Who can ride the garment tiger? On factory workers in Bangladesh

“On Saturday September 21st there began a 10 day mass agitation by Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment(RMG) workers demanding a 170% increase in their minimum wage.

via libcom.org

The reforms announced by government and industry in the aftermath of the Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza disasters[1] included a review of the minimum wage for garment workers. The wage was last raised in 2010 while the cost of living has risen 2.5 times. Workers struggle to survive and many are malnutritious. Negotiations between bosses, government and unions are ongoing to agree an increase in the garment wage structure.

The present wave of unrest began on Saturday 21st when a demonstration was called in Dhaka to demand a minimum wage of Taka 8,114. The protest had, surprisingly, been organised by a government politician – Shajahan Khan, Shipping Minister in the cabinet of the ruling Awami League. Khan already has his finger in several pies and was seeking to extend his influence further; he is also vice president of the Jatiya Sramik League (the labor unit of the Awami League) and executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Worker Federation. Yet while acting as union boss of the BRTWF his family also run their own road transport business. It was with the support of BRTWF that Khan was first elected as an MP[2]. Now, with a general election approaching, he sees the opportunity to create a new constituency and vote-bank for himself among garment workers; he will be sizing up the possibilities of extending his role as union boss/trader in labour power.

Khan was able to provide hundreds of vehicles to take garment workers to his rally – with 50,000 in attendance. There has been agitation on a smaller scale demanding a higher wage for some weeks now – but the present wave of mass unrest began when some workers were prevented by their bosses from leaving work to attend the rally. They eventually stopped work at various factories and thousands poured into the streets of the industrial zones, leading to protests and fierce clashes with cops which continued for the next ten days.

Meanwhile at the rally in Dhaka; some bussed in workers were given badges and placards displaying the face of their new designated hero and saviour Minister Khan. Unusually for garment worker protests, men and women were segregated in separate areas[3]. This was probably an attempt to pre-empt any criticisms of Khan from rival Islamic politicians and clerics (Khan was recently criticised by them for remarks he made about the Koran) who disapprove of any close relations in public between male and female and of women being in the workplace.

With the Labour Minister out of the country for a few days Khan took it upon himself to try to ride the tiger of garment workers’ discontent by attempting to position himself as a new champion and leader of their demands. Having expressed no previous interest in garment workers he is now reported to be setting up a new organisation he will lead in the name of representing their interests.

A vacuum of representation

Khan’s late entryism is, unsurprisingly, unwelcome by those groups already with an interest in representing garment workers. There are dozens of small groups, often affiliated to a similarly small leftist party, many of whom claim to be ‘unions’ and who all claim to represent garment workers. But with only an estimated 1-3% of the 4 million garment workers unionised, their workplace union status is more wishful thinking than reality. There have been small scale workplace organising efforts – but most have functioned as, at best, lobbying and legal advice organisations while a few of the larger ones have attracted funding from Western NGOs and been integrated into NGO campaigning. The refusal by government and garment bosses to allow trade union representation has largely defined the particular characteristics of the garment workers’ struggles; a consistently high level of self-organised militancy expressed in regular wildcat strikes, riots, blockades and attacks on company property[4].

But the recent Tazreen fire and Rana collapse disasters have focussed such bad global publicity on the RMG sector that government, local producers, Western buyers and retailers have felt obliged to attempt brand damage limitation by announcing major concessions. Supply disruptions and relatively low productivity due to frequent strikes have also been a factor in reform proposals. It has been announced that full trade union ‘rights of free association’ are to be allowed and the various ‘union’ groups think their day may have finally come; now they have a chance to recruit from a labour pool of four million and the small groups can dream of a massive and lucrative expansion playing a role as real workplace unions. But with such opportunities also comes the attention of bigger fish like Minister Khan…

The emergence of a modern trade union structure in the industry would embody various tensions. The garment workers’ class struggle has been largely unmediated, militant and intense. It will undoubtedly continue and will probably both overlap with, and also often overflow beyond, the boundaries of trade union structures – as it tends to do at high points of struggle elsewhere. But with most existing unions allied to NGOs or political parties a reformist outlook as the mediators of the price of labour power and its conditions of exploitation will undoubtedly dominate their function(9). One can add that in Bangladesh institutional corruption is commonplace and that the likelihood of a trade union sector completely escaping this influence are small; which may lead to varying degrees of cynicism and disaffection by workers(10). (The legacy of the dead – the Savar collapse, part 2 ; libcom article, May 2013) [5]

We have previously discussed the possible outcome of greater union representation for RMG workers[6], predicting a double-edged effect of institutionalising some gains in safety and workplace rights while taking self-organising initiative away from workers and stifling their struggles with trade union mediation and bureaucracy. The unions-in-waiting are already showing their true colours with some explicit statements made during the negotiations with bosses over the new minimum wage. All sides are agreed that the present ‘vandalism’, strikes and unrest must end and that the workers should return to work and patiently wait for the negotiations to be resolved far above their heads by those who’ve elected themselves to represent them;

