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(en) Bangladesh Anarcho Syndicalist Federation: Behind the camouflage; a new strike wave in the Bangladeshi garment sector [machine translation]
Sun, 22 Jul 2018 09:23:13 +0300
Following a period of relative quiet after the 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster, new
struggles emerge from the garment factories. ---- Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 -
when a poorly built garment factory collapsed, killing 1200 and maiming 2,700 (see earlier
articles) - there have been changes in the Bangladeshi garment industry. Amid the
embarrassment of global public exposure of murderous working conditions, and under
pressure from leading clothing brands, Western governments, unions and NGOs, some reforms
were introduced. ---- This all occurred within a wider climate of increasing political
repression by the Bangladeshi government against opposition parties and Islamic militants
- with these oppositions being used as a convenient excuse for a more general
authoritarianism and militarised policing of the wider society. The reforms made within
the garment industryand the stricter policing have probably both served to dampen
struggles in the garment industry in recent years. The state's harsher attitude towards
media reporting of unrest also seems significant, as we will comment on later in this article.
Ashulia industrial zone, Dhaka - December 12th; hundreds of garment workers from several
factories walk out on strike. They demand an immediate raise in the minimum wage from Taka
5,300(£54/€63/$67) to Taka 15,000(£154/€180/$190), complaining that rampant inflation in
food prices and house rents make it nearly impossible to survive on the present wage. They
also protest dangerous working conditions and problems with getting paid. As workers begin
to demonstrate, the movement spreads throughout the garment zone.
There are reports that the Garment Sramik Front union had, after a meeting on Nov 25th,
distributed leaflets demanding a rise in the minimum wage to Tk15000 and that this was
then taken up by workers and prompted the walkouts. This is a possibility, though there
are other possibilities;
1) That the union wants to claim more influence than it really has. It may be that the
leaflet was a catalyst to spark expression of building resentments without being evidence
of a union directing events.
2) That the state and bosses want to claim the union has more influence than it really has
and to account for the unrest as being stirred up by ‘outside agitators' and so claim
there are no genuine workers' grievances. Despite repeated claims for years of outside
agitators there has never been any hard evidence or prosecutions of these mysterious agents.
3) That the demand for a raise to Tk15,000 was already being discussed among workers and
the unions picked up on it and incorporated it in their leaflet. The leaflet was
distributed but it was not till two and a half weeks later that strikes broke out. The
unions did not send demands for a wage rise to the employers federation BGMEA till Dec
22nd, ten days after strikes began. If they were the initiators it might have been
expected that the union would have already officially presented that pay demand to management.
Some workers said they initially didn't know the demands of the strike but either gladly
joined in anyway or were compelled to by other workers.
Dec 21st; employers respond within a few days by closing the whole garment zone of 85
factories and locking out 200,000 workers. All workers' demonstrations are banned and a
paramilitary occupation of the area begins; a thousand industrial police, 900 regular cops
and 15 platoons of the paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh and Rapid Action Battalion
have been deployed to crush the unrest. Bosses and police have laid charges against 1500
workers and 1500 have been sacked. As raids and arrests have been made on union offices
and workers' homes, many have stayed away from work and some union activists and militant
workers have gone into hiding.
Dec 27th; the bosses reopen the factories and work resumes. 15,000 workers have not
returned to work; fearing retaliation and possible prosecution, many have returned to
their native villages. Most of these will lose any wages due to them.
How a minimum wage can minimise income
Some of the workers who carried out protests across Ashulia on Tuesday told the Dhaka
Tribune their factories had been depriving them of various allowances and benefits for a
Some alleged torture by the management leading to workers' deaths. Others said their work
environment was unsafe and there were no compensations for workplace accidents. Some
workers said they needed pay raises to match the soaring market prices and house rent.
After the Rana Plaza disaster a 76% rise in the minimum wage was made and a mechanism for
its five-yearly review put in place. Some uninformed observers were too quick to praise
this as an unconditional great victory without looking at the fine details of the legal
framework and its relation to rising cost of living. As we commented at the time;
If we break down the component parts of the wage rise we see that the 76% figure is not
quite what it might appear. We'll also see why many thousands of workers have continued to
strike and violently protest all through the negotiations and continue to do so against
the deal. For them it is no desired "victory".
