From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Bangladesh in the grip of globalised trade
Date: Thu, 11 Aug 2005 14:00:14 +0200 (CEST)

Bangladesh in the grip of globalised trade

By Cedric Gouverneur, Le Monde diplomatique, August 2005

Globalisation in Bangladesh means manufacturing clothes and raising shrimps for western markets. This has caused poverty and human rights violations. Representative democracy has broken down; Bangladeshis are turning to voluntary associations to practise direct democracy.

THE hamlet of Baro Ari in the Khulna region of southwest Bangladesh is lost in the reaches of the Ganges. It is difficult to find, and yet globalisation has already arrived there, along with its unique market opportunity, shrimps and prawns. Local bigwigs opened the dykes of polders in 2000, flooding with salt water land that belonged to poor farmers. With the connivance of a corrupt police force, they then transformed the drowned land into lucrative crustacean farms.

“We’ve got nothing left,” says Suranjan Kumar, his face hollow with undernourishment. The 20 or so men around him nod in agreement. “We sometimes get work as daily farm labourers for 78 cents.” The conditions border on servitude. Farmers have to hand over as much as two-thirds of their harvest to the landowner. “The salt has destroyed everything,” says Abu Sahid Gazhi, who spent 11 months in jail for objecting to the theft of his land.

Crustacean farming leads to a five-fold increase in soil saline levels. Ponds may be deliberately ill-dyked so as to contaminate surrounding land, to force farmers to leave and free more land for the enterprise. “Nothing grows here any more. Food prices have risen. The salt makes the cattle sick.”

Since the 1980s Asia and South America have farmed crustaceans on a massive scale to satisfy the demand of rich nations. Bangladesh is the world's fifth-largest producer and has converted some 769 sq km of mangrove forest and fertile land to aquafarming. It exports 30,000 tonnes a year, almost all to the northern hemisphere. According to the United Nations, 80% of Bangladesh's population of 143 million live on less than $2 a day. They cannot afford $12 a kilo for shrimps and prawns. Yet, because of these exports, Bangladesh has been caught up in globalisation. In theory the revenue should benefit the whole population through the trickle-down effect (1).

Have these farms created jobs in Baro Ari? “The workers in the ponds are mastaans, bully-boys from Khulna,” says a farmer. “The only thing we can do for a living is send our children to collect shrimp fry to sell to the farms.” But when this is collected, quantities of fry and spawn of other species are left to die on the banks, ruining local biodiversity. Catches have fallen by 80%, according to fishermen in the region. As for the western consumers who eat the exports, fists are clenched: “They’re drinking our blood,” says Kumar. “How many Bangladeshis have to die to feed white people?” The idea of a shrimp/prawn boycott in Europe offers a frail hope.

Darwin's nightmare’

These crustaceans are to Bangladesh what the Nile perch is to Tanzania, Darwin's Nightmare (2). The farms are more than just a social and ecological disaster; they spread death and destruction. More than 150 Bangladeshis have been murdered since 1980 for opposing aquafarmers (3). Thousands killed in the 1991 tsunami in the southwest of Bangladesh may be added to this figure. According to a report by a British NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation, a tsunami on the same scale in 1960 claimed no victims. Between the two disasters aquaculture destroyed the protective mangrove forests.

Nevertheless acquafarms are encouraged by the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Asian Development Bank. The US Agency for International Development offers technical assistance to monitor the quality of the shrimps and prawns; by combating epizootic diseases, these “philanthropists” hope to develop the Bangladeshi market and achieve annual sales of $1.50bn within five years, compared with $351m currently (4).

Where does the money go? Who benefits? A journalist from Khulna, Manik Chandra Saha, raised the question in 2000 when he saw how aquaculture ruined the livelihood of thousands. In January 2004 he was murdered by an armed gang known to offer its services to the highest bidder. In Khulna 13 journalists have been killed since 1990. This violence makes Bangladesh one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters, despite a theoretically free press.

Bangladesh's high value-added exports benefit only a tiny minority. But western companies are free to shop in Bangladesh, considered a star pupil of the International Monetary Fund (5), without being shamed too much by human rights activists. (This is not so in neighbouring totalitarian Burma.) Crustaceans represent only 6% of Bangladesh's exports. Its main attraction is the garment manufacturing industry, which accounts for 75% of exports and generated $56bn in revenues in 2004, according to official statistics.

