Bangladeshi Workers need more than boycotts

© Taslima Akhter

By Vijay Prashad

30th April 2013

Garment labourers are already fighting for fairer conditions. The best the global north can do is support them in their struggle

When news of the building collapse spread around Savar, not far from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, workers streamed out of the poorly constructed factories ready to help with the rescue effort – and ready, too, to smash cars and barricade roads. They felt in equal parts compassion for their fellow workers and anger at the faceless system that grinds their daily lives into hours making garments and minutes for rest. Fear of police retribution did not stop them. They needed to be on the streets, to register their living humanity before a world that saw them only hunched over their machines or as dead bodies being pulled out of disasters. Workers with blood in their veins are an unfamiliar sight.

Factory owners hastened to shut down their subcontracting units and take refuge behind Atiqul Islam, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). This man showed little care for the injured and the dead. He worried about "the disruption in production owing to unrest" and said that this worker violence was "just another heavy blow to the garment industry". One expects such officials to be discomfited by idle factories and restive workers. Every second that the machines are silent costs them money. Benevolence is a costly business.

Trade unionism and left political activity had deep roots in Bangladesh at its birth in 1971. In what had been an eastern province of Pakistan, centres of anti-colonial struggle morphed into labour and socialist movements. Out of these currents rose the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which led the charge towards independence. That legacy remains in the calendar: May Day is a national holiday.

However, privatisation of industry and state operations began in earnest in 1975, and picked up steam in the 1980s. That was the period when the government decided that Bangladesh was to become a link on the global commodity chain for garment manufacturing, which now accounts for 80% of its export earnings. Export Processing Zones (EPZs) were established, where labour organisations were banned. This attracted multinational garment firms to Bangladesh, and they made arrangements with local subcontractors – who in turn controlled the production on very tight margins. The only outlet for workers' grievances at the miserable conditions they were forced to endure was the anarchic outbreak of violence. This was how employees expressed their anger – and it provided both factory managers and the government with an excuse to tighten their repressive hold on the lives of workers.

The credit crunch that started in 2007 dented the export-led model favoured by the Bangladeshi state. A slowdown in the shops in the global north led to the sacking of a quarter of the workers in Dhaka's EPZs. Over the past two years, Bangladeshi workers have taken to the streets to protest about the dismissals of their colleagues. Workers in Ashulia walked out because one of their own – reported as "Salman" – had been taken into custody. Their protest was met with police force, and one man was shot dead. Workers in Narayanganj went on strike after one of the firmsfired 126 workers. When the leaders of the strike were attacked by thugs believed to have been hired by the factory owners, the workers responded by demolishing Kolapatti, a marketplace where the thugs had their HQ. As this struggle unfolded, the Tazreen Garment Factory in Ashulia went up in flames, killing 125 workers. Thousands more took to the streets in anger, demanding the heads of the owners and safer working conditions.

These actions are not a new phenomenon, but draw on labour militancy dating back to the 1920s. In those early years workers' movements could grow out of spontaneous resistance. However, that is harder now due to anomic working conditions in which unions are tough to organise and police repression is intense. Following last year's Ashulia and Narayanganj riots, the government created a crisis management cell and a force of industrial police – but not to monitor labour laws. Their task was to spy on worker organisations.

Despite the difficulty of attracting underpaid and exhausted workers to union meetings, the National Garment Workers' Federation and the Communist-led Garment Workers' Trade Union Centre are still active. NGOs have also entered the fray, notably the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, an initiative backed by US unions. However, this backing is no protection: the centre's chief organiser,Aminul Islam, was murdered last year.
Dan Mozena, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, told the BGMEA last June that if it were seen to ignore labour rights it could "coalesce into a perfect storm that could threaten the Bangladesh brand in America".

The reaction in the global north to the latest "accident" in Bangladesh has been to talk about boycotts – to break the global commodity chain at the point of consumption. But that is not enough. What is needed is robust support for the workers as they try to build their own organisations at the point of production. Pressure on north Atlantic governments that mollycoddle multinational firms would create a breathing space for workers who otherwise suffer the full wrath of firms that couch their repression in the syrupy language of hard work and growth rates.

The Bangladeshis are capable of doing their own labour organising; what they need is political backing to do so. What is also needed, then, is clear-cut opposition not to this or that retailer, but to the system that produces pockets of low-wage economies in the south in order to feed a system of debt-fuelled consumption in the north. None among us is against global connections, but it is high time we put our minds to work to reject neoliberal globalisation.

Published in The Gurdian, 30th April 2013
Write: Vijay Prashad, Professor, Trinity College, Connecticut, USA
Columnist & Editor Left Word Publication