Firstly, the Taka 5,300 ($67) settlement for monthly pay is far below the Tk 8,114 ($103)
generally demanded by workers, which is itself at the low end of what can be considered ‘a
living wage'. Part of the wage settlement is a 5% yearly increase; but, as the graph below
shows, inflation is running at 7-12% in recent months;
So the present settlement could be seen as an attempt to lock workers into an annual
capped below-inflation rise - meaning a long-term decline in real income.
Worse, the Tk 5,300 total is composed of various parts; for entry level workers, Tk 3,000
would be basic pay, Tk 1,280 house rent, Tk 320 medical allowance, Tk 200 transport
allowance and Tk 500 food subsidy. (Proportionately similar for higher grades.) As only Tk
3,000 is actual wage (rather than allowance) it will be this rate that will determine
overtime rates rather than the TK 5,300 figure. This has been a source of dispute between
bosses and unions during negotiations - and was made more so when the government overruled
the wage board and conceded to the bosses that the basic pay component would be Tk 3,000
rather than the Tk 3,200 agreed during negotiations. Labour Minister Rajiuddin Ahmed Raju
has already stated that
"the wage board has kept provisions of increment of salary as well, to be calculated on 5
per cent of the basic-pay of Tk 3,000." (The New Nation - 15 Nov 2013)
So the basic pay component of Tk 3,000 can rise annually by 5% - but the Tk 2,300
allowance component of the overall Tk 5,300 wage appears intended by the bosses to remain
frozen at its present level, its value soon eaten away by inflation. We can predict that
next year there may well be conflict over the interpretation of this settlement.
It has actually taken three years for the limits of this settlement to spark revolt.
Rising food and housing costs are wiping out any short term gains made and the next wage
review is fixed for 2018 with the garment employers federation BGMEA and government
refusing any earlier changes. They have claimed to promise a freeze on local rents but
have provided themselves with no apparent legal powers to enforce it;
BGMEA President Siddiqur ... said house rent in Ashulia area - where most workers live -
will not be increased in the next three years and if it is raised, the BGMEA will look
into the matter and take necessary steps.
The garment industry is the country's largest employer and accounts for 80% of exports
totalling $28 billion and massive profits. Exports continue to grow, by 9% this year. The
BGMEA's statement on rent indicates the power of garment bosses as a faction of the ruling
class; to preserve their profits they are pressuring the local landlords to subsidise the
living costs of garment workers; landlords must cut their profits to protect those of the
garment bosses. This is in addition to the various hefty subsidies and tax concessions the
industry has received from the state over the years, all of which has delivered enormous
wealth and luxurious lifestyles to the garment bosses.
But it is likely that the BGMEA will apply the rent cap in a similar way to how it and its
members have ‘enforced' the minimum wage;
Unfortunately, country's garment owners are yet to go with the spirit of the minimum wage.
After the revision of minimum wage in 2013, many factories increased the workers' per hour
or per day output targets and some adopted forced overtime. Such measures to offset the
'additional wage payments' also goes against the workers' fundamental right.
Meanwhile the garment workers continue to endure the intense and brutal exploitation that
built and maintains the bosses' wealth. Since the Rana Plaza disaster there have been many
new regulations and guidelines, mainly initiated, implemented and supervised by Western
unions and governments, NGOs and global clothing brands - all concerned about social
stability and growth in the countryand reputational damage to leading fashion labels.
Most of the garment factories have been surveyed for structural soundness and fire safety.
A few larger enterprises have been praised for becoming ‘green factories' and implementing
less polluting production processes. All this upgrading of infrastructure is to the
benefit of the long term profitability of the industry. But from a human point of view
much of it is a cosmetic exercise. A recent report details the condition workers experience;
Workers in the country's readymade garment (RMG) industry work under abusive situation,
which has further worsened in 2016 compared to that of three years back, according to a
recent NGO report.
About 91 per cent of the surveyed workers, irrespective of their gender, faced abuses in
the RMG units sometimes or often in comparison to 61 per cent in 2013, it revealed. ...
