The rising dissent—–Bangladesh’s divulging ‘labor-spring’

As the world celebrates another Labor Day, here in Bangladesh, laborers have a hard time grappling with their family and professional lives. Due to the availability of cheap labor and a huge population of 160 million people cramped together in a very small state, in this part of the world labor-intensive industries have been thriving continuously since the early 1990s—the period when a democratic and investment-friendly economy was formed for the first time. This liberalization of the economy has introduced work for millions of impoverished Bangladeshis with little or no training. But on the other hand the privatization has also created an extremely capitalistic society.

 

Today within two decades, Bangladesh has already become one of the leading suppliers of the global cloth manufacturing industry, frozen foods and leather. It is also predicted that with the current boost in the export of high quality, cheap pharmaceuticals to the European Union countries and the Middle-East, the pharmaceutical industry will soon begin to dominate as well. In addition, along with India, the poverty-stricken country has always been a top producer of jute and jute-based products, although this sector has surpassed through many upheavals and hindrances in the past few years.

 

But the conditions of workers in all these industries who help to amass huge amounts of foreign income each year for the country are far from good. Not only do they have to go through extremely dangerous and poor working conditions, but are also forced to lead lives with  low wages as a result of which almost all the industrial workers live much under the international poverty line. This is the very reason why the country is always abuzz and making international headlines with workers’ strikes and protests. And the government also has always been under intense domestic and international pressure for securing the rights of the workers.

 

A shimmering example to demonstrate the inhumane conditions of the industrial workers in Bangladeshi factories is the ready-made garments industry. As the highest export income-earner for the economy and as the world’s second highest global supplier, the industry employs around 3.6 million workers, around 95% of which are females. Recently the international think-tank Mckinsey has also predicted that by the year 2015, the Bangladeshi cloth industry will have overtaken its Chinese counterpart to become the leading cloth supplier and also the first choice for international investors and importers to invest in this sector. During the last fiscal year, the industry has exported $18 billion worth of apparels to the global market.

 

But the naked truth is that this rise has been achieved on the saddles of exploitation of the impoverished workers in these industries. It is their hands and the investors’ money that produce high-quality, cheap clothes for global superstores like Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger and H & M. An eminent local economist has recently calculated that for every $100 worth of ‘Made in Bangladesh’ apparel sold in Walmart in America, $25 is taken by the US government; $35 by the factory-owners, shareholders and the other investors; around $38 by Walmart; while the worker whose arduous work and dexterity produced the item has to remain content with barely a small fraction of a dollar.

And so, due to this unequal division of the money, the country has always been rife with workers’ rights issues and dissent. Violence is not uncommon between protesting and demonstrating worker groups and the policemen. And several workers have even been killed in clashes with the police forces and other owner-sponsored agencies. However, most of the time the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), one of the most powerful lobby groups in the National parliament, has always succeeded in crushing down the trade union groups and any call for riots.

 

With the set-up of the government-sponsored Industrial Police—-an elite police force specialized in monitoring, gathering intelligence and quenching any demonstrations by the workers——trade unions have been thrown into silence by repeated torturing of trade union activists. The current government has increased the minimum wage rate of garments’ workers from around $20 to $36 in terms of the current exchange rate. Yet, the price is far from enough. The workers, most of them living in slums and closed quarters in cities, barely manage to survive with the 10% inflation rate currently in the country. The Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity, a prominent trade union in the country, has demanded that the minimum rate be raised to at least around $58 but the government, with the strength of the BGMEA lobby, has firmly quelled all forms of opposition and has strictly claimed that after the increase, even though it is meager, no forms of protestations or indiscipline will be tolerated in the aforementioned sector.

 

Although most of the industrial workers live in slums, some get the privilege(!) of dwelling in cramped, shabby little quarters and buildings in the narrowest alley-ways of the cities

During the last big uprising of garments’ workers back in 2010, activists from several trade unions were even arrested by law enforcement officers and brutally tortured to preempt them from going against the owner associations and to stop them from demanding a greater minimum wage rate.

 

As if the wages weren’t enough, the garments’ workers have to deal with a lot of other issues as well. One of the most important concerns is safety. The factories which house thousands of male and female workers are equipped with little or almost no security. With lax safety standards, fires have erupted in many factories quite frequently in the past decade, killing many workers on the spot due to the absence of any emergency or fire exits. While the owners of these factories are among the highest tax-payers of the country with their kids being sent to American schools that charge fees up to $11000 annually, and while

Garments workers clashing with the industrial police

they themselves reside in posh apartments in the wealthy neighborhoods and drive luxurious cars, the laborers work arduously throughout the day with small lunch and prayer breaks risking their lives constantly to be able to feed their families. Although due to the assistance of welfare organizations like BRAC they are sending their kids to schools, they know perfectly well that in the near future their children will also have to embrace the same fate as them because of the enormous class difference.

