expanded across the global market; the RMG sector now contributes around 80% of the country’s $18 billion export earnings and employs about 40 per cent of the country’s industrial workforce; around 3.5 million people, 85% of them women. Most are young, officially from 14 years upwards (but younger children often work as unofficial ‘helpers’ for minimal wages). The majority are young women, with a working lifespan of perhaps 20 years, after which their productivity is said to decline – for reasons such as failing eyesight and other physical degenerations, often linked to the malnutrition widespread among garment workers.

Thousands of young women heading for the garment factories were a new and, for some, shocking sight on the city streets. In the early days of the industry the clerics preached sermons outside the factories against this new female ‘transgression’ and distributed cassette tapes of the sermons. Wild rumours spread of the consequences of allowing men and women to occupy the same workplace. In fact the factories were ideally suited to utilising female labour under existing gender relations; secluded from public view and with behaviour strictly monitored (and often segregated) to maximise productivity and allay fears, the concerns of male relatives of female workers were largely overcome (helped by the added income) and the industry quickly expanded. For married couples this also often changed work roles in the home; men were obliged to, for the first time, take a share of domestic chores to keep the home functioning.

Yet even as capitalist development changes gender relations in this way it does so partly by utilising the existing gender divisions. In the early days of the industry men were employed, many recruited from among the traditional tailoring artisans. But their general indiscipline and consequent low productivity meant that garment bosses began to employ increasing numbers of women; factory bosses explain this preference as due to Bangladeshi women being more docile in temperament than men.[11] This is only a reflection of the gender roles and cultural conditioning of the wider society, and in the fact that women have few other economic choices, so are more likely to stick at the job. As a female garment worker explained:

You see, as women, one of our wings is broken. We don’t have the nerve that a man has, because we know we have a broken wing. A man can sleep anywhere, he can just lie down on the street and go to sleep. A woman cannot do that. She has to think about her body, about her security. So the garment factory owner prefers to hire women because men are smarter about their opportunities, you train them and they move on. Even when he compares a small boy and an older girl, he will think, “She’s only a girl, she can’t wander too far away.”

[12]

Challenging purdah tradition

As inheritance traditionally passes through the male line, women’s reproductive powers have been jealously guarded as a protection of family assets. Under Islamic rules of purdah (literally ‘curtain’ or ‘veil’) women in town and country were expected to stay in the home unless accompanied by a male guardian in public (as is still common in countries such as Saudi Arabia). Traditional village morality determined that women were rarely allowed to work outside the home, so they were limited to gardening and handicrafts such as making fishing nets, spinning and basket making. As unemployment grew and agricultural wages entered a long term decline after Independence, women began – out of both economic necessity and desire for greater independence – to challenge these restrictions. (The country’s series of 1970s post-independence disasters – floods, famine and bloody political coups – also considereably dislocated traditional gender roles and forced more self-reliance on many women due to their loss of male protection and support.) Some began working outside, initially quite discretely where possible; others were encouraged to set up village craft or agricultural co-operatives by Aid agencies; some moved away to the towns seeking work – many into factory work in the garment industry and a life in the teeming city slums.

The fact that women make up at least 85% of the garment workforce reflects some dramatic recent social changes. From the 1960s the dowry system shifted its balance of power – whereas the groom’s family had traditionally paid a dowry, among wealthy families it now became an obligation for the bride’s family to do so. This shift gradually filtered down to become the norm among all classes. For poor families this meant female children became an added burden – not only were their earning capacities limited, now each required a dowry and marriage became a net drain on family wealth. (These are added reasons for the migration of many young women from village to city garment factory; by sending money home, they can transform their economic role from a burden to a family asset.)

The practice of a woman giving a “dowry” or gift to a man at *marriage is said to have had its origins in the system of streedhan (woman’s share of parental wealth given to her at the time of her marriage). As a woman had no right to inherit a share of the ancestral property, streedhan was seen as a way by which the family ensured that she had access to some of its wealth. There is no clear proof as to when this practice was first started in India.

What began as gifts of land to a woman as her inheritance in an essentially agricultural economy today has degenerated into gifts of gold, clothes, consumer durables, and large sums of cash, which has sometimes entailed the impoverishment and heavy indebtedness of poor families. The dowry is often used by the receiving family for business purposes, family members’ education, or the dowry to be given for the husband’s sisters. The transaction of dowry often does not end with the actual wedding ceremony, as the family is expected to continue to give gifts.[13]

Women can be easily divorced and abandoned in Bangladesh, left destitute with their children. The garment factories became a lifeline both for abandoned women and those young females who sought to avoid being at the mercy of male dependency and many of the patriarchal limitations that go with it. They were also an opportunity for poor families to add to their income.

