By Apu Sarwar, Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 22 January 2019
Thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers downed tools and walked out of clothing factories in Dhaka for wage increase in the beginning of January 2019. The protest movement was dismantled after the government's crackdown and the threat of closure of the factory by Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
BGMEA boss Siddiqur Rahman threatened “If you [ workers] don't return to your work by tomorrow, you will not be paid any wages and we will shut down factories for an indefinite period.” BD Government and Garment Owners often complaints that ‘outsiders‘ and ‘vested interested groups’ provoke the unrest in the garment industry and that this has nothing to do with wage increases or other work conditions.
At least one worker was killed and several hundred were wounded during week-long protests over salaries. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse workers occupying major highway in the garment manufacturing belt, on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka. Police filed 8 separate criminal cases against 215 people and 1,000 unnamed persons for allegations of vandalism and looted factories. Various factory owners fired around 800 workers. Interestingly, there is no mention of garment workers peaceful protest and the incident of the killing of workers in the fire in police records.
Lawsuit against ‘unnamed’ people is a tool in the hand of oppressive regimes to arrest and torture anyone who dare to raise their voice. Since the inception of Bangladesh all the governments are using lawsuits against ‘unnamed’ people to silence the oppositions. Using this kind of lawsuits governments often arrest, torture and intimidate political opponents. It is widely discussed and known that garments owners have their own thugs to suppress workers' movements. Often protest organizers are tortured and intimidated by garments owner’s thugs with the police looking the other way.
Bangladeshi garment industry employs about four million people. Over half of them are girls and women, who are exposed to an unsafe work environment every day. The industry is the most labour-intensive sector due to very limited use of technology. Women are positioned at the lower levels of jobs in the industry. Verbal abuse with sexually explicit swearword, bullying, pulling hair, pushing and hitting with tools is widely mentioned as common forms of violence against women in the workplace. Male worker also face bullying, hitting and humiliation on a daily basis.
The Garment Industry: Key to Bangladesh’s Export
About 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export earnings come from clothing sales abroad, with global retailers H&M, Primark, Walmart, Tesco and Aldi among the principal purchasers. The garment industry is notorious world-wide for the low wages and high work-associated accidents and deaths, as well as occupational diseases. Most of the factories do not meet standards required by building and construction legislation. Almost every factory has safety issues. Nearly all lack effective fire doors, alarm systems, and properly constructed safety exits. As a result, deaths from fire incidents and building collapses are frequent. There is virtually no effective workers compensation for injured workers. There is no provision for sick and annual leave in this sector.
Bangladesh is the second-largest global clothing exporter after China. Bangladesh rose to its position largely because of its lack of regulation and the low wages in garment sector. As wages in China are continuing to rise, Bangladesh becomes an increasingly attractive place to get cheap clothes for the fashion industry.
Usually a garment worker forced to work on an average work around 12 hours, 8 am to 10 pm without any overtime payment. Garment workers get wages of around $65 USD. With this money garment workers have to survive and also often to support elderly parents back home.
The Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International (TI) ranks Bangladesh 145 out of 174 countries. Corruption is a serious problem in the country which also plays a role in the repeated accidents that occurred in the garment sector.
Difficult Situation for the Trade Unions
The protests are an acid test for the government of the newly a third straight term elected Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. As has been widely reported, the national election on 30 December 2019 was marred by violence and allegations of widespread rigging and voter intimidation. Among 300 Parliament member 80% are directly business owners and the rest is also indirectly involved with business. There are more than 30 garments owners among the member of this parliament.
The union landscape remains weak, fragmented and have a low membership. There are two sorts of trade union formation – registered and unregistered. Registered trade union or labour associations are one of the effective tools used by bosses to manipulate, mislead and to retain the employees in line. Most registered unions have direct or indirect links with local and foreign NGOs. Receiving lucrative grants seems to be their main destination. Most of the trade unions appear to be tools of one or other of the bourgeois political parties which are using the power of unions rather as vehicles for pursuing political goals against rival parties than for improving workers' conditions.
The most common reasons for the workers unrest are low wages, non-payment or deferred payment of wages. Despite their claims to the contrary, some garment owners neither give salaries nor overtime allowances to the workers on time.
The last time when garment workers’ salaries were raised was in 2013. This was right after the Rana Plaza disaster, when an industrial buildings housing several garment factories collapsed, killing more than 1,130 workers.
The new minimum wage has been set at 8,000 taka (approximately 95 dollars) a month, up from 5,300 taka (63 US dollars). The pay increase is the result of a long negotiation between the Bangladeshi government, garment workers and factory owners. Workers had initially proposed a minimum wage of 16,000 taka(189 US dollars) at a national minimum wage board meeting in July 2018. (1)
Support the Just Struggle of the Garment Workers!
There is no denying about the garment industry’s massive contribution to the country’s economic growth. These achievements cannot be maintained if the demands of the people who made all these possible are persistently ignored for any longer. The growing frustration of the workers is nothing but the consequences of treating them as a marginalized sector on a regular basis.
The demands for workers’ wage increase are just and fair. The wage increase will enable garments workers to finally lift themselves and their families out of the extreme deprivation they currently have to endure daily. Burning to death is not an improvement over starving to death.
Almost every year, garment workers are protesting low wages and poor working conditions without any tangible success. The garments workers' movements does not receive support from petty bourgeois middle class. The root behind of absence of the middle-class support is psychological. Only two to three decades ago, majority of disadvantaged girls used work as domestic servants in families of the petty bourgeois middle class.
Poor rural families often send their very young girls to work in well-to-do urban families as a means to improve their own difficult economies. A domestic worker in the middle and upper middle-class families is an indissoluble person. The domestic helpers work very long hours without any specified working conditions. A job in the garment sector has contributed to the empowerment of women, gave some sort of financial independence who had previously been bound to work as domestic servant. Finding a domestic servant is becoming extremely difficult for the middle class. Middle class often morns not to have luxury of domestic helper due to rise of garment industry. As a result, the majority of middle class can’t stand garments workers.
The Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT) fully supports the struggle of the Bangladeshi garment workers. It is crucial to aid the garment workers to build independent and democratic trade unions. It is urgent that the international workers movement launches a solidarity campaign of with class sisters and brothers in Bangladesh! We call for:
* Support the 16,000-taka minimum wage demand!
* Unconditional release of all garments workers and trade union activists!
* Withdrawal of all law suits against garments workers and trade union activists!
* Stop repression and harassment of trade unions leaders!
* Reduction from the current seven to only four grades in the wage schema!
* Training period for apprentices should be restricted to three months instead of the current practice of six months!
* For a solidarity campaign of the international workers movement with the Bangladeshi garment workers!
Table. Garment workers Comparison in Taka (84Taka = 1USD)
Grad Gross Wages 2013 Gross Wages 2013 Revised Gross Wage 2019
1 13,000 17,510 18,257
2 10,900 14,630 15,416
3 6,805 9,590 9,845
4 6,420 9,245 9,347
5 6,420 9,245 9,347
6 5,678 8,405 8,420
7 5,300 8,000 8,000