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The mantle of global struggle

Morning Star  |  August 4, 2010  |  Share  |  Source article

by Steve Davison

The lowest-paid industrial workers in the world have finally had enough. Strikes, lockouts, street blockades and riots have engulfed the bustling megacity of Dhaka in central Bangladesh after the government failed to implement garment workers' modest demands for a decent monthly minimum wage.

Some 3.5 million Bangladeshis have been brutally exploited for years by the profit-hungry garment employers, producing for household names like Wal-Mart, Asda and Marks & Spencer.

These workers have existed on a mere 1,662 taka (£15) a month for the last five years while inflation in the necessities of life, especially rice, wheat and housing, has risen incessantly (43 per cent over the period).

Their working conditions are 19th century. Workers are often not paid on time and women, who make up 80 per cent of the garment industry workforce, regularly suffer beatings and harassment. Something had to give.

Despite the rate of union organisation being very low, at around 100,000 members, non-union workers have joined forces with their union colleagues in a demand for a 5,000 taka (£45) a month minimum wage.

The 50-plus unions in the garment sector have rallied massive support for this simple demand, even in the face of anti-union intimidation from employers and their lackeys in the state and police.

The employers have demanded that the government meet the workers' protests with the utmost repression. Hundreds of workers have been injured, many arrested and two union leaders imprisoned, with others in hiding.

In the face of increasing pressure, the government sat in an emergency meeting with factory owners and "invited" union leaders at the Bangladesh Garment Export Association headquarters where a new wage deal was cooked up, offering a 3,000 taka (£27) minimum wage.

Some major unions have accepted this increase, but a number of more progressive and militant unions have rejected the deal, saying that anything below 5,000 taka is just not enough for these impoverished workers to live on.

Bangladesh's Daily Star (the country's widest-circulating English language paper) condemned the talks.

"We find it surprising and utterly unacceptable that garments' representatives for the talks on the wage structure were chosen by the government," it said.

"The clear, natural course ought to have been for the workers to elect their own representatives, who then would have been adequately focused on the issue and would have helped work out a better deal for their compatriots. The outcome would then have been more realistic and therefore acceptable to all."

Thirteen progressive union federations condemned the meeting and have demanded the reopening of wage negotiations.

In an attempt to buy peace, the Bangladeshi government has announced plans to provide rice subsidies to workers who sew garments for Wal-Mart, Tesco and other giant multinationals, while also seeking World Bank loans to build worker dormitories - in effect a direct subsidy to some of the richest corporations in the world.

The same government, at the behest of the garment owners, is still proceeding with criminal charges against 12 trade union leaders who, if they were successful in winning the full claim, would save the government millions. Such is the lunacy of globalisation and the race to the bottom.

The government is also trying to isolate the workers by creating a smokescreen of "outside agitators" in a climate of fear over Islamist terrorism and pursuing "war crimes" investigations into the Pakistan-Bangladesh war of 1971. And it has now placed a ban on visas for foreign nationals.

"Many foreign nationals with tourist visas have been involved with trade unions and are causing unrest in the sector for the interests of their nations," a senior minister told the Daily Star wishing anonymity.

"It will be strictly overseen from now on so that no foreign national can come to Bangladesh with a tourist visa to get involved with trade unions. If they want to come here for this purpose, they must get visas under a special category from the Bangladesh government."

The Daily Star added that "the government has a list of foreign nationals who came to Bangladesh with tourist visas and got involved with trade unions with the help of many NGOs."

However the government is not entirely unsympathetic to the workers' cause - and it is in a difficult position.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the media: "The wage the workers are paid, I will say, is not only insufficient but also inhumane. The workers cannot even stay in Dhaka with the peanuts they get in wages."

While on a Unite delegation to Bangladesh I met Labour Minister Khondker Mosharraf Hossain.

"What government in the world would not want its workers to be paid a living wage?" he asked.

"We would like to support the garment workers' demands for 5,000 taka a month. In a just world, the workers should earn even more.

"The problem Bangladesh faces is that giant multinational retailers will not pay for a wage increase. Every year the multinationals slash the prices they are willing to pay per unit, which drives down wages. You have to control your own multinationals if you want to help the garment workers."

Hossain's sense of powerlessness is very real. The truth is that in today's super-globalised world, the power of multinational corporations is greater than governments, especially in the Third World.

And with wages increasing in China and Vietnam, the Bangladeshi workers are at the bottom of the pile.

Despite there being nowhere cheaper to go, the employers' organisation YET and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association threatened to close the garment factories after the workers launched their fightback.

The workers have not been intimidated by such actions. They are still taking part in factory sit-ins and on-the-spot wage negotiations to secure raises before returning to work. Mass demonstrations and roadblocks are taking place all the time.

The workers, virtually without leadership and national organisation, have spread the actions across the country, where copycat actions are taking place.

But the workers' struggle is made harder because of the disarray in the trade union movement. Bangladesh has over 6,000 trade unions, which are in a constant struggle for survival and in competition with each other. Dozens of the garment unions have very small membership and most are linked to political parties and individual politicians.

Few collect union dues. Rather, they fight each other over funding from Europe and the US. There is no unity but rather a constant fight over money.

The outcome of this historic struggle is yet to be written. But things will never be the same again. Once the most downtrodden workers of the world rise up and fight they become a beacon for millions.

The Bangladeshi workers will learn more in the days ahead than political commentators learn in a lifetime. The struggle in Bangladesh begs a new kind of global trade unionism - one that is fit for purpose in challenging and taming the global multinationals.


Steve Davison is vice-chairman of the Unite & Workers Uniting steering committee. He has just returned from meeting the Bangladesh garment workers in a delegation from Unite and the United Steel Workers (Workers Uniting).


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