Trade Unions admit “no control” … but desperately seek it

The struggles against the extremes of exploitation in the RMG industry have a long history and their combativity and violent nature are unsurprising, considering that the Bangladeshi garment workers are estimated to earn the lowest industrial wages in the world. The class struggle and the forms it takes has developed largely autonomously in the industry, with little institutional mediation. This has contributed to the intensity and explosive character of garment workers’ struggles; as a possible solution to the unrest there have been repeated calls to institute full trade unionism in the factories. When disturbances reach a certain peak new promises are made to allow trade union activity, but as unrest subsides most factory bosses maintain their refusal to concede to allowing union representation.

“The trade unions have always been denied any effective role in the garment sector and so have little influence over the workforce or abilities as mediators of labour relations:

Dozens of trade unions in the readymade garment (RMG) sector are hardly in any position to resolve recurrent labour unrests, as they have no control over workers at factory level due to inactivity of most workers’ unions, observed trade union leaders.

According to some leaders, at present there are more than 28 registered trade unions and more than 13 unregistered trade unions in the RMG sector.

Of the 200 registered workers’ union units at factory level, only 15 or so are active, the trade union leaders claimed.

As a result, the central trade union leaders do not have any proper means of intervention in the wake of any labour unrest, although the leaders are meant to play a major role in resolving labour unrest.

During the recent incidents of unrest, garment workers attacked many factories, but the trade union leaders could not communicate with the workers due to the absence of active workers’ union units.

[…]

“We know we have a lot of responsibilities in the wake of any unrest in the industrial sector. But, sometimes we feel helpless as we have no control over the workers,” said Amirul Haque Amin, secretary general of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF).[14]

The stubbornness of employers to deny for so long trade union rights seems an overall strategic weakness; the granting of basic employment rights and an acceptable minimum wage would presumably give greater stability to the sector and the increased costs be offset by a reduction in stoppages. Introduction of official trade union negotiating procedures would also be likely – as it is designed to do – to some degree at least, take initiative away from self-organising workers and their often spontaneous wildcat actions and put it in the hands of union bureaucrats who would tend to dissipate and fragment the present high level of class struggle by channeling it into long drawn out official procedures.

The outsourcing of particular tasks by larger factories to smaller ones is common, such as button holing and other finishing. (Textiles are a flexible ‘limp’ material, so mechanisation possibilities of many productive aspects have been limited.) The various supply lines of the industry that make up the diverse parts of the division of labour in RMG production range from fly-by-night operations quickly set up with a few machines and a small workforce to hi-tech factories employing thousands. Therefore, at the lower levels of the supply chain – where low operating costs, casual employment and fast delivery of orders are crucial to turning a profit – conforming to health & safety regulations and other legal and financial obligations that trade union recognition would bring appears unattractive to garment bosses. Yet the granting of the recently refused Taka 5,000 (£48/€58/$71) minimum wage increase would add relatively little to production costs, which could easily be absorbed by larger producers, buyers, retailers and consumers:

Media reports on the garment situation analysis indicate that minimum wage rate for garment workers will hardly hinder the profit margin for the apparel export. The pay rise means 1.0-3.0% increase in garments products. The pay increase constitutes highest 9.2% of total garment export during 2009-10 financial year, when average profit margin was 8.0-10% of export value. According to World Bank economic report, RMG exports nearly doubled in last five years from $6.4bn. to $12.5bn. in financial year 2010.” (thefinancialexpress-bd.com – Aug 10 2010)

Yet international buyers for global retail chains exert continual pressure for low prices and in recent statements have expressed no willingness to absorb the cost of wage rises, but only to help factories ‘increase productivity’.

Another reason for the long reluctance of successive governments to encourage trade unions and to enforce workplace regulations is that many politicians are investors in the garment trade. In recent statements by the Labour Minister the government now appears to believe – despite continued reluctance of employers – that trade unions are a desirable mechanism for mediating and controlling labour unrest. The issue is whether unions can tame the prevailing mode of struggle of workers and replace its intensity and spontaneity with the formalities of long drawn out bureaucratic and legal procedures. The working class must be dispossessed of its present direct control of its own struggles and domesticated into accepting the alienation of its class power, its passing to a union bureaucracy – otherwise unions will be an irrelevancy for capitalism.