“Garment Workers’ Trade Union Centre president Montu Ghosh made it clear that the workers would go for strikes if their demand for wage hike was not met.
He also made it clear no member of GWTUC was involved in the violent protests rocking the garment industry.”
[Ghosh is a lawyer, Communist Party regional leader and head of the Party’s affiliated garment union who was jailed in 2010 for his union activities.]
“The scattered incidents of violence are occurring due to lack of trade unions in the factories, opined Sirajul Islam Rony, president of the Bangladesh National Garment Workers Employees League.
He also urged the BGMEA to re-propose minimum wage for the workers within the shortest period possible before holding the next meeting of the board on October 21.
This would help soothe worker’s agitation, he said. […]
“Najma Akter, president of Garment-Worker Federation, said: “We would sit with all union leaders and workers and advise them to be patient till the declaration of pay scale by the board.”[7]
” The president of the Jago Bangladesh Garment Sramik Federation which represents workers, Baharine Sultan, told AFP that employees had returned to work.
“We hope there won’t be any unrest until the panel announces a pay hike. And we also hope manufacturers will keep their word.” “[8]

It is in the nature and logic of their role as specialists in representation that the union leaders must call for an end to strikes and violence and for an orderly return to work. They have much invested career-wise in establishing a legal basis and stability for a modern trade union movement in the industry. They also desire a similarly stable and profitable RMG industry to provide with a reliable labour supply. They need to prove to garment bosses, government and international buyers that they are an indispensable asset to them and that they can deliver a controllable workforce. But the unions’ ability to flex new muscle and begin to exercise control over workers will be partly dependent on an agreed strategy with state and employers to institutionalise this role legally and organisationally. They also need to convince workers of their worth; concessions will have to be granted by the industry and be seen to have been won by unionism.

Though there is still reluctance among many RMG bosses (and among some politicians – an estimated one third of MPs have financial links to the RMG sector) the potential damage to trade has pressured them to concede reforms and an apparent acceptance of trade union rights. But as in so many cases in Bangladesh, the mere existence of rights and laws does not guarantee their use or enforcement at all; in the case of labour law, more often the opposite.

But there is a struggle ahead to tame the ingrained behaviour of militant garment workers and begin to make them submit to trade union formalities and procedures. The following quote from union leaders and garment bosses alike show the limits of union influence and the enduring autonomous self-organising abilities of the garment workers;

“No single organisation or union can control the unrest. Besides, there is no organised group [that represent the workers],” said Nasir Uddin, a director of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
“The general practice is that when workers demonstrate, we meet with them and settle down the issues through discussion,” he added.
The BGMEA stalwart said union or federation leaders appear on the spots of violence when workers move with national issues such as wage hike; but they did not maintain direct connection with the workers all the time.
“Union leaders take the credit when workers come to the BGMEA with allegations of violation of rights, although they seldom have any contribution in the arbitration,” Nasir Uddin slammed the labour leaders.
On the other hand, Sirajul Islam Rony, president of the Bangladesh National Garment Workers Employees League, said: “We do not have any control over the workers’ violent protests. Unknown groups give rise to the violence out of the blue.
“We generally try to control the workers through our wings in the respective factories. But in most cases, we have very little representation in the individual factories,” he said.
Regarding the unrest that has been going on over the last two days, Rony told the Dhaka Tribune: “Workers should not turn violent centring pay hike. The national board will decided on the minimum wage.”
Although could not place any concrete evidence, Rony said: “To a great extent, the [latest] unrest is induced by outsiders.”[9]

The claims that “outsiders” have stirred up trouble is typical nonsense that employers always claim but everyone knows is total myth; in their case to imply that no genuine workers would have enough cause for complaint with their bosses to get violent about it. The implication is that rival foreign powers (Pakistan, India) or unpatriotic local Islamic fundamentalists are really behind the trouble. Yet no evidence or prosecution has ever shown this to be the case.

The unionists’ use of this blatant myth is to imply that ‘good workers’ – the kind that will become ‘good trade union members’ and so can be delivered to the employers as a reliable labour supply – don’t behave like that and are either led astray by, or mistaken for, a minority of ‘bad’ elements.

Since September 21st there have been continuous clashes in the industrial suburbs and garment zones of Dhaka. Nearly half the 20 billion dollar industry’s 4,500 factories have had to close – making losses of millions of dollars daily – with crowds of up to 15,000 workers demonstrating for a new monthly minimum wage 170.5% increase to Tk1,8,100 ($104). Hundreds of thousands of workers have taken to the streets; facing tear gas and rubber bullets, hundreds have been injured. Workers leave factories and picket out neighbouring workplaces, block and barricade highways, attack factory property – leading to fierce fighting with cops. Paramilitary reinforcements have been drafted in; a few days ago some Ansar troops (a volunteer civil militia) were dispossessed by workers of eight rifles plus bullets. The rifles were later found – some discarded while four had been burned on a barricade – but the ammunition has not been recovered.