Factory managers and line supervisors were reported to verbally intimidate and pressurise
workers to complete orders by using foul language and scolding, including sexual
insinuation, it said.
Workers complained that they were forced to work overtime hours or when unwell just to
meet production targets. ...
According to the report, the factory authorities denied to allow the workers maternity and
sick leaves, and delayed their payment or did not give due wages at all.
Employment hardship is often accompanied by poor living conditions, and high rental costs
consume a significant amount of the workers' monthly wage, the study also showed.
This is an enormous financial burden for the workers, as each of them paid more than Tk
2,500 per month for their accommodation from an average salary (without overtime) of Tk
6,183, an amount below the national poverty line.
The report said low wage of workers has been the major driver of the country's RMG sector
competitiveness after the phasing out of Multi Fibre Agreement.
Besides, the minimum wage was not paid to all the workers interviewed. Some 7.6 per cent
of the workers earned less than the legally-set minimum wage of Tk 5,300, excluding
overtime, it showed. http://print.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/2016/12/16/159567
The interested Western powers with the ability to pressure and influence local garment
bosses - governments, unions, buyers, retails chains etc - have concentrated on
infrastructural improvements to buildings and equipment in the hope of avoiding another
embarrassing disaster. A new minimum wage procedure is in place, as is a factory
inspection programme. But this is all focussed on appearance, what promotes the best image
for their global retail brands and avoids reputational damage. Without adequate
enforcement this is all cosmetic to hide the exploitative reality behind it; the major
buyers from these brands are disinterested in reducing their profits by insisting on a
realistic living wage for workers or paying a little more to help make it possible. Nor
have they pushed as hard for actual enforcement of the laws on worker safety and treatment
within the workplace.
The new unions
One of the post-Rana reforms was the right of garment workers to have trade union
representation in the workplace. There have been various allegations of obstacles in
registering new unions with the state, dismissals and harassment of union members and
activists and attempted monopoly of unionisation by American NGOs. Though there are now
an estimated 15-20 unions active in the Ashulia area their influence seems limited; the
recent strikes were wildcats and both employers and unions complained that they had been
bypassed by workers failing to present demands before walking off the job, as is required
by law. Bangladeshi garment workers have decades of experience of wildcat strikes and the
stubborn reluctance of bosses to accept unions is likely to continue this wildcat culture.
The reformist and legalistic outlook of the aspiring union bureaucrats is anyway generally
out of step with these self-organised wildcat traditions and their attempts to
institutionalise and tame it have so far not been very successful. This is not to dismiss
the likelihood that within the wildcat strikes there is now more influence of rank'n'file
union militants, perhaps a little similar to the ‘unofficial' role shop stewards in
European unions have had in wildcats. But under Bangladeshi conditions all strikes are so
far wildcats - there is no similar established union presence in the workplace and
organising must often be both more spontaneous and more clandestine.
As we said in 2013;
With full rights for trade unionism recently granted as part of the reforms over fifty
unions are now promoting themselves as self-appointed representatives of garment workers'
interests. Yet most of them are mere auxiliaries of small leftist parties with tiny
memberships and little or no experience of functioning as workplace negotiators. Most
union leaders are not and have never been garment workers themselves but are Party cadre
and/or allied to NGOs as academics, lawyers etc. They see for themselves a role typical of
middle class professionals; mediating in the interests of social peace and cohesion
between the claims of workers, capitalists and state. They share the obsession with
economic development and productivity of all those classes above the workers who seek to
utilise workers' labour power to build the nation state and economy. They seek only to
moderate the inevitable class conflict involved in class exploitation and ‘humanise',
insofar as possible, the alienated labour of the wage slave. They seek to develop more
modern and productive forms of alienation. The establishment of the legitimacy of their
own mediating and representative roles are part of this modernisation.
... The unions are eager to convince bosses, state, ‘public opinion' etc that they're
worth negotiating with and are ‘responsible bodies' that can deliver an orderly workforce,
so they regularly urge an orderly return to work, to accept deals etc.