Conditions for 2 million textile workers are Dickensian. Local manufacturers constantly fear that western clients will relocate to an even more competitive country (6) and this leads to an overriding obsession with the cheapest possible production. Young women who have fled the poverty of the countryside and are totally unaware of their rights make up 85% of the labour force. They work 12 hours a day or more, often seven days a week, and earn $15-$36 a month. They are locked up in the workplace and body-searched when they leave. They are not allowed to talk among themselves. Union rights are theoretical: any subversives are fired on the spot, so only one worker in a 100 is a card-carrying member of any union. Rapes by managerial staff have been reported and nearly 300 workers have died in fires since 1990 (7). The Bangladesh garment manufacturers and exporters association boasts the “elimination of child labour from the garment sector” on its website, no doubt expecting congratulations.

Factory built on a pond

On 10 April this year a nine-storey factory collapsed in the export-processing zone of Savar a few kilometres outside Dhaka. At least 100 workers died and an unknown number are still unaccounted for. The next day riot police took up positions on the site to face the anger of the workers' families. It had been no accident. The plant had been built on a former pond and planning permission was granted only for a four-storey building. This had been overridden by the owners, who put orders from European customers first. Sixteen hours before the collapse, workers warned management about cracks in walls but were ignored. The police, always quick in the summary execution of petty criminals or firing on strikers (8), were unable to find the plant managers responsible. One is the son-in-law of a member of the ruling party.

On 22 April Bangladesh's leading newspaper, the Daily Star, claimed that the owners were too influential to be interrogated. Class makes all the difference, allowing the privileged to evade their responsibilities and the underprivileged to be exploited.

The company's main client, Inditex (Zara), in Barcelona, promised to help victims. The group says that it manufactures 60% of its clothes in Europe and has been carrying out a social audit of its 900 Asian sub-contractors since October 2004. But the Savar workers slipped through the audit, since they were hired through an Indian company that never informed Inditex.

“Do you know these brands?” asks Nazma Akter, secretary general of the Bangladesh independent garment workers union federation, holding up the labels of clothes that her union members kill themselves to produce. They are all here: Gap, H&M, Old Navy, Tesco, Ladybird, The North Face, Lee, Wrangler, Cherokee, Burton.

“How much do they sell these clothes for? Europeans should know that these companies pay us one euro apiece.” According to Amirul Haque Amin, secretary general of the national garments workers federation, “European companies are responsible for the living conditions of Bangladeshi workers. They buy at the lowest price, which means that our bosses pay us the lowest wage, it's the law of the market.”

No boycott

These clothes, produced in labour camps in Bangladesh, increase in value because of the marketing concept known as fashion, and are sold in Europe with hefty profit margins to match. Are Bangladeshi workers calling on European consumers to boycott these clothes? “No,” says Akter, “We’d just lose our jobs.” She believes that factory work, however hellish, is important to the emancipation of women. “Previously they had no work, they stayed in the countryside and put up with domestic violence.”

Still, “the European public must be told about our working conditions so that these companies are shamed and put pressure on our bosses”, urges Amin. He also wants to see the minimum wage doubled from $14 to $28.

The end of the multifibre agreement this year and increased competition from the Chinese textile industry do not augur well for Bangladeshi workers (9). However, they do have a considerable ally in the vast network of local NGOs that mobilise millions of people.

Recent history explains why these movements flourish. During the liberation war against Pakistan in 1971, the progressive forces hoped that the struggle would also help a social transformation. Faced with the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, the persecution of the left and failed attempts at guerrilla warfare, they transferred the struggle to the NGO movement. The government tolerated this since it also relieved the state of social responsibilities.

Ravaged by war, famine (in 1974) and recurrent floods, Bangladesh saw an influx of donors pour in along with the means to finance projects. For the elite and the leftwing middle classes, working in an NGO is a way of putting ideas into practice. These organisations have also opened career opportunities outside the closed circuits dominated by the clannish networks of the two dominant parties (see Clan democracy, opposite). Abuses have occurred. Some social workers consider that microcredit, invented by Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, is a marketing ploy, leading poor farmers to incur heavy debt (10). Grameen Phone, the bank's mobile telephone network, symbolises a further development in this commercial drift.