If the union reform is implemented, will it work? Certainly the institutionalising of certain health and safety measures (deaths in factory fires are common, as are many occupational illnesses) as well as legal powers to enforce a living wage that is actually regularly paid would be popular among workers. But this depends on the garment bosses and the state showing a willingness to both grant reforms and then actually enforce them – which has never been the case so far. Promises have repeatedly been broken on these issues – and if there are no concessions on offer to win through union negotiation on behalf of workers, then unions will remain as largely irrelevant as they are today. (Another factor is that unions have often been as corrupt as most other political institutions in Bangladesh and have often been merely instruments of the political goals of one of the main political parties.) The unions have to try to establish credibility and take representative control of a workforce that has, over the past 25 years, shown itself consistently capable of a high level of self-organisation and solidarity. It is possible that the well-established current forms of mass struggle – regular wildcat strikes that then picket out neighbouring factories, roadblocks, riots and attacks on bosses’ property – will prove hard to overcome.”[15]

The labour leaders who accepted the recent minimum wage deal have quickly begun to show their true colours:

“the majority appear to not even be garment workers themselves. They are reported as having been cherry-picked by the government for the negotiations. But some workers’ reps were happy to give the settlement the appearance of legitimacy and to accept the offer on the workers’ behalf:

Nazma Akter, president of Sammilito Garment Sramik Federation, a platform of 40,000 garment workers, welcomed the announced minimum wage at Tk 3,000 for the entry-level workers. (Daily Star, Aug 1st 2010)

Akter, a former garment worker who has gained a foothold on the career ladder of NGOs and international lobbying has previously been happy to collaborate with garment bosses and publicly lie to deny any workplace abuse of garment workers(1). The National Garment Workers Federation(2) also accepted the offer. Both Federations have condemned violent protests by garment workers and the NGWF have, absurdly, denied worker involvement.[16]

Yet it is reported that, as thousands of garment workers rejected the minimum wage, fought the police and state repression – and in the midst of raids on union offices and arrests of union leaders who refused to condone the miserable wage offer – the NGWF leader is happy to publicly accept the wage deal, to condemn workers’ violence and (like a good union bureaucrat) to call for the arrest of workers who actively oppose the deal. The stupid claim that workers aren’t involved is a lie, as proved by numerous daily media and police reports of worker unrest and arrests:

Emerging from a tripartite meeting, held at Bangladesh Garments Manufacturing and Exporters’ Association building late in the evening, National Garments Workers’ Federation convenor Amirul Huq Amin said they did not differ with the new wage structure. […] ‘The workers are not involved in the on-going violence in the apparel industry,’ Amirul Huq told reporters after the meeting He called for identifying and punishing those involved in the recent incidents of violence.[17]

The NGWF has had past contact with Western anarcho-syndicalists and, more recently, the US Industrial Workers of the World. It has also worked closely with Western NGOs and charities (eg, War On Want). Despite its reputation as a more grass-roots garment workers group it is now clearly jockeying for position with rival bodies to try to ‘own’ the role of representation of garment labour by impressing the state with what a good cop it can be. Attempting to give validity to a starvation wage settlement and calling for state repression against militant workers and rival unions is a sign of the strength of their ambition.

Charities for liberal and regulated forms of exploitation

NGOs lobby for factories to conform to “compliance” guidelines setting minimum standards for pay and conditions and seek co-operation with Western retailers on these issues. Western multinationals are keen to protect their corporate image by trying to avoid public association with ‘3rd World sweatshops’. But much compliance is a fiction, aided by employers keeping model compliant workplace areas – that don’t represent typical working conditions – solely for compliance officer inspections; two sets of books are often kept showing wage payments higher than really paid; workers are forewarned of inspections and told how to behave, health & safety equipment is temporarily improved etc.

Western NGO’s and charities highlight the terrible wages, working conditions and slum housing of garment workers. But they primarily portray them in emotive humanitarian terms as passive victims who only acquire some agency to act in their own interests through the intervention of Western NGO schemes and their lobbying for legal reforms. So the militant class struggles of garment workers are rarely mentioned for what they are – class conflict – but only as tragic and regrettable consequences of an insufficiently regulated industry and ‘unethical’ consumerism. This ignores the double-edged character of garment workers; while they suffer from extreme exploitation as wage slaves, they are far from simply passive victims.

The neo-Dickensian “dark, satanic mills” – its relevance for us?