A fire in a luxurious-looking factory of the locally owned Hameem Group killed 20 workers and injured a further 100.

 

There is also the severe case of gender discrimination in these factories. Women are allowed to work side by side with their male compatriots, although most factories have segregated the sexes in the clothing lines. But the wages offered to females is almost half as that offered to males for the same job. The majority of the workers in the garments trade are females who have come to the cities in search of jobs to feed themselves and help run their families. But with the money they earn they can hardly run their own self. Also, since they have absolutely no guarantee of maternal leave or pregnancy leave or any other feminine facility, life becomes harder and more and more stressful for them at work everyday. While the government, the Western leaders and the religious mullahs of the country, along with the fiercely Islamic elite, champion the state of women empowerment in an extremely conservative, religious state like Bangladesh and never fail to underscore that women in this country are much better off than our mightier neighbors like India and Pakistan, the growing exploitation of the female populace has taken a toll with the rapid growth of the garments’ trade.

 

With the next Olympic Games under the red carpet, big brands like Nike, Puma and Adidas, are already active with the manufacture of sports’ clothing throughout the world. And a big chunk of these outfits are being made in this small state of the 160 million, where these high profile brands are constantly underpaying the workers and maintaining their solidarity with the government and the industry owners. International allegations against many of the factories supplying these global sporting brands have been brought about  but even with the repeated calls for better wages and conditions, the lives of the average worker remains virtually unchanged.

 

Last month, the deepening divide and the growing dissent have escalated all of a sudden. Aminul Islam (39), a former garment worker and one of the presidents of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity, went missing on 4th April. On 5th April his tortured and murdered body was discovered on the sides of a road around 61 miles from Dhaka, in an area with a high concentration of garments’ industries. Previously he had been arrested several times along with many others for organizing protests and demonstrations. Recently he had also been working hard to organize a mass protest for better working conditions and improved wages in several garments factories of the Dhaka-based Shanta Group, which supplies clothes to global companies like Tommy Hilfiger and Nike.

 

It is evident that the murder was carried out with a political motivation. Several

Aminul Islam, 39, a labor activist who was found dead just outside Dhaka on 5th April

international and domestic human rights and workers’ rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Worker Rights Consortium, Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers’ Federation have all asked for a transparent and carefully monitored investigation into the matter.

 

It is mainly due to the hard-work of these industrial workers and their struggle for better lives for themselves and for upcoming generations that the country is earning huge amounts in foreign income. With the rapid industrialization and inflow of foreign money, economic growth and poverty alleviation throughout the country has been robust throughout the last decade. A burgeoning middle-class and upper class population has been created in Dhaka, Chittagong and the rest of the cities and villages due to the ubiquitous growth of these industries.

 

Dhaka, the city I grew up and live in, is currently a heavily industrialized urban city. Everywhere you go—except in the wealthier and the middle class residential areas—you will come across factories on both sides of the roads. I am, in fact, a direct product of that industrial revolution in Bangladesh. My

The growth of the industrial and urbanized Dhaka has brought about a sky-scraper boon for the burgeoning middle & upper class to live in

father is a raw materials supplier to garments factories and although his is the sole income for the family of four, we are quite a thriving middle class family with me and my other sibling sent to English schools to read Shakespeare and to get ourselves mesmerized by the natural sciences.

 

But what about those children of industrial workers who know that they will also have to work hard and live with injustice for the rest of their lives just like their parents? Will their be more killings of the Aminuls then?

With the garments owned by Korean or local investors, or even a joint venture, with the cotton from neighboring India and equipments from China, it is the hands of these workers that assemble the final product in garment factories and stick the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ brand label on it. The product is then packed up and sent across the seas, deserts, mountains and oceans to Europe and the United States, the Middle-East, Japan, Korea, Russia and Australia. It maybe a shirt, skirt or a trouser. Or simply a mass-produced Western dress. Due to the assembly line mass-production in this age of globalization, the prices of these Western and global clothing in the domestic market have actually become much lower than the traditional Bengali clothes for the middle-class citizens. But when the price at which the foreigners are buying the item is considered, it will surely be far beyond any worker’s total monthly income. Yet these workers have a hard time grappling with their life and overcoming the hindrances of discordant prospects and a grim future for themselves. They lead a life with extreme discomfort and risk just to be able to live. Time and again they are forced to confront to the fact that their succeeding generations will also have to lead the same lives. Yet, they move on. Shoving away their tears, they go to work each day to the factories, where discipline is stringent and no latecomers are ever tolerated. They work towards a bleak future, yet continue to serve the global community at whatever price that is available to them for survival.

While the workers live and work in extremely hostile conditions, the industrialists, merchants and businessmen enjoy the air-conditioned, safer & well-ventilated modern commercial buildings of Kawran Bazar, Motijheel, Gulshan & Dhanmondi.

 

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