Massive strikes and demonstrations erupted in Bangladesh at the end of July amongst the country’s more than three million garment workers, subsequently growing in intensity for over a month.
The workers, most of them women, are demanding an end to poverty wages and the institution of basic-trade union rights. Their long campaign for justice tipped over into full-scale confrontation at the end of July, when the government refused the basic living wage the workers are demanding and instead imposed a derisory minimum that would continue to guarantee semi-starvation.
Workers at the Readymade Garment company in Dhaka went out on spontaneous strike on 30 July, and the next day strikes and demos spread through all the industrial areas in and around the capital city. Thereafter, the protest spread like wildfire throughout Bangladesh, so alarming the government that the police opened fire upon unarmed demonstrators, injuring hundreds.
An advocate of the garment workers’ unions and member of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, Comrade Mantu Ghose, was seized from his home by men in plain clothes in the early hours of the morning and spirited away to an unknown destination. Babul Akhter, a leader of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity, was detained by police on 13 August on fabricated criminal charges of “incitement” of workers and has since been physically assaulted and beaten in police custody.
Yet despite all the repression, with many workers beaten by company goons, hundreds arrested and media outlets censored, the resistance struggle has continued unabated.
‘Minimum wage’ fraud
The fury of the masses over the fight for a living wage really caught the Dhaka government on the hop.
After years of imposing outright starvation wages, the government thought it had better try to placate the increasingly angry workforce by conceding a modest rise to the minimum wage. Yet this rise was so insignificant, and so obviously the fruit of a cynical collusion between the manufacturers and the government to put the lid on the campaign for justice, that it had exactly the reverse effect to that intended.
Garment workers in Bangladesh at present earn a minimum wage of just $25 a month. They are asking for $72 instead. As a ‘compromise’, the government offered them $43.50 a month. Even this figure needs to be read with caution, as it is a gross figure which includes accommodation and medical care. Strip these out and the minimum wage declared by the government’s wages board shrinks to $29.
Add to this the fact that the new minimum is not genuinely comprehensive, for example leaving out of account sweater, knit and piece-rate workers, and you understand why this ‘rise’ has provoked such a furious response.
To put this in context, it’s worth looking at what other garment workers in the region are earning. In Vietnam and Sri Lanka, the minimum is $92; in India it is $106 and in Pakistan $116. In China, the minimum monthly wage for garment workers is $300.
A sick economy
The workers’ spirited resistance comes after many years of enduring starvation wages, union bans and the flagrant breach of health and safety rules.
Whilst the women who form the bulk of the vast national workforce work their fingers to the bone and watch their families starve, the garment bosses have grown fat servicing giant western retailers like Asda and Tesco, with exports nearly doubling between 2004 and 2009. Indeed the clothing business, valued at $15bn, now accounts for over 80 percent of the country’s export revenue.
Yet whilst the business benefits some local capitalists and hands massive mark-up profits to British retail chains, the real needs of the nation and its economy are ill-served. In this predominantly agrarian economy, the industrial sector is skewed disproportionately to the rag trade. Whilst this has translated into impressive-looking GDP rates, the overall economy is unbalanced.
The failure to develop a broader economic base and infrastructure in line with the national interest has stymied development, forcing many Bangladeshis into economic exile. The remittances from hundreds of thousands working in Britain, the US and the Middle East subsidise the economy to the tune of over $3.5bn annually, whilst the army scrapes together another $2bn by renting its soldiers to the UN.
The results of this stunted economic development are dire. Half of Bangladeshi children are underweight. Only 55 percent of the population can read. Infrastructure is inadequate: most of the country suffers power cuts six to seven hours a day due to the failure to invest in power plants and natural gas.
Despite the poverty wages, even the competitive strength of the garment industry itself is under threat from this low economic and cultural development. According to the Centre for Policy Studies, workers in Bangladesh are only able to be 25 percent as productive as the Chinese in making shirts, jackets and other woven garments.
But then China enjoys the advantage of a 92 percent literacy rate, rapidly expanding road and rail links and power grids, cheap government loans to be used for acquiring the machines that make workers more productive – in short, she possesses an economy that is fundamentally organised around the welfare of the people and national development, not enslaved to the interests of imperialism and its local comprador parasites.
In taking on the garment bosses, the workers of Bangladesh are at the same time challenging the imperialist interests that these bosses serve. The humiliating reverses already suffered by imperialism in Asia, in China, Korea and Vietnam serve as an indelible reminder of what a nationally oppressed and superexploited people can achieve when they stand up together.
In imperialism, Bangladeshi and British workers share a common enemy. By giving the warmest solidarity to the garment workers’ struggle, workers here will grow stronger in the fight for their own emancipation.