Bangladeshi garment workers rise

Submitted by Matthew on 7 October, 2010 - 2:49

Following a wave of textile strikes in Bangladesh, a reviving workers’ movement is facing savage repression in Bangladesh.The campaign in solidarity with victimised strikers and activists continues. The following is an extract from an article on the US SocialistWorker.org website.

The strikes began in mid-July when a general strike in the garment industry shut down the capital city, Dhaka. The immediate reason for the strike was the increase in the cost of basic commodities in Bangladesh, especially foodstuffs. Textile workers get 1,887 takas a month (roughly $25). Most economists put the basic income needed to survive in Dhaka at around 8,000 takas.

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

The textile mill owners shut down 250 factories and asked for police support to crush the strike. 100 workers were injured in the clashes that followed, in which police used tear gas and water cannons against the strikers. There were also attacks on children who live in the area.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufactures & Exporters Association (BKMEA) have said that it is the government’s responsibility to enforce discipline on the workers.

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

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

Part of the way police are making their case against the unions in Bangladesh is by torturing labor activists into making confessions against their respective organizations. As the New York Times reported:

“[L]abour and human rights advocacy groups said at least one worker has told his colleagues that he was tortured into giving false evidence against himself and other labour leaders before he escaped from custody.”

The Bangladeshi High Court had to order the police not to torture Mantu Ghosh, exposing what are certainly ordinary practices for the Bangladeshi police.

The garment industry is Bangladesh’s most important export industry, accounting for some 80 percent of the country’s total exports, and the largest, employing some 3.5 million workers.

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

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

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

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

The new plan, it seems, is for Bangladesh to attempt to expand the base of workers that are represented by the government-backed unions.

Labour Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain has announced plans to get trade unions into the ready-made-garment industry. This would be good news for one of the most thoroughly exploited labour forces in the world — were it not for the fact that the unions are being set up to help the bosses keep production running rather than to help workers advocate for their interests.

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

• Full article: www.socialistworker.org/
2010/08/24/textile-strikes-rock-bangladesh

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