Bangladesh - Garment Workers Struggle against Vicious Exploitation

The struggles of 2006

In 2006, Bangladeshi garment workers launched a series of fierce struggles to improve their conditions and pay. These struggles were joined by other workers from industries such as jute, sugar and transport and at their height involved tens of thousands of workers. In May, workers from the garment factories launched a series of strikes at factories in the capital, Dhaka. The government responded by arresting workers and sending in police and army units to protect factories and blockade areas of the capital. Workers fought back by attacking police and the garment factories, many of which were burnt.

At the end of June, the strikes and demonstrations were brought to an end with an agreement between the government, the factory owners and the union, the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF). This allowed workers to organise and in particular to have rights to join the union, to have one day off per week, to be entitled to maternity leave, to have binding letters of appointment and to create a Minimum Wage Board to set a minimum wage.

In September it became known that the Minimum Wage Board was setting the minimum wage at £13.50 per month and was introducing legislation to set the working day at 10 hours before any overtime would be due. This makes the minimum wage about 5 p per hour! These issues and the fact that most of the other concessions agreed in June had not been implemented caused the struggle to break out again in October. There were strikes and protests in Dhaka, which linked the atrocious conditions of the Bangladeshi workers to the profits of UK and US retailers. They were joined by other workers who blockaded roads, railways and waterways. In the confrontations with the police which followed these demonstrations, one worker was killed.

The demands made at these protests indicate not only that the agreements of May have not been implemented, but underline the atrocious conditions in which these workers are forced to work. Demands ranged from asking for wages, which are paid monthly, to be paid by the 7th of the following month (local media estimate that there are £300,000 of back pay owed to workers by employers), to the right to organise and the right to have one day off a week, instead of working a seven-day week. These demands were not met and more confrontation appears likely.

War on Want

In December “War on Want”, the anti-poverty campaign group, published a report called “Fashion Victims.” In this report they recorded the results of interviews with Bangladeshi workers at six garment factories employing in all about 5 000 workers. The factories they visited supply clothes to retailers such as Tesco, Asda and Primark. The report catalogued the appalling pay and conditions suffered by the workers in these factories and linked the low wages to the enormous profits made by these retailers on clothes. “War on Want” urged UK consumers to shop morally and not to buy clothes made in Bangladeshi sweatshops. The report was widely publicised in the liberal bourgeois press which shed the predictable crocodile tears over the vicious exploitation of these workers.

These arguments made by “War on Want” in their report exemplify the political outlook of today’s capitalist left. They believe that if only the few bad capitalists could be made to see the errors of their ways and act morally the present system would not “exploit” workers. If only, they tell us, capitalists could be less greedy then trade could be “fair.” In short, they argue that if the capitalist class could be persuaded to act more morally all the horrors of capitalism could be swept away. These arguments betray a complete failure to understand the basis of class society in general and capitalist exploitation in particular. They illustrate the feeble mindedness of today’s liberals.

In reality, under capitalism, the exploitation of the working class can never be ended since it is the life blood of the system. There is absolutely no way this exploitation can be made “fair” as today’s liberals demand. Capitalist society, like the slave society and feudal societies which came before it, is a system in which one class exploits the labour of another class. It is only with the creation of classless society that exploitation will cease. The liberals do not, of course, want classless society. They only want the hideous conditions we are seeing today in peripheral countries, such as Bangladesh, to be improved. However, the profits of capitalists in the central capitalist countries, such as the UK, are becoming more and more dependent on the exploitation of workers in the peripheral countries and the capitalist class as a whole has no intention of lessening that exploitation. The relocation of factories to areas of cheap labour shows that, far from wanting to alleviate the exploitation of these workers, they want to profit from it while they can. (1)

Bangladesh textile industry

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in Asia with an average income per person of approximately $410 per year. 30% of the country’s 149 million people live on less that $1 per day. It is in places like this, where labour is cheap and plentiful, that the labour intensive industries of capitalism try to locate themselves. In 2005, $1.55 bn of Foreign Direct Investment was made in Bangladesh. In the last 25 years the textile industry has grown from virtually nothing to become the country’s largest industry. In 1977, there were only eight garment factories in the country. Today, there are at least 4000, employing two million workers and bringing in 76% of the total export earnings. Sales in 2005 amounted to $8 bn. The industry is vitally important for the Bangladesh ruling class and they will do anything necessary to maintain its profitability, including sending the army to protect the garment factories. The ending of the quotas for the industry, which occurred with the ending of the Multifibre Agreement in 2005, led to a reduction in wages as the local bourgeoisie tried to maintain their position in the world textile market. Today, the industry remains highly profitable.

