Broken bricks, blocked roads and burned factories – Bangladeshi workers demand better wages

Since 21st September 2013 up to 200,000 Bangladeshi garment workers have been demonstrating and taking strike action to demand an increase in the minimum wage from $38 to $100. As the protests entered their fourth day the militant mood of the workers was apparent and the weakness of the politicians, the bosses and the trade union leaders in the face of a mass workers’ movement is being revealed.

The Savar tragedy

These protests come just five months after the tragic collapse of the nine-storey Rana Plaza at Savar near Dhaka that killed over 1000 garment workers who had been toiling for a few cents an hour in unsafe conditions for the profits of Western multinationals. Those events saw thousands of workers on the streets of Bangladesh demanding safer working conditions and the punishment of those responsible for this appalling tragedy.

The Bangladeshi garment industry accounts for 80% of the country’s revenues and it is the world’s second largest apparel exporter after China, supplying Wal-Mart, Tesco, H&M, Gap, Primark and many other major Western garment retailers. It should come as no surprise then that both the Bangladeshi government and these retailers were keen to quell the anger in April with promises of safer working conditions, compensation for the tragedy and higher wages.

No confidence in the capitalists

However, earlier this month these multinationals failed dismally to agree on a plan for compensating those who were injured or lost family in the Savar collapse. In fact of the 29 companies expected to attend the meeting in Geneva, just nine turned up. Clearly the Bangladeshi workers cannot rely on the backroom deals of the capitalists to improve their lives – the only way to bring about change is through their own strength in the form of a mass movement. This is a lesson the workers are learning fast.

For example, many of these same retailers said that they would set safety standards for factories in Bangladesh by October and refuse to deal with any factories that failed to meet these standards. Not only is this a long time for the workers to wait – time which must be spent working in terrifyingly dangerous conditions, but it is clear that these workers are unconvinced by the promises of these capitalists. They are realising that they can trust only in themselves.

The demand for higher wages

The government formed a committee earlier this year to decide on a new minimum wage. The current minimum wage is $38 per month, a figure which was set in 2010 as a result of months of demonstrations which forced the government and factory owners to agree to an 80% wage increase. Although the committee is supposed to report in December it seems clear that the workers are not willing to wait that long. Based on the experience of 2010 it is clear to the Bangladeshi textile workers that militant demonstrations, not polite negotiations, are the way to win this struggle.

The need for a wage increase is clear. The current wages of Bangladeshi garment workers, 90% of whom are women, is half that of Cambodian workers in the same industry. One protester said “we work to survive but we can’t even cover our basic needs”. In response to the suggestion from factory owners that wages be increased by 20%, workers refused, calling it “inhuman and humiliating”. One union leader, Shahidul Islam Sabuj, said, “One hundred dollars is the minimum we have asked for. A worker needs much more than that to lead a decent life”.

In answer to these demands employers are pointing to gloomy economic conditions as an explanation for why wages cannot be increased. With 60% of garment exports going to the stagnant European economies and 23% to the anaemic US market, factory owners are looking to push costs down even further in order to minimise the drying up of effective demand for their goods as a result the global capitalist crisis.

The reality is that the bosses in Bangladesh, Europe and the USA need to make a profit, and this is a need that is incompatible with the needs of the garment workers who, as the union officials have pointed out, really require a wage much higher than $100 per month. This is only going to be possible in a system that cuts out the parasitic need for profit, and instead runs society on the basis of social need.

Militancy

These protests are significant in size and militancy. Workers on strike on Monday 23 September blocked major roads and attacked factories that the bosses attempted to keep open on that day. This militant and uncompromising action by the workers forced 400 factories to shut down for the day, a fact which serves to confirm that it is the workers, not the bosses, who are the ones really keeping the $20bn a year garment industry running in Bangladesh.

The reaction of the police to the demonstrations has been vicious; one Gazipur police officer described the “harsh actions to restore order” that were taken against “defiant workers”. In response to the teargas and rubber bullets unleashed by the police against the protestors, the workers threw broken bricks to defend themselves. One report says that protestors overran a police outpost and stole four rifles and around 100 bullets to defend themselves against the attacks by the police. It is estimated that, as of Monday, around 70 people have been injured in the clashes, but only six of these were police officers. This figure demonstrates the brutality of the police, compared to the actions of the protestors.

Ruling class weakness

The nature of the Bangladeshi economy is such that there are a huge number of workers who suffer unbearably exploitative conditions. The concentration of these workers in the garment industry gives them a collective consciousness as a result of similar working conditions and a common enemy. Meanwhile, the bosses are highly dependent on big Western retailers whose dominance of the garment market gives them power to dictate their terms of trade, leaving the Bangladeshi capitalists with little power or control. In short, the class balance of forces inside Bangladesh is strongly in favour of the workers.

The weakness of the ruling class is confirmed by events. In 2010, the government had no option but to increase the minimum wage by 80% in the face of months of demonstrations by workers. In April this year, the government was forced to arrest those bosses responsible for the collapse of the factory at Savar in order to satisfy the demands of the workers. In addition, the Western retailers are now running for cover from what they see as the incompetence of the Bangladeshi government, with H&M saying, “We strongly support the workers’ demand for higher wages... we have on various occasions urged the government to raise minimum wages in the textile industry”.

In the face of its own crippling weakness the Bangladeshi ruling class is forced to rely on the trade unions to hold the workers back. The Shipping Minister, Shajahan Khan has been tasked with trying to resolve the current protests and he met with factory owners and union leaders on Monday night. Khan has been chosen for this role as the vice president of the Labour unit of the ruling Awami League party as well as the president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Worker Federation. That this labour federation leader is also a government minister shows the bankruptcy of the union leadership.

However, after this meeting, which lasted into Tuesday morning, the best that the compromiser Khan could offer the bosses by way of reassurance was: “I hope the workers will get back to work”. It seems that under the pressure of 200,000 workers, the union leaders are also losing control of the movement.

Meanwhile other labour leaders are working to undermine the movement. Nazma Akhter, president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation reprimanded the ruling class by saying, “if the owners had given the workers a little more [than the offer of a 20% wage increase], we could have avoided violence”. Instead of giving advice to the capitalists about how best to quell the workers’ movement, these leaders should be supporting the workers in their demands for wages of at least $100 by pointing out that the wealth of the garment industry should belong to those who produce the garments, not the parasites who cream off the profits.

For international socialist revolution!

The Bangladeshi workers are learning that through their own strength they can win decisive battles in the struggle for a decent standard of living. Just as they are increasingly losing faith in foreign capitalists to protect their interests, so they must struggle to elect trade union leaders who genuinely represent them and to break with those politicians who seek to hold their movement back. Ultimately, it is only through a demand for the garment industry to be taken into public ownership by and for the people of Bangladesh that the workers can be freed from the misery of capitalism. And as closely tied into the world economy as the garment industry is, the international struggle for socialism and the need to nationalise the enormous retail monopolies that terrorise the garment workers for profit, is more pressing than ever.