The emergence of such class conflict is a symptom of shifting relations and functions in the global marketplace. The restructuring of Western economies partly in response to the high levels of class struggle in the 1960s and 70s – moved much manufacturing to the ‘3rd World’ to take advantage of its cheaper labour costs. As the ruling class used unemployment, outsourcing and relocation to change and outmanouvre the traditional industrial proletariat of the West it created a new industrial proletariat in the East. The Bangladeshi working class is both archaic and modern. Archaic in the sense that its conditions of life often resemble those described by such as Engels in his “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844“–terrible insanitary overcrowded slum housing, malnutrition and adulterated food, brutality and extreme overwork in the factory, strong resistance by bosses to trade unions and factory legislation, the state using military repression against strikes and demonstrations etc. But modern insofar as it functions as the recently proletarianised labour power of an export-orientated outsourcing economy (of finished goods, rather than the colonial-era export economy of raw materials) that has been used as a replacement for much Western manufacturing.

This generation of garment workers is much more literate and politically aware than their predecessors,” said Alam [a political scientist]. “They have grown up in the slums not the villages and know that they need to be united and to demonstrate in the streets to realise their aims.[18]

The garment workers were combative since the early days of the industry – but the younger generation of today is more assertive. Unlike their parents, who were mostly migrants from rural villages, many of today’s young city-bred workers are more literate and more aware of the contradiction between their supposed legal rights within bourgeois democracy and the reality of their situation; this emergent working class has progressively formed a culture of solidarity within itself, as a mode of existence, that counterposes its own class power to its exploiters. It is entirely normal for whole factories to quickly stop work and picket out neighbouring workplaces when conflicts arise. The conflicts sometimes generalise beyond the workplace when the nearby residential slum areas – home to many garment workers and dependents – are also drawn into the conflicts.

Information is lacking in how RMG workers organise their strikes and agitations; perhaps partly because the workers must deal with repression and blacklisting by organising some things secretly – but also presumably because the high-pressure intensity of exploitation in factory conditions mean it takes little for resentments to ignite and spread. So this description (in a business magazine representing the major multinationals operating in Asia), of a wave of strikes during 2005 in Japanese-owned factories in China’s Dalian Special Economic Zone, seems to be just as applicable to events in Bangladesh:

Although the workers apparently do not have leaders, they develop an organizing strategy without a head. Because the workers have widely shared interests and a sense of shared suffering, they react to subtle signs. Workers explained that, when they are dissatisfied, it just takes a handful standing up and shouting ‘Strike!’ for all the workers on the line to rise up as if in ovation and stop working.”

Is there any great revolutionary potential within these struggles? The more ‘classic’ traditional conditions of the newly emerged industrial proletarians in the export economies of Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere – with often weak mediating institutions and traditions (unions, workplace rights legislation etc) – suggests that the workng class will continue to fight fiercely against the extremes of exploitation they face there. If one had to say where the conditions for development of such a radical potential seemed most favourable, it would seem to be in this region. But such developments would take the form of expanding local and international organisational solidarity – not of leftist groups seeking to dominate by assuming leadership of workers’ struggles, but as a development of the existing self-organisation of workers themselves.

Leftist and unionist attempts at recuperation and control through their bureaucratic representation of struggles will be one obstacle workers everywhere must confront. But while the state resistance to radicalisation will be in the form of blunt repression when necessary, wage pressure and workers struggles in the East will presumably also continue to bring some level of concessions we’ve known in the West under social democracy (factory legislation, minimum wage, union recognition, social security benefits etc). Even with the decline in that ‘social wage’ in the West, it will probably be a long time (if ever) before any socio-economic equilibrium meeting point would be reached. So the ‘global nature of the working class’ is more wishful than actual right now – the often neo-Dickensian Eastern conditions don’t generate struggles readily applicable or inspiring to Western conditions.[19]

But, for some Asian countries, this function within the global economy has possibly its economic limits; for Bangladesh to develop further economically it would need to develop a substantial internal consumer economy – but this requires paying considerably higher wages, which then may threaten its competitive edge in the global clothing market. (China appears better placed to overcome this contradiction, given the massive size of its potential internal market and its global investment strategy.[20]) The continued divisions within the Bangladeshi ruling class – originating in the conflicting loyalties taken in the 1971 War of Independence – mean that the political elite remain, so far, too fractured to easily implement any long-term economic development strategies beyond the stand-alone RMG industry.

The consequences of restructuring industry to the East has left the Western working class still largely searching for new cohesive forms of struggle suitable to confront this restructuring. But after 25 years of, largely, retreats in the West, these struggles of the East do remind us that today the class struggle can still be made an undisguised central focus in society; and that the ‘social question’ of relative class power can still be contested by a militant self-organised class struggle.