The two million workers in the industry have, for the most part, come from rural peasant backgrounds and migrated to the large cities, such as Dhaka, Chitagong, Narayangong, Savar and Tongi-Gazipur. They are generally the first generation of proletarians and, despite being paid such a pittance, they often send money back to their families in the rural areas. The position of these new workers reflects the gradual ruin of the peasantry. As in the textile mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 19th century, the factory owners prefer female or child workers and more than 80% of these workers are young women between the ages of 14 and 29 years.

The pay and conditions of textile workers in Bangladesh are the worst in the world and the pay has actually halved in the last ten years. Wages in Bangladesh relative to other countries are shown in Table 1 below:

Country Minimum Wage (Pence per hour)
Bangladesh 5.2
China 6.6
India 13.8
USA 263.2
UK 492.1
France 544.0
Table 1

In fact this minimum is not enforced and unskilled workers, such as sewing helpers, sometimes get as little as 3 p/hour. (2) In addition workers often receive their wages two or three months late as can be seen for the demand for payment by 7th of the next month. Overtime is often not paid and workers are swindled by a system of fines for late arrival and mistakes in the work. The average working week is 80 hours, according to the “War on Want” report, and many women are regularly forced to work between 14 and 16 hours daily. Sanitation is poor and workers are often locked in the factories during the shift. This has led to workers being killed in fires or structural failures of buildings. In February and March of 2006, 100 workers were killed from fires and collapses of poorly constructed factory buildings.

International capitalism

It is clear from Table 1 why international capital sets up its factories in Bangladesh rather than the central countries. Wage rates in the UK are 95 times those of Bangladesh and in addition weekly working hours are approximately half those of Bangladesh3. Competition in areas like garment making is virtually impossible for the central capitalist countries. The number of workers in textiles in the UK is now only about 200 0004, and these are in the more skilled areas such as man-made fibres, dyeing, printing, etc. Foreign ownership of Bangladeshi factories and foreign purchase of the products ensure that, most of the surplus value produced in this industry goes to the sections of the capitalist class outside the country. It is estimated by the Bangladeshi media, that 70% of the profits which are generated from the garment industry leave the country. The vice president of the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association bemoaned the fact that so much of the profit was taken by European and US buyers. He, like “War on Want” blamed the greed of the US and EU buyers for the poor wages and conditions of Bangladeshi workers. This is how he explained the situation:

I am asked about how many light bulbs we use and where is our toilet. But who pays for these things? The buyers’ profits are going up but if I ask for more money they say China is very cheap. It’s a threat to move work somewhere else. (5)

For the capitalist of the metropolitan countries the cheapness of the commodities produced in countries such as Bangladesh is an essential source of profit. It is reported, for example, that a tee shirt for which the US buyer pays $2 in Bangladesh will be sold for $20 to $25 in the US. The commodities are produced at prices massively below those of the world market, and the stream of profit coming from this trade is helping to offset the tendency of profit rates to decline globally. In general, the lowering of wages will always result in greater profits for the capitalist class. The example of the clothing industry also shows how the lowering of the cost of labour power in Bangladesh produces a reduction in the cost of labour power world wide as factories in the higher labour cost countries close or relocate. This produces a global increase in profit rates which will last until the global average cost of production falls to reflect the cheaper average value of labour power. It remains the exploitation of labour power and nothing else which creates profits for capitalists. It is for this reason that the international capitalist class has no intention of alleviating the conditions of the Bangladeshi garment workers, in the way that “War on Want” demands. The fact that the likes of Tesco, Asda and Primark have signed up to something called an “Ethical Trade Initiative” simply illustrates their hypocrisy.

