Bangladesh Garment Workers Under Fire

Monday, 15 May 2000
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In Bangladesh garment workers change jobs frequently because of wage arrears, lay-offs, ill health or harassment from the bosses. The level of unionisation among workers is very low. However, sometimes the workers do stand up for their rights. By the Bangladeshi Trotskyist organisation, Democratic Workers Party, Gonotantrik Mazdur Party).

Globalisation has hit the populations of the third world hard. Unemployment has risen as established industries have been destroyed and poverty has deepened. Yet the organisations that clear the way for Foreign Direct Investment do have something to be proud of in Bangladesh - the rapid expansion of the garments industry, which now employs approximately 1.5 million people. However, for these workers the joy of having a job is marred by the harsh conditions they endure in the workplace.

Bangladesh began creating Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in 1978 to attract foreign capital and earn export dollars. In 1993 the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) was set up and a blanket ban on trade union activity imposed. This is obviously the most attractive feature for investors, on top of tax breaks and other incentives on offer. The EPZs now employ 70,000 workers, mostly in the garment and shoe-making industries. National labour laws do not apply in the EPZs, leaving BEPZA in full control over work conditions, wages and benefits.

However, BEPZA ignores not only national standards but its own. The guaranteed minimum monthly wages of $US70, $US 40 and $US 25 for skilled, unskilled and probationary workers respectively is a laughable fiction. As is the entitlement of permanent workers to annual festival bonuses, medical coverage, and accommodation and transportation allowance. The body has consistently refused to give out letters confirming employment and does not hire any workers on a permanent basis. In reality, earnings average about $20 per month - less than half the official rate - and workers do forced overtime under threat of dismissal. The withholding of pay for months at a time - a practice common throughout the private sector - is also the norm.

The situation in the garment industry at large is even worse. The nation's top export earner employs 1.5 million workers under conditions of super-exploitation. The majority are young women from rural areas who have migrated to the urban centres in search of work. The sweatshops are more like prisons than factories, with no fixed hours, regular breaks or days off. Workers earn between $7 and $10 a month, for an average of 13 hours a day, up to 27 days per month. This comes to an hourly rate of two or three cents! The bourgeois media reports that the industry currently owes $US300,000 in back pay, a staggering amount considering the miserly wages.

Garment workers change jobs frequently because of wage arrears, lay-offs, ill health or harassment from the bosses and their "security guards". As the vast majority of employees are girls and young women - most living apart from their families - there are many cases of physical and sexual abuse at factories. Not surprisingly, the level of unionisation among workers is very low. Where unions are involved, they act more like extortionists, taking money from management to keep the employees in line while at the same time collecting dues from their members, with whom they have virtually no contact. Most of the unions have direct or indirect links with local and foreign NGOs, and receiving lucrative grants seems to be their main goal. However, sometimes the workers do stand up for their rights, but with varying success.

This year there have been a number of heated confrontations between workers and management. On 3 May, garment workers and supporters staged a peaceful protest against a sudden wage cut in the Savar EPZ, 50 km north of the capital Dhaka. The management of Ring Shine called in the police, who attacked the 1500 strong gathering. One knitting operator, Rafiqul Islam, and one supporter, Mosharaf, were shot dead and 200 injured. Outraged demonstrators ransacked the factory in revenge. Six people were arrested, and a further 80 face charges of property damage.

In mid-May the Bangladesh Garments Workers Unity Council (BGWUC), comprising 8 such sham unions, secured an agreement under which Ring Shine agreed to pay the medical expenses of all injured workers, drop the charges filed against the demonstrators, pay back wages and follow the BEPZA rules regarding minimum wages and benefits, as well as compensation of about $US4,000 to the families of the two men killed by police.

Under the agreement the BGWUC promised to undertake "the responsibility for peaceful operation of the factory and will ensure that the workers will not create any further problem in future in the factory". A rival union, the Garments Unity Forum, staged a demonstration condemning the deal as a sell-out but a few days later put its seal to the same agreement. Such 'compromises' are not in the interest of the workers, benefiting only the self-serving union bureaucrats and playing into the hands of the bosses.

The Ring Shine incident is the most recent example of the volatile situation within the fortress-like compound at Savar, comprising 33,700 workers. In 1997, 15,000 of them went on strike in defiance of the ban, demanding trade union rights and job security.

On top of injuries sustained in work accidents, fatalities occur all too often. The industry is notorious for fires, which are estimated to have claimed over 200 lives in the past two years, though accurate figures are hard to come by. Tragically, one recent blaze in Dhaka resulted in 13 deaths. As seems to be the case with all garment factory fires, the high toll was due to the workers being locked inside.

In protest, the BGWUC called an industry-wide strike in early September. However, after an intensive campaign to gather support, the strike was suddenly called off the night before. The union had reached a deal with the bosses' organisation, agreeing to the formation of so-called welfare committees to look after workers' interests in the place of trade unions. These are to function also inside EPZs. The garment workers' trade unions are more than happy to participate in such sham committees, as it allows them to appear to be working hard for their members' good. In effect, however, it lets them off the hook when it comes to the real struggle for union rights.

The US has been pushing for the granting of trade union rights inside EPZs. This is apparently part of a strategy to undermine the chiefly Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese investors who have been lured to the honey pot. It remains to be seen whether the US will give up its slogan for trade unions now that the quasi-union welfare committees are to be set up. The EPZs are nothing more than a vehicle for the transfer of public money into private hands in the form of bargain rate land and energy, tax breaks and subsidies. The government should open its books to allow a fair appraisal of the true benefits of the EPZs to the nation. It would be a damning condemnation of globalisation.

(15.5.2000)
Democratic Workers Party, (Gonotantrik Mazdur Party).
GPO BOX-2473,
DHAKA-1000,
Bangladesh