Bangladesh Garment Workers' Struggle

Exactly a month earlier the informal labour of Bangladesh erupted in an unprecedented and un-planned upsurge in almost all cities of that country. Today they have again surfaced through another spurt. Garment industry is now the only viable industry of Bangladesh , which earns enough for the factory owners and earns less than daily living cost for the workers who create the surplus. Out of 3000 Taka per chemise (75 Taka = 1$ when you consider the ultimate incidence price on any citizen with taxes, duties and other secondary levies), the worker gets less than 1 Taka, whereas the recipient government keeps 35% in terms of VAT, the importer keeps 50%, the Bangladeshi exporter keeps around 12%, the Bangladesh government keeps nearly around 3% and simply 1 TAKA is earned by the worker, that too divided among all who need to work to stitch up one chemise. What do you call this? Profit? Super Profit? Or simply Rent from the same producer who makes it happen. The cost of livelihood in Bangladesh is simply double than that in the Bengal Province of India, in the poor bracket [it is more in the other class brackets]. Thus a worker in Bangladesh has to work more than 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 12 months a year to earn a little more to feed his/her family. No holidays, no benefits, no insurance, no reprieve, no proper working condition in the smouldering heat of Bangladesh, no sanitation, no time to eat, no time to have a decent sleep and, of course, no time to leisure. Bangladesh is a grand labour concentration camp where bonded labour is the order of the day, supported and encouraged by the government. The workers do not have any rights, no claims, no dignity, no say and no registration. Routinely, the workers are literally toasted alive to show the authorities that an accident was genuine and thus claim the insurance money and re-organize an ailing unit. The workers jam up the city streets during the morning hours when they join the mill, they come in millions, about 2.2 million workers work simply in greater Dhaka region [75%], Chittagong [15%] and Rajshahi [rest], and 80% of them are women. They walk for miles as they do not have enough to spend for transportation [the cost again is one of the highest in the South Asian region]. The owners however drive in the latest foreign cars without any apparent shame. The workers are paid on piece-rate basis, hourly rate is a joke as no overtimes wages are given. A figure is written on the registers where the workers are forced to sign, and yet they are paid half the amount. The owner is the payer and the snatcher, marauder as well. The women are forced to satisfy the sexual lust of the owners. Every garment worker has to go through this gruelling experience not only during the first “interview” but also almost at any time at the beck and call of the owner. 89% of the women workers have undergone either rape or non-consensual sexual repression during their tenure of work in Bangladesh and this is not an issue to the law and order authority. The police officials and the entire middle class considers these women as an easy source sexual exploits and this has become a normal favour in that country.

The lifespan of these workers have gone down below 35 years, the children die young in enteric ailments and tuberculosis. Family life is totally shattered, they do not see each other often enough and live not even on shanties but in temporary shelters without any sanitation or running water. In every flood or natural disaster they are routinely washed out.

Over the years the livelihood of these workers have gone down to an irreducible minimum. They could not bear it and they incinerated their work place – the first Luddite expression of working class, though informal, of any kind in Bangladesh . These workplaces are hell-holes to them, these do not give them any point of interest to keep them alive. They do not have any sense of belonging with the workplace. This is a purely nihilist expression, yet expressed collectively and just like the organized working class. They are a pessimist lot and a cynical human group. With full justification they have seen the political leaders through and through. They have seen how the same owners who take all out of the workers are funding leaders of all hues. The revolutionary democracy is week but steady and has plunged in the movement whole hog, and yet they are just dismally inadequate. Some day, some way these are the forces who would gain the trust of this informal working class.

Bangladesh has a long tradition of upsurges. Bangladesh had always come out with moments of massive upsurges as precursors of long drawn political struggles. We are keenly watching this phenomenon erupting in the biggest volcanic upsurge of the working community. Across the border we would definitely warm ourselves up in organizing the informal workers community.

– Anu Muhammed and Soumitra Bose