  1. [1] We don’t have space here to discuss other non-RMG struggles occurring among, eg, jute, mining and transport workers (see River transport strike paralyses Bangladesh); nor the Phulbari August 2006 anti-mining movement, significant for it’s sheer scale and combativity, almost a local insurrection where 30,000 protesters seized control of a town against a proposed open-cast mine project (see News From Bangladesh and Bangladeshi Government forced to renounce mine project).
  2. [2] See Death traps – work, home, fire and the poor in Bangladesh.
  3. [3] See Jute workers attack union leaders in Bangladesh amid wider unrest and Garment workers struggles escalate again in Bangladesh.
  4. [4] For further information see Bangladesh; in the militarized factory – visions of the devouring demons of capital.
  5. [5] See Short fuse: 50,000 workers on the streets and 50 factories burning in Bangladesh.
  6. [6] See The rage over the wage.
  7. [7] Op. cit.
  8. [8] Naila Kabeer – Subordination and Struggle: Women in Bangladesh; New Left Review 168, 1988. US advisor’s quote cited in Richard Nations, ‘Pakistan: Class and Colony, NLR 68, pp. 3-26.
  9. [9] The geopolitical dimension of internal feuds within the Bangladesh army is related to the India-Pakistan rivalry in South Asia. From the very beginning, the “pro-Islam” segments of Bangladeshi society and the army had sympathies for Pakistan and opposed the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The JI [Jamaat-e-Islami Islamicist party] leadership was at the forefront of mass atrocities on behalf of the Pakistan army on the eve of Bangladeshi independence. When the secular Hasina returned to power in January, she implemented a bold initiative to seek war crimes prosecutions with UN assistance of the JI figures who spearheaded the killings in 1971. Asia Times, March 3, 2009.
  10. [10] See A world food crisis; empty rice bowls and fat rats.
  11. [11] An RMG boss explains;

    Why women? Because men smoke, drink, talk a lot, disturb everybody … they are very vociferous, demand holidays, they have tough friends … We want as little talk as possible on the machines … That is something women are prepared to do. Men in groups will immediately start agitating for more pay … Women listen better and they don’t talk back. Men won’t take instructions or accept authority easily. Women are cheaper because they have fewer choices – in terms of physical location of work and in terms of their physical ability to do different kinds of work.

    Naila Kabeer, The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi Women and Labour Market Decisions in London and Dhaka, Verso, London, 2000.

  12. [12] Naila Kabeer, The Power to Choose, op. cit.
  13. [13] See dowry.
  14. [14] Daily Star, Sep 14, 2008. See also Bangladesh; in the militarized factory – visions of the devouring demons of capital.
  15. [15] See Three dead in garment workers’ clashes – unions promised new role.
  16. [16] See The rage over the wage.
  17. [17] See 200 hurt as protests spill over to Ctg.
  18. [18] See Guardian, June 30, 2010.
  19. [19] But bear in mind that migrant workers are Bangladesh’s second largest export (mainly across Asia and the Gulf states) and foreign currency earner after RMG products. So knowledge and forms of struggles at home will to some extent be spread by these channels; see, for example Bangladesh: migrants export class struggle.
  20. [20] Some observers are claiming that rising labour costs due to strikes in China are an opportunity for smaller RMG-producing countries in Asia to increase their market share (the same observers also sometime lament that foreign buyers are wary of the Bangladeshi industry’s reliability due to continual labour unrest). But China is rapidly expanding its economic empire, which may eventually move it away from RMG exports, or at least lead it to outsource to where labour is even cheaper:

    Why would the Chinese government push some of its labor- and energy-intensive industries to move to special economic zones in Africa, even as the U.S. Congress bans the U.S. Agency for International Development from financing any activities that could relocate the jobs of Americans overseas? Because Chinese planners want industrialists at home to move up the value chain. Polluting industries such as leather tanneries and metal smelters are no longer tolerated in many Chinese cities. And as the world economy recovers from the recent economic recession, wages and benefits will resume rising in China’s coastal belt, as they had been before the crisis. Some factories will move further inland, but others will go offshore, closer to both the sources of and the markets for raw materials. The early stages of industrialization might bring pollution, low wages, and long workdays, especially if the Chinese zones are successful. But like China’s resource-backed loans, the planned economic zones promise to provide African countries with some things they very much want: employment opportunities, new technologies, and badly needed infrastructure. This is an opportunity for African states to ride into the global economy on China’s shirttails rather than remain natural-resource suppliers to the world.

    D. Brautigam, “Africa’s Eastern Promise, Foreign Affairs, Jan 2010.