Bangladesh: Savar Tragedy shows the real face of growth under Capitalism

Following the collapse of the nine-storey Rana Plaza at Savar near Dhaka last week, the death toll of workers killed in the disaster had reached 501 by the morning of Friday 3rd May. Many people fear that the death toll will rise above 1000. While a large number of workers are still missing and feared dead, their relatives have taken to the streets to protest against the brutality of the Capitalist economic system that caused this tragedy. This latest incident took place just five months after the Ashulia tragedy near Dhaka in which more than 110 garment workers were burnt to death in a Tazreen Fashions factory after a fire broke out. No-one has yet been held responsible, let alone punished, for that incident.

Nobody knows how many people were working in the Rana Plaza complex that housed five garment factories across six floors, producing goods for the Western markets. According to some estimates 3,122 garment workers, mostly women, were inside the building at the time of collapse but in reality the figures could be much higher. Due to a lack of regulation and the failure to implement labour laws, the workers are not even registered as employees of the companies and have a legal status equivalent to factory tools, with no purpose other exploitation by the bosses. Such conditions are possible because, according to some reports, only 18 inspectors oversee safety conditions in more than 100,000 garment factories in and around Dhaka.

The absence of trade unions, a complete failure to implement labour laws and absolutely no concern for the health and safety of workers have all become hallmarks of the garment industry in Bangladesh and most South Asian countries producing cheap goods for European and North American markets. The collapsed Rana Plaza manufactured products for leading European brands such as Benetton, Mango, Loblaw (Joe Fresh) and Primark.

In Bangladesh the plight of garment workers is no better than that of the slaves in the Roman Empire or those working on the pyramids under the rule of the Egyptian Pharaohs. This becomes increasingly clear as the details of the tragedy in Savar are unfolding.

On 23rd April 2013 workers noticed cracks in the building and informed their employers about the possibility of a building collapse. All of these concerns were shrugged off both by the owners of the garment factories and Sohel Rana, the owner of the complex. The next day, the workers were forced to work in the same building despite their fears and were told that expert engineers had declared the building safe following an examination. Some of the workers were still adamant that the building was unsafe but were threatened by their employers that they would lose three days’ pay if they refused to work on 24th April. This threat came near the end of month when these workers had already spent what little wages they are paid and thus the fear of a wage cut forced them back to work in this death trap. Scandalously this is not an uncommon situation and many buildings have collapsed since 2005 killing hundreds of workers, but this cruelty has always gone unpunished.

Rescue efforts for these workers have been poorly executed and painfully slow, with many bodies still buried under the debris, the atrocious stink of which has made further efforts for rescue even more difficult.

Reactions amongst workers across the country were of anger and grief. Hundreds of workers rushed to the scene to volunteer their services for the rescue operation. Many tried with their bare hands to remove the debris of the nine-storey building. Numerous workers offered blood as well as medicinal and other services for those rescued from the building. This was a great display of the solidarity that exists amongst the working class and sets the humanity of these workers in sharp contrast to the cruelty of the capitalists and business tycoons who don’t hesitate to squeeze the last drop of blood from the workers in their pursuit of profit.

Following this incident there was a burst of activity amongst garment workers and their associations who announced strikes and demonstrations. Their demand was that the owner of the complex and the other culprits for this disaster should be immediately arrested and sentenced to death. Militant rallies of thousands of workers were held in Gazipur, Narayan Ganj and other areas.

According to the Financial Express in Bangladesh:

“Pallabi Police Station Officer-in-Charge (OC) Abdul Latif said the protestors took to the streets in the morning and damaged vehicles and roadside apparel units, thereby halting vehicular movement.

"Most of the garment factories located at Kazipara, Shewrapara, Mirpur and Pallabi were shut following the protests," he said. The police had been instructed to remain alert to avert any further trouble, he added.”

Violent protests by the apparel workers were also reported at Shyamoli, Kolyanpur, Technical Crossing, Gulshan, Mohakhali, Tejgaon Industrial Area, Malibagh and Karwan Bazar in the city. In addition workers staged protests in front of the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) building. During these militant protests in different areas of Gazipur the workers attacked factories one after another. The scenario was same in the apparel manufacturing zone in Narayanganj.

Director General of the Industrial Police Abdus Salam said that security had been beefed up around the country's apparel units to avert any further incidents. "The workers were too angry to tackle," Joydevpur Police Station OC SM Kamruzzaman said. “Traffic on the Dhaka-Tangail and Dhaka-Mymensingh highways came to a halt during the protests. “

“Later on in the day the eight workers' groups in the garment sector called the strike for Sunday in all garment factories across the country. We urge the owners of all garment factories to declare leave on the day as the workers want to observe the strike peacefully," President of Garment Sramik Oikya Forum Mushrefa Mishu said. She said the Savar tragedy provided an example of how poorly the workers in the clothing industry are treated.

The seven other organisations involved in the call for a strike are Garments Sramik Trade Union Kendra, Garments Sramik Sangram Parishad comprising Bangladesh Textiles Garment Workers Federation, Garments Sramik Sanghati, Jago Bangladesh Garments Sramik Federation, Samannita Garments Sramik Federation, Bangladesh Garments Sramik Mukti Andolon and Biplabi Graments Sramik Sanghati.

The other demands of these organisations include preparing a list of the dead and the injured workers, proper compensation for the affected people, proper treatment for the injured, announcing a 50% dearness allowance, fixing the minimum wage at Tk 8,000 and ensuring the right to form trade union in the sector.

