Bangladeshi textile workers fight back against the capitalist crisis

Bangladesh has attracted investment from multinational corporations, particularly in the textile industry, because of its supply of very cheap labour. Now, however, this new working class is starting to flex its muscles and a wave of militant strikes has spread across the country. The conditions have been created where the left could unite and struggle for the overthrow of capitalism.

One of the basic features in recent capitalist economic developments on a world scale has been the cheap labour available in some “Third World” countries, primarily China, India and other Asian countries. Big capitalist corporations have so far embraced the “opportunity” offered to them by being able to exploit millions of workers in these countries. The more wretched and low the conditions of these workers, the more ideal the conditions for capitalist exploitation.

This was why they started outsourcing many of their operations to “Third World” countries in Asia and elsewhere where they did not have to put up with the concessions won over generations by the labour movement in the developed countries of Europe and North America. However, what they had underestimated was the great potential of the Asian working class, which has its own proud revolutionary traditions and heritage.

Last week, a journal had on its front page the title “The rising power of China’s workers”. In its report on China’s labour market it said: “The strikes, stoppages and suicides that have afflicted foreign factories on China’s coast in recent months have shaken the popular image of the country’s workers as docile, diligent and dirt cheap”. It then goes on to quote the president of “America’s biggest labour federation, the AFL-CIO” who “applauded the ‘courageous young auto workers’ who waged a successful strike at a Honda plant in Foshan demanding higher wages”.

Now, you might think these quotations and headlines belong to a Marxist “fringe” paper but it is actually taken straight from The Economist, the respectable dean of the world bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie everywhere are now frantically talking about “The next China” where workers, hit hard by the effects of the capitalist crisis, are not going to take it anymore and are fighting for the same gains and aims as their class brothers and sisters in the west. It is again London’s Economist that reminds us that the lessons of “Karl Marx and of history” show that “labour movements can begin with economic grievances and end in political revolt”! (China's Labour Market)

In this frenzy about Chinese workers getting more militant in coastal cities, capitalists are looking for alternatives where they can find the most suitable conditions for exploiting workers. Among the countries that have been named are India, Cambodia, Vietnam and especially Bangladesh, famous for its exploding population of nearly 170 million and super-exploitation of its workers. Especially infamous are the textile workers, 90 percent of them female, where regular labour regulations do not apply, the working week is usually 72 hours, the working day often up to or above 16 hours and with no weekly time off, no public holidays and no annual leave.

Rise of the Bangladeshi textile workers

This would appear to be the ideal situation for corporations to exploit. However, the bad news for them is that workers in Bangladesh have also been putting up a fight. A huge wave of class struggle is developing, precisely in the notorious garment sector, where workers last week won an 80 percent increase in wages, taking them to TK 3,000 (US$43), and they are set to continue the struggle and push for more.

Workers in the textile industry have been fighting on and off in the recent period. The garment trade in this country first started mostly because of preferential access to markets like the EU and USA. As a result, when in 2005 the quotas were slashed, huge job losses were feared. The bosses were ready to attack the workers but their fight back escalated. In January 2007, a revolutionary wave engulfed the country, when more than 200 factories were occupied by the workers (Revolutionary wave engulfs Bangladesh). This process was further intensified by the capitalist crisis in 2008 that hit the industry hard.

Struggles have again escalated in the last few months with violent protests and factory occupations became prevalent. One of the turning points was on June 22 where “hundreds of thousands of readymade garment workers closed the key Ashulia Export Processing Zone, which produces for international brands such as Wal-Mart, H&M, Marks & Spencer etc., which was a major blow for the industry, as it is aiming to snatch contracts from Chinese competitors.” (Bangladesh sets minimum wage for textile workers).

This increase of about 80 percent compared to the previous TK 1,662 ($US22) is still a far cry from anything allowing a decent life for the workers. This is why the leaders of the textile workers’ union have rejected the minimum wages, noting it is not sufficient for a “decent standard [of] living”. Moshrefa Mishu, head of the Garment Workers Unity Forum, who is also a popular left-wing activist, has demanded wages to be set at $US71. Since then we have witnessed demonstrations in Dhaka, Narayanganj and Chittagong, among other places against the new pay scale.