Nigera Kori (NK), an organisation with thousands of members, actively discourages microcredit, believing that it reinforces the dependence of the poor. NK seeks to promote their emancipation, starting with economic freedom through savings rather than debt. A single handful of rice set aside by a housewife at each meal may be resold and the money invested in a new source of revenue—a fishing net or a few chickens. The profits are divided among the community.

Next comes political emancipation, making the poor aware of their repression and getting them to combat it. Through direct democracy in decision-making processes, NK groups have taken on the shrimp farms, fighting the mastaans, resisting loan sharks and filing complaints in the courts with the help of the organisation's lawyers.

Newfound pride

This newfound pride is also seen in the landless farmers' movement. Some 67% of Bangladeshis are landless today compared with 31% at independence in 1971. The concentration of agrarian land in the hands of the few is due to debt and corruption. Local bigwigs seize the khas, public land set aside for the poor, by bribing government officials. The farmers then have no choice but to work as day labourers or live in the city slums. And yet, according to Proshika, a powerful NGO, agrarian reforms that would cream off the highest revenues and guarantee a few acres for everyone would cost just $2.4bn.

“It seems that the World Bank has got better things to do than to listen to me,” says Qazi Faruque Ahmed, the head of Proshika, who was imprisoned by the government in 2004 and has received threats from fundamentalists. “We identify, occupy and cultivate the despoiled land,” says Alam, head of the Samata (equality) movement in the Pabna district. “It's not risk-free,” he adds, showing the machete scar across his scalp. Samata, Proshika, NK and many other NGOs have enabled thousands of poor farmers to win back their rights and dignity.

Dignity is at the heart of the philosophy behind Ubinig, a movement that promotes organic farming and agricultural independence. In 1995 the government applied World Trade Organisation rules and suspended fertiliser subsidies. Consequently fertiliser prices increased, riots broke out, and the police shot 17 farmers. Tired of this dependence on the market, and concerned by the depletion of the soil and the loss of biodiversity as a result of chemical agriculture, many farmers (130,000 of them according to the organisation) switched to organic farming, sharing seeds and developing polyculture. They included whole villages, particularly in the Tangail district, which has a population of 30,000.

Since the investment is much lower, farmers we met stressed that their revenues had increased. They are proud of having reduced their dependence on western companies. Farida Akhter, founder of Ubinig, is worried about offensives by supporters of genetically modified crops and their “humanitarian” arguments. “Consumer fears about GM crops in the northern hemisphere are described by the multinationals as a luxury in the face of hunger in the South. How demeaning. Are our lives worth less than those of westerners?” Akhter stresses that people in the North and the South are interdependent in the face of market-driven individualism. Consumption by the North means production in, and exploitation of, the South. She says: “Lifestyle is political.”


(1) According to this neoliberal economic theory, when the elite get rich the benefits of their investments and consumption trickle down the social pyramid.

(2) The title of a documentary by the Austrian film-maker Hubert Sauper showing the disastrous consequences of breeding Nile perch in Lake Victoria; Mille et une productions (Paris), Coop99 (Vienna), Saga Films (Brussels), 2004.

(3) People have been killed in 11 countries for opposing the introduction of shrimp farming: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

(4) Financial Express, Dhaka, 26 July 2004.

(5) The IMF congratulated Dhaka for liberalising trade, but made its $80m loan contingent on a rise in interest rates and energy prices. In April 2005 Nissanke Weerasinghe, advisor to the IMF's Asia-Pacific department, declared in Dhaka that he thought people there would “understand the situation”.

(6) On subcontracting in the garment industry, see Philippe Revelli, “The song of the T-shirt”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, July 2005.

(7) A report by Khorshed Alam, “Alternative movement for resources and freedom society”, The Clean Clothes Campaign, Germany, May 2004.

(8) The Rapid Action Battalion shoots alleged delinquents almost every day. According to the press, delinquents died in an “exchange of fire” (the quotes signify that nobody believes that). In April 2005 a demonstration by textile workers was put down, leaving 200 injured, 20 of them by bullets.

(9) Since then the quota system limiting exports to the US and European markets has ended.