Bangladesh Garments Industry and the Imperialist Agenda

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The labour rights struggle of Bangladeshi citizens is ongoing amid government and capitalist-imperialist pressures

Another tragedy struck a Bangladesh garment factory in early October. Ten people died and scores were injured when four buildings caught fire in a clothing manufacturing zone outside Dhaka. Days earlier, angry workers closed down 300 factories for a day, set some on fire and clashed with police for three days demanding a minimum monthly salary of $100 while companies offered only $46. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the demonstrators, injuring dozens. Unrest is ongoing.

The garment industry produces never-ending tragedies for its four million, primarily female, workers. It is the main industry in Bangladesh, second only to China’s, in a country of 155 million. This on-the-job slaughter continues, despite the spotlight on major international clothing retailers and their vows to change working conditions after the Rana Plaza building collapse in April that killed 1,200 workers. The trail of blood leads to the imperialist centres of New York, London and Paris, where brands like Carrefour, Walmart, H&M, Tesco, IKEA, C&A, GAP and Sainsbury’s compete for market share. Extremely low wages, child labour, lack of building safety, repression of workers and corrupt local governments are the often favourable conditions for profitable imperialist investment.

After Rana Plaza, the movement continued on various levels, particularly around working conditions and efforts to raise wages. The minimum wage has been BDT 3,000 ($38) per month since 2010. On this, one can barely survive. A major portion of the salary goes to landlords. The workers are required to work at least two hours overtime, sometimes as much as five to ten hours. If they do so, they can earn an extra BDT 1-2,000 per month and are thus able to survive and send money to their rural families. Not all workers receive the minimum entry wage. Expert workers get BDT4-6,000 as a basic salary plus overtime.

The ruling class, the imperialists and the garment owners together propagate that the garment industry saves the economy and creates many jobs, especially for women. With many female garment workers employed as the primary caretakers of their families and faced with limited alternative employment opportunities, this argument can easily take root. With the exception of some, most political forces think like this. The left wants to reform this situation and concentrate on raising wages and improving working conditions.

Since the collapse of the Rana Plaze, as well as the Tazreen Fashion Factory fire, where 121 garment workers died and at least 200 were injured last November, the workers’ movement has been revitalised around the question of wages. These tragedies have resulted in increased pressure on government and factory owners from western NGOs, trade unions and humanitarian organisations. Worker organisations now demand a minimum wage of BDT 8,000. Due to the upcoming elections, the government is calling for a new wage scale. The owners agreed that they will raise wages to a paltry BDT 3,600, infuriating workers and giving rise to the recent protests.

The government and the factory owners allege that the workers are conspiring to crush the garment sector. The so-called secular government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina even propagated that Islamists or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, the primary bourgeoisie rival party) are behind the conspiracy. On the other hand, BNP is blaming the governing Awami League (AL) for ruining the garment sector. Everyone is blaming their opponents, seeking to benefit in the upcoming elections which will be influenced by these issues.

Most factory owners are the hooligans of the ruling parties and ex-bureaucrats. They might have some rural land, but are not large landowners. Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, was not a landlord but a mastan (“godfather” of an organised crime syndicate in league with politicians who benefit from them financially and, in turn, protect them) of the ruling Awami League. With the League’s help, Rana became the owner of Rana Plaza. Feudal relationships are incorporated in this type of capitalism.

The Bangladeshi people may not support bourgeois parties, considering them interchangeable: they exist for the betterment of the rich and not the poor. Yet they continue to participate in elections and in each election round vote for one party, then in the next election change and vote for the other. During the last 23 years of “democracy” in Bangladesh, no party has been elected for two successive terms. The opposition BNP will benefit from this situation because the workers and people blame the current ruling party for their misery. The AL knows they will lose to the BNP in the coming elections, so are trying to gain control of the NGOs and revisionist trade unions. They have already assigned Shajahan Khan, a notorious mastan and bourgeoisie trade union leader, to lead this.

These figures claim the garment industry has saved the country by creating jobs and making women self-sufficient. Further, they threaten that if the workers continue protesting they themselves will be jobless. Many workers believe this. But paradoxically, they continue fighting against their appalling salaries and working conditions, against state institutions and the elite, including their industries.

Hiding behind all this is the most important reality – the role of the capitalist-imperialists who really dominate the garment industry – the foreign buyers. The government, politicians and garment owners insist that buyers will take their business to other countries if labour unrest continues, and workers must accept what is offered.

An article by Nobel Laureate, Dr Muhammad Yunus, exposed the imbalance in profits gained by the local producers and big company buyers, such as Walmart and GAP. Dr Yunus appealed to western consumers to pay 50 cents more per clothing item, providing this money be used to increase wages and improve working conditions.

Dr Yunus’ approach avoids seeing imperialist penetration as the main issue. The garment industry is not a national industry. It is solely dependent on the politics of power. The capitalist system, its proponents and the revisionists hide Bangladesh’s imperialist dependency. The owners are the worst type of compradors, one of the main pillars of the ruling class, and the main beneficiaries of this people-eroding big economy. They are also the main financiers of the ruling class parties. The government and the ruling parties are trying to cool down the revolt of workers through suppression and phony “workers’ leaders”. With the elections ahead, the contradictions among the ruling class parties will intensify. At the same time, they are all in unity against the workers’ movement.

Bangladesh is a small country with a huge population. There is insufficient land to distribute among workers. At the same time, you cannot build the necessary number of industries overnight to tackle joblessness. But that is what is needed. The economy can and must be reconstructed. Many small industry and work-sectors must be created in villages, first in support of agriculture, and then meeting other important needs of the population. As long as the economy is dependent on imperialism, very little can be done for worker safety and welfare.

A version of this article appeared in A World to Win News Service.

Source: The Platform