Business, government, police, media all hand-in-hand against the workers

This awakening of the workers has worried not only the big multinational corporations but also the domestic bourgeoisie which is fighting the workers tooth and nail. Not surprisingly, they had on their side the police, the forces of a supposedly “left-wing” government and the media.

Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exports Association (BGMEA), the union of the bosses, has headed a campaign against the workers. Last week they “urged the government to beef up security in the apparel industrial units with additional police forces so that peaceful atmosphere is maintained.” (Garment makers ask government to tighten security in factories).

The current government of Bangladesh is led by Awami League leader, Sheikh Hasina. This bourgeois government came to power in a landslide victory after a period of unrest. It succeeded in the polls because of its opposition to the other, corrupt bourgeois party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which had made no secret of its links to Islamic fundamentalists and also because the left-wing forces, primarily the Workers’ Party and Bangladesh Communist Party (BCP) and its splinter groups and their mass organization, shamefully supported the Awami League for its “secular” stance. In the tradition of Stalinism, they even entered the government on a totally unprincipled basis. The current Minister of Industries, directly facing the workers’ struggles, is actually no other than Dilip Barua, a well-known communist and the leader of a BCP splinter, the Bangladesh Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist).

Part of Sheikh Hasina’s popularity was due to her promises to guarantee better conditions for the workers and her public lamenting over the “inhumane” conditions of the textile workers. However, once in power her government made no mistake in choosing sides between workers and the bosses.

Last week, Home Minister Sahara Khatun met with BGMEA President, Absus Salam Murshedy in her office in Dhaka. It seems that the Minister has totally reassured the bosses of her government’s cooperation. Murshedy said to the press that “the minister assured them of taking every possible step, including deployment of more police forces to prevent all types of unrest and untoward incidents.”

The right-wing media has played a pernicious role in all this, trying to blame the workers for damaging Bangladesh’s attempt to win orders from those international buyers who used depend on Chinese manufacturers. The tabloid Weekly Blitz wrote last week: “while Bangladesh is aiming to snatch big orders from various international buyers, most of whom were earlier depending on Chinese manufacturers; Bangladeshi government has placed a veteran pro-Chinese communist in the Industries Ministry. Dilip Barua, minister in charge of the ministry, is a veteran leader of Bangladesh Communist Party. Most of the labor unions in the country are also directly or indirectly affiliated with this leftist block.”

The Awami government, not wanting to appear soft in this situation, has unleashed its armed body of men, police and other armed forces on the workers. Days ago, the Rapid Action Battalion arrested several workers on charges of causing violence during their protest against the new pay scale (Online BD News). Also police “filed a case against 3,000 to 4,000 apparel workers naming 40 in connection with the recent unrest in Narayanganj demanding higher pay.” (4,000 RMG workers sued). Other reports by the website Bangladesh Today reveal plans of the police and government to stop the spread of worker unrest by militarising the factories.

Support the workers’ fight back! Fight for Socialist Revolution!

If all the powers that be are in such a frenzy about the rise of the Bangladeshi workers, they have good reasons for this. The Bangladeshi working class has immense power in its hands. The garment industry itself accounts for 75 percent of the total exports of Bangladesh. Without the labour of these heroic workers, 90 percent of them women who have to endure double exploitation, the Bangladeshi economy would not function.

The working people of Bangladesh have never seen a good day since the bloody war of independence from Pakistan in 1972. Years of bloody military dictatorships have been followed by two decades of “democracy”, i.e. the shuffling of power between the two main bourgeois parties and their veteran leaders, which have brought nothing but poverty and misery for the masses. But Bangladesh also has a proud and long history of socialist, communist and workers’ struggles. In the current conditions, the left parties are set to grow and become stronger. The Communist Party (BCP), despite all the previous setbacks and splits, has more than 25,000 members and is capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands through its mass organisations of labour, student, youth, women and etc.

The BCP, together with other left forces such as the Workers’ Party and Jatya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD – Socialist National Party), need to unite their forces and change track. The first step they need to take is to abandon any idea of achieving reforms in alliance with any so-called “progressive bourgeoisie”. They must break with the bourgeois policies of the ruling parties and offer a clear revolutionary way out to the working people. The ever-growing proletarianisation of society – and the growing levels of class struggle has presented the left with a historical opportunity to come to power on the basis of the might of the working class. Only on the basis of a programme for socialist revolution, can the left come to power and start a new page in the history of the country and the region.