Garment strike in Bangladesh: Whose responsibility, whose interests?

By Mohammad Basirul Haq Sinha, Workers World, 10 January 2006

A general strike and workers' rebellion in Bangladesh this May exposed the horrible exploitation of that country's garment workers, who toil in locally owned factories to supply Wal-Mart and others in the imperialist retailing industry with ready-made clothing. Responding to attacks from police and mercenaries, workers burned 300 vehicles and a few of the over 4,200 garment factories that employ over 2 million workers—40 percent of the total industrial work force in this South Asian country, whose total population is 148 million, the majority peasants.

The Brussels-based International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker Federation on May 24 estimated that in “February 2005 a garment worker in Bangladesh received only 6 cents as wage per hour, compared to 20 cents in India and Pakistan, 30 cents in China, 40 cents in Sri Lanka and 78 cents in Thailand.” (Asian Tribune, May 28) Behind the low wage scale in Bangla desh, however, is not only the drive of the local capitalists to maximize their profits, but the pressure of the giant retail monopolies like the U.S.-based Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the world's largest retailer.

Wal-Mart had $312.4 billion in sales worldwide in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31—more than its next four competitors. Wal-Mart directly employs over 1 million workers worldwide; at sweatshops, it indirectly employs millions more. Monopolies like Wal-Mart and France-based Carrefour use their leverage to beat down prices and wages all over the world. Both called up the Bangladesh government for assurances on deliveries when the government shut down 1,000 factories during the May strike actions.

Not only do the local capitalists compete on a world scale, but in effect these retail monopolies force workers all over the world to compete with each other to work for the lowest wages—unless they join in solidarity in struggle against the imperialist monopolies. The following is a report that a Bangladeshi journalist and political activist sent to Workers World about the May events.

The country has observed the largest garment-worker uprising ever in Bangla desh from May 22–24. Although this sector earned $6.4 billion of the $9.4 billion total in foreign exchange last year, the laborers have no proper employment contract, no standard working hours (they work 13 instead of eight hours per day), no days off, no lunch hour, no break to drink water or go to the bathroom, no proper toilet facilities, no medical leave, etc.

The well-to-do upper classes' indifference to the growing chaos and suffering of the poor is much more noticeable in Bangladesh than what prevailed during the turbulent days of 1966 or 1969 during the struggle for independence from West Pakistan that succeeded in 1971. The deaths of five students by police firing on Feb. 21, 1952, stirred up the entire province of East Pakistan, eventually leading to the creation of Bangladesh.

In the last 35 years, hundreds of deaths of unarmed civilians by law-enforcement agencies and paramilitary forces, more so during the last decade or so, have hardly stirred up the well-to-do classes. And today things have turned even nastier and more violent than they were 35 years ago.

The latest attacks on several garment factories in and around Dhaka city by garment factory workers, who are the most productive and most exploited, the least rewarded and appreciated sections of the poor, have made headlines. The whole country seems to be worried. The predatory, rapacious garment factory owners, who always brag as the biggest foreign exchange earners for Bangladesh, have come out on the street demanding “justice” and government intervention.

However, one wonders what type of “justice” the poor garment factory workers have been getting from either the garment factory owners (who remind one of the ruthless slave owners and the colonial plantation owners of the past) or the government. Is it fair to pay around 60 U.S. cents to a factory worker per day, when anyone earning less than a dollar per day is living below the poverty line? Are not human-rights activists in Bangladesh and abroad aware of the fact that Bangladeshi garment factory workers have a lower average calorie intake than slaves in 19th century U.S. plantations, and are not much better off with regard to freedom, leisure and human dignity?

The answer to the question, “Who is responsible for burning down of garment factories?” during the May 22–24 rebellion is that they are the same people who are responsible for hundreds of deaths of garment factory workers by fire in factories. It was appalling to hear the quick outcry from both the government, the opposition and the garments and textiles' owners blaming anarchists and conspirators from other countries for the outburst of violent protest that rocked the garments and textiles' industries.

Every single journalist and commentator was trying to protect the owners of these sweatshops in the name of saving the national export industry. These so-called owners mistreat their most valuable resource—the employees of their factories. I think Bangladesh government treated this lumpen class better than they treat the workers. I have seen with my own eyes nine years ago how an owner of a so-called factory kicked an employee so hard that the employee soiled himself. And now these owners want protection and sympathy?

Garment workers from Bangladesh deserve your support and support of workers all over the world.