The President of Garment Sramik Sanghati , Taslima Lima, said the Rana Plaza tragedy might not have happened if the country had punished the owner of Tazreen Fashions for the deadly fire incident that killed at least 112 workers five months ago. "This cannot continue forever. We strongly demand a healthy environment and other safety measures in all factories," she said.

On May Day even bigger demonstrations were held by the garment workers to condemn the brutalities of the capitalists and the failures of the State. These workers were also demanding better working conditions.

The right-wing opposition party, BNP, and its 18-party alliance also announced a strike on May 2nd to shed crocodile tears for these workers in order to score political points over the ruling Awami League.

In fact the economic policies of both the leading political parties are the same and both follow the doctrines of liberalisation and de-regulation, at the behest of the IMF. After the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, all textile industry in the country was nationalised. This followed a huge revolutionary movement in 1968-69 in which workers were demanding socialist policies. Although this movement, accompanied by the movement in West Pakistan, was successful in overthrowing the regime of the military dictator Ayub Khan, it was not followed through into a socialist transformation of the country. After independence large reforms were carried out but the Capitalist system, along with all its brutality, remained intact. As the movement subsided the ruling elite was able to reassert itself and crushed the movement, slaughtering its leading layers.  Brutal military dictatorships followed the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, under which privatization was carried out in accordance with the dictates of IMF and World Bank.

In last few years Bangladesh has achieved a GDP growth rate of 6-7% and is a growing economy on a world scale. According to Goldman Sachs it is among the Next Eleven countries after the BRICS. Leading this growth is the garment industry with exports of around $19 billion per year, accounting for 80% of the country’s revenues.

Around 3.6 million people work in Bangladesh's garment industry, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter, after China. Ninety percent of the workers are women, some of whom earn as little as $38 a month.

Duty-free access offered by Western countries coupled with low wages has helped to turn Bangladesh's garment exports into this $19 billion a year industry, with 60% of the clothes going to Europe. According to Bangladesh's commerce ministry, from June 2011 to June 2012, Bangladesh's garment exports to the EU rose to $11.37 billion from $10.52 billion one year earlier. Germany is the main EU market at $3.4 billion, followed by the UK at $2.13 billion, Spain at $1.71 billion and France at $1.27 billion.

All of these increases in revenues and the growth rate in GDP have not trickled down to the workers whose lives are becoming more and more unbearable with every passing day. Meanwhile the owners of these industries and multinationals are extracting huge profits. This shows the utter bankruptcy of a measure of success based upon growth rates in a Capitalist economy. All this growth is only achieved through the terrible exploitation of workers who are worked to death to gain maximum profits. According to one report, workers have to sew one pair of Wal-Mart “Faded Glory” jeans every six minutes, sometimes working for up to 12 hours a day. These jeans are sold for around $8 in Western countries while the worker gets less than 2 cents for them. The severe working conditions that include closed doors in hot and humid rooms along with windows fixed with iron bars to prevent theft, is enough in itself to take many years off the life of the average worker. Continuously working for more than 12 hours in the same routine can sometimes paralyze the limbs of the workers who have no insurance and medical care.

In Bangladesh even prostitution is considered a better profession than working in a garment factory. It is women who can’t find work anywhere else but who must feed themselves and their children who are forced to work in these horrible conditions. All this exploitation has always been a part and parcel of the profit-driven Capitalist system, a fact that was pointed by Karl Marx long time ago.

“But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight…. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by reducing it of its fertility” (Capital, Chapter 10).

The plight of workers today in Bangladesh is no different from those living in 18th century Britain – a state of affairs aptly described by Charles Dickens in his novel, ‘Hard Times’.

“Look how we live, an’ wheer we live, an’ in what numbers, an’ by what chances, an’ wi’ what sameness; and look how the mills is awlus a-goin’, and how they never works us no nigher to onny distant object-‘ceptin awlus Death. Look how you considers of us, and writes of us, and talks of us, and goes up wi’ your deputations to Secretaries o’ State ‘bout us, and how yo are awlus right, and how we are awlus wrong, and never had’n no reason in us sin ever we were born. Look how this ha’ growen an’ growen sir, bigger an’ bigger, broader an’ broader, harder an’ harder, fro year to year, fro generation unto generation. Who can look on’t sir, and fairly tell a man ‘tis not a muddle?” (Hard Times, Dickens)

A lot of noise is being made in the national and International media about the need for strict labour laws and firm regulations to prevent future disasters. In addition the government has even managed to arrest the culprits and their trial has begun. But in the end all this will lead to nothing. This Capitalist system exists to protect the interests of the wealthy class and in doing so condemns all those living in poverty and misery to a lifetime of suffering.

But the consciousness of the working class in Bangladesh has reached a new level after yet another disaster on such a scale, and this is a great step forward for workers. A series of terrible events has shaken the consciousness of people and they are increasingly looking to rid themselves of this wage slavery. Only the overthrow of Capitalism once and for all can end the misery of life in the modern garment industry and other sectors. Capitalism is horror without end and within the confines of this system and its state protectors, political leaders and trade unionists can offer no genuine reforms. All they offer is lip service and the shedding of false tears over the death of workers - this cannot bring real change.

We support the demands of the garment workers and support the speedy trial and execution of the culprits in this tragedy, along with the compensation for deceased and injured workers. But we also point out that all this brutality can never end unless Capitalism is overthrown.

The marvelous movements of workers in Bangladesh have shown that they have the will, courage and determination to carry out this historic task. The need for building a revolutionary party, along the lines of the Bolshevik party in Russia, becomes increasingly important in the present conditions. We need a party that can lead these movements of the working class towards a final socialist victory over Capitalism and the bourgeois state and thereby end this misery, hunger, poverty and disease forever.