The unrest continued and six platoons of Border Guard Bangladesh troops[10] were deployed in the garment zones to back up cops and other paramilitary forces. Negotiations for setting the wage continue, the initial miserly offer by the BGMEA employers’ federation of a 20% Tk600 rise being generally taken as an insult. The Tk8,100 demand is probably more than the union leaders expect to get, deliberately pitched high enough give room for them to appear reasonable enough to concede a hundred or two Taka in negotiations on the workers’ behalf. The garment workers are truly low in the wage hierarchy; they suffer the lowest international garment wage, the lowest national minimum wage and probably the lowest industrial wage in the world. Meanwhile the union negotiators determining the fate of a garment workforce of 85% young females are nearly all middle aged, middle class male professionals; academics, lawyers, politicians etc. One or two of the females are ex-garment workers now employed on relatively high salaries by Western NGOs.

However well-intentioned, the function of those promoting union representation is to seek to repress the self-organising agency of workers and to reduce it to the legally enshrined ‘right’ to vote for and follow one or other of these specialists in representation. Unions will, if allowed, develop bureaucratic procedures that its atomised members must follow; deliberately fragmenting the present powerful unity of workers and their explosive spontaneity derived from both necessarily covert methods of organisation and from a shared culture of militancy.

The situation remained tense as thousands of angry workers maintained their street presence while the wildcat strikes meant bosses’ losses were increasing daily by the millions. Thousands of cops and troops patrolled the industrial areas trying to maintain some kind of order. In light of the unrest the government wage committee’s decision has been brought forward from December to early November. On Sunday the BGMEA announced that the employers would immediately implement whatever wage rise the wage committee decided on. The BGMEA statement prompted a general return to work yesterday, Monday 30th.

After the last revision in 2010 rioting continued for some days in anger at the unsatisfactory settlement. But now, on all sides, the stakes are even higher…

1] See our articles; http://libcom.org/news/death-trapped-burning-cage-ashulia-inferno-27112012
2] Khan is the most powerful man in road transport; he has successfully defended the dubious ‘rights’ of bus and truck drivers to extract illegal tolls on highways and to be protected from prosecution for dangerous driving and from more rigourous driving tests (all of which probably benefit the business owners and their desired higher productivity most of all). The country suffers from high numbers of road fatalities and injuries.”

“While the stocky Mr. Khan promotes himself as a labor leader, his family also owns a transportation company that operates a fleet of buses.
He also heads the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation, an umbrella group with an estimated membership of two million. Mr. Khan used support from the federation to win his first seat in Parliament in 1996, and quickly climbed the ranks of power. He became the country’s shipping minister in 2009, but continues to head the labor groups.
Mr. Khan’s critics accuse him of using his position and his labor group to promote his own economic and political interests.
While sitting on the National Road Safety Council, for example, he opposed stricter rules for issuing driver’s licenses to bus drivers, despite a public uproar in 2011 after a prominent film director was killed in a road accident involving an improperly licensed bus driver. Mr. Khan argued at the time that Bangladesh couldn’t be held to Western standards.
“A minister should act in the public interest and not in the narrow interests of (one) group,” said Syed Abul Maksud, a road-safety campaigner.
Mr. Khan’s transport workers’ organization also has used huge strikes to pressure the government to accept the demands of both industry and labor.
A parliamentary committee found in 2012 that his organization collected at least 500 million takas ($6.3 million) a year in illegal tolls at checkpoints on the road network, ostensibly to raise funds for workers’ welfare.
The committee said that the tolls had increased transport costs between 40% and 200%.
But appearing before the committee in February 2012, Mr. Khan argued in favor of the toll collection and—amid warning strikes—the government eventually backed off any action.” (Wall St Journal, 25 Sep 2013)

3] See video here; http://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/bangladesh/video-manifestation-geante-des-ouvriers-du-textile-au-bangladesh_417429.html
4] See our earlier articles; http://libcom.org/tags/bangladeshi-garment-workers
5] http://libcom.org/news/legacy-dead-savar-collapse-part-2-24052013
6] See earlier article; http://libcom.org/news/legacy-dead-savar-collapse-part-2-24052013; Part 2 – Concessions & lasting reforms(?) – (section) The unions’ day has come?
7] http://www.dhakatribune.com/law-amp-rights/2013/sep/29/bgmea-pledges-implement-wage-board-suggestions-pay-eid-bonus
8] http://thenewnationbd.com/newsdetails.aspx?newsid=87263
9] http://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2013/sep/25/lack-representation-turns-rmg-workers-violent
10] Border patrol troops who are also used in an auxiliary role for emergencies and civil unrest. One BGB platoon = 35 soldiers.