In this early stage of unionisation within the industry the various competing unions
remain small with most attached to some small leftist party. Their statements often
reflect a search for legitimacy in the eyes of both workers and bosses as ‘responsible'
organisations able to play a mediating role; some union leaders quickly called for a
return to work and for demands and negotiations to be left to them;
"The factory closure is hurting both the workers and owners as well as the country's
economy. That is why, we urged the BGMEA to hold such meeting to resolve the deadlock,"
Garments Sramik Karmachari Federation General Secretary[union leader]Arafat Jakaria Sonjoy
told the Dhaka Tribune
"I think there is no direct connection of organised trade unions and it was not a right
decision to go on strike without placing the list of demands," Arafat said, adding that
the unions that are allegedly involved with the strike are simply not registered.
Such a reformist and legalistic approach is part of the ideology and function of trade
unions as brokers of labour power to bosses, mediators of conflict between classes. (Its
moderation is also probably meant to imply that these union leaders are not worthy of
arrest.) There is perhaps a shift now among some garment bosses who begin to see the
potential usefulness of unions as a mechanism to bring more control over labour disputes
and make negotiations easier - but at the same time they appear unconvinced that the
unions yet have sufficient influence among workers to deliver this.
Dec 23rd; Nazmul Huda, a TV and newspaper journalist regularly covering Ashulia labour
unrest, is arrested. Police accuse him of submitting false news reports and "instigating
workers to create anarchy".
"He is an accused of inciting unrest among the garment workers, holding secret meetings
with seven labour leaders whom we've arrested, and trying to destabilise the government,"
said Dhaka district Police Superintendent SM Shafiur Rahman.
He said a case was filed with Ashulia Police Station under the ICT Act, accusing Huda of
spreading false and provocative news through television, the media and several Facebook
He is charged under the Special Powers Act - a general emergency legislation with wide
repressive powers - and Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act
which appears to be a catch-all cyber crime law convenient for state suppression of
The past two years have seen a general repression by government against those expressing
any opposition or reporting of opposition. Newspapers have been closed down and
journalists harassed while social media is being more tightly controlled by the state with
registrations and censorship. In this nominal parliamentary democracy the norms of
bourgeois democracy are fragile ‘rights' - often withdrawn, suspended or with no substance
to them. Several atheist and secularist bloggers have also been murdered by Islamic
militants, as have numerous other critics of fundamentalism. After mounting criticism some
arrests have been made of alleged Islamic attackers, but bloggers have also been
prosecuted for ‘defaming religious groups' and had sites shut down.
The strikes have ended and those workers and union militants not in jail, hiding, on the
run or sacked are back at work; but the resentments remain, as do the material conditions
giving rise to them. The present movement shows the limits and cosmetic nature of many of
the reforms brought in since 2013; without adequate enforcement, many of the legal
‘rights' of workers used as camouflage by Western clothing brands to absolve themselves of
guilt and to distance their Corporate Image from ‘sweatshop exploitation' remain a dead
letter. It is a sign of garment workers' continued collective strength and determination
that, even under the present repressive conditions, they can still organise their own
resistance on a mass scale.
For the reports of police brutality and increasing political repression, see;
E.g., a stricter approach to registering of all employees in the workplace, use of ID
etc - these may have some legal benefits for workers, but probably also make it easier for
bosses to blacklist militant workers.
The article goes on to say;
A recent report (August, 2016) of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) mentioned
that non-compliance rates with the minimum wage in the garment sector of Asia is
widespread. The non-compliance rate is 50.7 per cent in India, 25.6 per cent in Cambodia
and 6.6 per cent in Vietnam. Interestingly, the study found out that the survey sample
size in Bangladesh and Lao PDR were 'insufficient to generate statistically reliable
estimates of non-compliance rates in the garment sector of these two countries.
This indicates how weak and/or half-hearted the pressure from Western reformers and
retailers often is on the Eastern clothing industry.
As a parliamentary democracy (even if highly corrupt and with democracy periodically
suspended) and predominantly Muslim society Bangladesh is seen as a positive role model by
Western powers. Its strategic importance as a buffer against Islamic fundamentalism is
also an important reason for giving support.
See our earlier article;
For attacks on secularists and atheists, see;
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