Trade unions

The fact that the Bangladesh ruling class immediately mobilised the armed forces of the state against the strikes of the garment workers shows their inexperience. In the older capitalist countries such as the EU or the US these workers would have been confronted first by the trade unions who would have tried to defuse and head off the struggle. (6) Much of the Bangladesh capitalist class sees no reason to use the unions to control the struggle at the present stage. The reasons for this are that the unions are both inexperienced and weak. The National Federation of Garment Workers (NGWF) which is the main union federation in the industry has 28 separate unions affiliated to it. Despite this, it only claims to have 20 000 members in an industry of two million. Some of the employers do, however, see the need to use the unions as they are used in the central capitalist countries, namely to control the sale of labour power and to control disputes. It was for this reason that the June 2006 agreement did recognise the right to unionise.

The situation can be compared to that in South Africa in the 1970’s, where the setting up of unions was presented as a great victory for the working class, even though the leading sectors of the capitalist class supported this. These were, of course, the same sectors who understood the need to bring the African Nationalists to power and to move to an organisation of production based solely on class and not in any way based on race. The unions proved key allies in bringing this about and are now in alliance with the bourgeois ANC government which is supervising capitalist exploitation of their members so efficiently that the economy is experiencing a massive boom. The condition of the South African working class as a whole has not improved and unemployment remains at 26%.

This should be a warning to Bangladeshi workers that the trade unions will, in the long term, only serve the bosses’ interests. Already, the Bangladesh unions, such as the NGWF, are showing that they view things from the same perspective as the employers. They repeat, for example, the bosses’ demands for “free access of Bangladeshi garments to US and EU markets and an end to quota systems”. They demand that, “international companies conduct fair trade with Bangladesh garment factories” which, of course, means that the Bangladeshi capitalists get a larger slice of the profits as demanded by the Garment Manufacturers Association. (7) They support successful national capitalism which inevitably involves the exploitation of their members. The interests of workers are not in the success of the national capital. They are in international resistance to capitalism and the establishment of classless society worldwide.

The way forward for Bangladeshi workers is to run their struggles through strike committees, elected by mass meetings which involve the maximum numbers of workers. The key to success is to keep the control of the struggle with the mass meetings and follow tactics such as generalising the struggle to other workers.

Conclusion

The struggles of the Bangladeshi garment workers are very important for two main reasons. Firstly they point to the enormous increase in the numbers of proletarians in countries such as Bangladesh and the beginnings of resistance to horrific conditions of exploitation. (8) Secondly they show the ability of an inexperienced working class to find ways of struggle which unite workers. Garment workers were joined by workers from the jute and sugar mills and transport workers. What is needed is a political content to the struggle to orient it towards an opposition to the whole capitalist system, of which Bangladesh is only a small part. What is needed is the formation of a political organisation to link the experiences of the international proletariat and the lessons they have learned in the last 150 years of struggle to the struggles which are emerging in Bangladesh and elsewhere. It is only through an international struggle by the world’s workers that a classless society can be built.

CP

(1) A typical example of relocation to areas of more exploitable labour was the announcement in January that the Burberry factory in Treorchy Wales, was to move all production to China. 300 Welsh workers will be redundant.

(2) See War on Want report “Fashion victims - the true cost of cheap clothes”.

(3) Legislation to restrict the working day to 10 hours was passed in Britain in 1844. Such legislation has only just been enacted in Bangladesh.

(4) It is ironic that Britain, the country which in the 19th century destroyed the textile industries of the Indian subcontinent to force the Indians to buy the products of the Lancashire and Yorkshire cotton mills, now imports most of its textiles from India, Bangladesh and China.

(5) Quoted in The Guardian see environment.guardian.co.uk.ethicalliving .

(6) See, for example, article on strikes in UK in this edition.

(7) Reported in “Sweatshops and Plantations”, see wanonwant.org .

(8) The conditions of workers in Bangladesh are similar to the horrific conditions in Britain in the 1840’s described by Engels in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England.

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