In January 2019, Dhaka garment workers organized massive strikes and protests against low wages. Parsa Sanjana Sajid reminds us that this is only the most recent occurence of a long struggle, and talking with several of the organizers, she also presents the risks undertaken by those who speak out.
The year began on notes of dissent in Bangladesh when for several days in January 2019, the industrial ring around the capital Dhaka simmered with protests as manifestations of worker rage , workers employed by the country’s export-oriented garments manufacturing industry. Confronted with discrepancies in a new pay scale which had already disappointed them, garments workers, majority of whom are women asserted themselves on the streets to publicly furnish the iniquities plaguing them at work. Such outpourings in public are both crucial and clarifying. Crucial because choked off from meaningful avenues of bargain, streets are one of the few ways to press their demands. Clarifying because as demonstrations — road blocks, strikes — were underway it was another showing of how stripped off of “public,” public spaces are; in short order militarized industrial police and paramilitary forces were out to disperse protesting workers. The streets were eventually cleared but not without a fight, battle-scarred workers clashing with violent enforces of the law. Yet the fight is inherently unfair, a fight they shouldn’t have to fight, and encumbers them with disproportionate sacrifice — in January, one worker died from police firings into the demonstrations.
The brands and buyers sourcing from this industry are familiar — Walmart, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger to name a few — so are worker plights from colossal disasters which unfortunately are endemic to this industry. But less so, the husks polished off from this grain of brand and disaster are what fuels both, the unresolved qualification to the terms of employment across the industry, to the term employment itself, which is what the textile workers are battling to foreground.
It would be a mistake to think of these as episodic, as bursts of discrete protests in an otherwise sedate political-economic landscape, which is not to reduce all garments workers’ protests in Bangladesh to a distinction-less movement, but to understand that worker demands have been consistent over many years about livable wages and benefits, dignified working conditions and contracts, that each of them is an effect of an unfulfilled promise prior, that workers realize they have been had in a $30 billion industry which they built with over 4 million in precarious employment, and that each incremental realization of labor rights has been the result of their unwavering and collective organizing, and at a cost of disaster, death, and criminal negligence. And that they can’t be coerced into accepting whatever — unfair bargains, peril at work, impervious structures of capitalism — is thrown at them. Shahidul Islam Sabuj, convener of the Revolutionary Garments Textile Workers’ Forum, recalls a police attack on a May Day rally for worker rights in the mid-1990s where he had his left leg broken, and a decade on, several months of worker unrest in 2006 which he credits in securing, if still modest, wage increases and benefits. “The workers made this industry what it is and deserve a lot more benefits, and dignity,” Sabuj says, “but we haven’t gained anything without a fight.”
Facing demands since 2016 to increase minimum wage for the lowest scale to 16,000 Taka and all other pay scales adjusted accordingly, the government announced a new base at 8,000 Taka effective December 2018. Workers rightly dismissed this as a capitulation to owner and global buyers’ interests. But what angered them and set off protests were when new scales went into effect with widespread discrepancies. For example, workers in higher grades didn’t receive expected raises; against revised wages managers pushed for improved productivity, nullifying any wage increase; many even had their wages decreased. Nila Begum, a machine operator, wondered how much more they had to yield: “We’ve got only two hands.” In response to protests, there’s now another commission to investigate and further revise wages.
What does a monthly salary of 8,000 Taka sustain? After rent and food, there is hardly anything left, Begum said. “Workers from outside the greater Dhaka region, often don’t have money to go home for Eid. And with rising prices, it’s impossible to live on 8,000,” says Nayan Ahmed, general secretary of the Savar chapter of Garments Workers’ Unity Forum. Some labor organizers justifiably argue that monthly minimum wages and benefits should total 21,000 Taka now. “Shongshar cholena [can’t make ends meet]. How to be financially solvent if we don’t get what’s our due?” is how Moushumi Afroze Shomi, another machine operator earning 8,500 Taka put it. An international coalition of labor rights groups, Asia Floor Wage Alliance calculates living wage for Bangladesh at 37,661 Taka. Shomi alleges overtime payments irregularities, noting compliance managers logged hours as they pleased without independent verification or worker input. A mother of five, she confirms the absence of any childcare facility at her factory nor did she get an appointment letter upon joining.
An industry built on worker disposability and supported by state machinery and itinerant global capital orders political agency with the tenor of foxes guarding the henhouse: factories don’t allow trade unions; workers found to affiliate with worker rights groups are fired; owner-fabricated factory committees and purported “leaders” colluding with management and owners substitute for unions; abuses such as sexual harassments are rampant. And the industry’s reactionary practices are also predictable: in the aftermath of January protests, nearly 5,000 workers were fired, but activists estimate the number may be higher, scores arrested and others fear returning to work. Ahmed, keeping his organizer credentials discreet at workplace, choosing instead to organize at other factories, cites factories where workers were forced to sign blank papers on returning to work. He further alleged anyone mentioning labor laws were “taken out on a van,” those suspected of protest involvement fired or even handed over to the police. Ahmed himself has been out of work and in hiding. During the protests, law enforcement in coordination with local janissaries of the owners went to worker homes to intimidate and in some cases physically assault them. Begum’s husband, also a labor organizer was arrested; released from prison upon securing bail, he was arrested again immediately on another charge but Begum didn’t know for what nor did her husband as he was walked back into prison. Intimidation of this scale, five thousand dismissals at the snap of a finger should be improbable, forbidden but what’s normalcy and allowable mirror the times and it’s the time that needs changing and which Bangladeshi garments workers have repeatedly demanded. Sabuj reminds me that labor laws in the country are owner-dictated and they still don’t comply with such labor-hostile, employer-partial laws. Facing off against grind yourself to death for poverty wages or be ground up (smashed) if you oppose the circumstances of your exploitation, factory workers have rejected, not only once or not only now, the straitjacket of such false choices.
Contrast that with another phenomenon: recently Bangladesh registered the highest growth in ultra-high-net individuals and as things go, wealth inequality is also widening. Eduardo Galeano’s lament from Days and Nights of Love and War (1978) comes to mind: “There is only one thing which is free: prices. Freedom of investment, freedom of prices, free exchange rates: the freer the businesses, the more imprisoned are the people. The prosperity of a few is everyone else’s curse.” We hear the garments industry has revolutionized Bangladesh’s economy, particularly women’s employment, but one strains to reconcile these grandiose claims with just as staggering attempts to suppress both wages and dissent. There’s also that economic common-sense, ill-advised — but is there any economic common-sense not ill-advised? — why would investors and buyers flock to Bangladesh if not for abundant and cheap labor and soon it would be cheaper to replace labor with automated tasks. Owners are obviously salivating at that prospect of finally ridding themselves of what they view as pesky labor issues. Then what? What would be truly revolutionary would be to seize the means of production. ■