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Great advert for workers’ unity

Tribune Magazine  |  August 17, 2010  |  Share  |  Source article

By Tony Burke

Workers Uniting is the global union created by the Unite union in Britain and the United Steelworkers in the United States and Canada. It has taken the unprecedented step of placing a full-page advertisement in a Bangladesh newspaper to support garment workers in their campaign to raise the minimum wage and secure the right to organise in a trade union in an effort to combat the race of US and European companies to the bottom.

The advert, supporting the 3.5 million mostly young women garment workers in their demand for a 25 cent an hour minimum wage, was published in the Daily Ittefaq. Copies of the advert were widely distributed by the Textile Garment Workers Federation at rallies and worksites across Dhaka and Chittagong.

The advert was signed by Derek Simpson, Tony Woodley and Steve Davison of Unite; Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers Union; and Charles Kernaghan, director of the Global Institute for Labour and Human Rights.

Local union leaders said the advert had “helped to build confidence both of the workers and the union leaders. They realised they are not alone and that the working class across the globe is with the garment workers of Bangladesh.”

The advert proclaimed: “Workers Uniting supports the very modest demand of Bangladesh’s garment workers for a minimum wage of at least 5,000 taka a month. There is not a clothing company in America or Europe that could not easily afford to pay 5,000 taka. Bangladesh’s three-and-half million garment workers, who are among the hardest workers in the world, deserve justice and to raise their families in dignity. Our vision is to unify workers in the Western developed economies with our sisters and brothers across Asia, Africa and Latin America”.

This had an effect. Bangladesh 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.”

In the face of pressure, the government and factory owners invited some unions to negotiate a deal of 3,000 taka (£27) per month as a minimum wage.

Some of the unions accepted the offer, but the more progressive and militant of them rejected the deal, arguing for 5,000 taka (£45) a month.

Bangladesh’s Daily Star, the country’s widest-circulating English language paper, condemned the deal saying: “We find it surprising and utterly unacceptable that garments’ representatives for the talks on the wage structure were chosen by the government. 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.”

One of the major problems is that there are around 6,000 unions in the country and 50 garment workers unions, some linked to political parties or local leaders.

The rejection by the progressive unions resulted in street riots and protests across the country. Union leaders and activists have been arrested. On one day, at least 10,000 workers blockaded a key road in Narayanganj, south of Dhaka. Armed police and the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion were deployed in garment production areas.

At a meeting, the Workers Uniting delegation from Britain and US warned the Bangladeshi minister of labour, Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, that they would galvanise world opinion behind the garment workers if their just demands were not met and particularly if violence was used against the protestors – 80 per cent of whom are young women.

In return, the minister accused giant multinational retailers of constantly driving down production costs and wages, leaving the workers trapped in misery.

Leading union leader Mosherafa Mish, of the Garment Workers Unity Forum, called the pay increase “insultingly low”. She said: “The protests are a normal and spontaneous reaction to the government’s sham wage hike. They are holding protests because that’s the only way their voices can be heard.”

The direct support from Workers Uniting, global union federations and NGOs was followed by a clampdown by the government, which has now banned foreign nationals with tourist visas from getting involved with trade unions in Bangladesh, blaming them for stirring up unrest.

The US is the largest single market for Bangladeshi clothing exports, while Britain and the European Union together account for 57 per cent of Bangladesh’s total garment exports. A host of global retailers import garments in bulk from Bangladesh. They include Wal-Mart, Tesco, Zara, Marks & Spencer and Carrefour.

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