Revolt of the garment and textile workers in Bangladesh

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From 20 May to 6 June 2006, nearly 1.8 million garment workers of Bangladesh concentrated in industrial areas in and around the capital Dhaka engaged in a series of simultaneous massive wildcat strikes that took on the proportions of a mass proletarian revolt. During this period, especially from May 20 to May 24 when garment workers’ revolt was at its peak, workers of nearly 4000 factories struck work. These workers, and other workers from the industrial suburbs, continuously demonstrated and blocked highways connecting industrial suburbs to the capital Dhaka and Dhaka to other cities – Mymensingh, Ashulia, and Chitgong etc. In the face of this mass revolt, the bourgeoisie resorted to massive repression. In the first one week, as per official figures, at least 3 workers were shot dead, 3000 injured and several thousands were put into prisons. Striking workers continuously confronted and chased away paramilitary and police forces deployed to crush their movement. "The capital city appeared in the middle of a siege, as garment workers took to streets at about 8:30AM",  reported New Age,  the Dhaka English daily on 24th May 2006. This line was repeated on several days by bourgeois press in Bangladesh as workers persisted with their struggles. Although by May 25-26, bourgeoisie succeeded in blunting the edge of workers revolt by massive deployment of paramilitary forces and with the help of unions, the revolt continued till 6-7 June 2006. Workers in different Export Processing Zones (EPZ) and industrial areas continued to engage in wild cat strikes and demonstrations – most garment factories remained closed. The state proclaimed that factories will open only from 8th June 2006 once order is fully restored.

Barbaric exploitation of workers in Bangladesh – the real face of 'outsourcing and boom'

Amid the whole stagnant economy of Bangladesh, readymade garments sector is the only one the bourgeoisie boasts of. This sector is entirely export oriented and is composed of above 4400 units – most of them working for international buyers. Some are owned by international companies. Most of the garment units are clustered in industrial areas and Export Processing Zones in and around Dhaka – Ghazipor, Savar, Ashulia, Mirpur, Tejgaon, Mohakhali, Uttara, Wari and Tongi etc. The textile and garments export constitute 70% of total $ 9.3 billion export from Bangladesh.

This sector employs 1.8 million workers, 90% of them are women and therefore particularly vulnerable to intimidation and repression. Garment workers constitute 40% of the total industrial workforce of Bangladesh. Brutality of exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh is typical of the conditions of workers in many sectors 'outsourced' by center of capitalism to third world countries. Minimum wages are 900 Takka (14$) per month. Even this is not paid in half of the garment as well as other factories. These minimum wages were fixed in 1994 and have remained unchanged despite consumer prices having grown three fold in the last 12 years. After the recent workers’ revolt, it is now being said that the garments sector, which has thrived due to cheap, slave labor, had consistently opposed efforts to revise the minimum wage.  "Powerful lobbies of garment owners have been able to keep the government convinced that if wages in garment sector increase, it will increase production costs and discourage local and foreign investors from investing in the burgeoning sector", said Mr. Jafrul Hasan a representative of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (New Age, 29th May 2006). Even boss’s top body, BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) is now saying "Owners of the sweater manufacturing factories, who cheat their workers by paying abysmally low ‘piece rates’ (…) are to be blamed for igniting the workers’ unrest that focused national and even international interest on the gross underpayment of the garment workers and inhuman violation of their rights" (New Age, 29th May 2006).

But starvation wages are not the only expression of brutal exploitation. A few years ago the legal work week was extended to 72 Hours; actual working day is often up to or above 16 Hours. There is no weekly time off in the garment sector – mandatory weekly time off was one of the demands of the revolt. There are no public holidays, no annual leave. Also bosses "show a reckless disregard for safety at workplace as deaths of 4000 workers in industrial accidents such as fire and building collapse point to", (New Age, 24th May 2006). Not only this, there have been cases of beatings and killing of workers. "Intelligence sources said some senior staffers of the factory killed two female workers at Dhaka Export Processing Zone (…) about one and a half years ago but workers could not protest at the time for fear", Daily Independent, 2nd June 2006, Dhaka.

Apparently in these conditions of barbaric exploitation the bourgeoisie dispensed with even a myth of representation - no unions, even linked to ruling gangs, were allowed in any of the garment factories. As per an academic in Labor Studies,  "only 100 out of 5000-plus garment factories have participation committees’", New Age, 3rd June 2006. This absence of bourgeois tools to control workers became an element in the strength and violence of the workers revolt.  

Small beginnings of a mass revolt

As per reports there have been cases of workers struggles in garment factories in last few months. But these were mostly in individual factories with demands addressed to individual bosses. FS Sweater factory, whose events became detonator for the recent revolt, has been in turmoil since last some months with workers repeatedly agitating for their demands.

On Saturday, 20 May 2006, as morning shift started at 8.00 AM nearly 1000 workers of FS Sweater factory at Sripur, in the suburbs of Dhaka, started a sit-in demanding increase in their wages and release of their arrested colleagues – who were arrested on 18 May for participating in an agitation for their demands. The bosses of the company, not willing to tolerate collective resistance from the workers, locked them in. Amid sweltering heat they cut off drinking water and power supply to the areas where workers were gathered and called the police. The police entered the factory at around 11.00AM and along with private security of the factory started beating the workers.  Police also opened fire on workers inside the factory. Many workers were injured, at least 12 workers sustained bullet injuries inside the factory. Six of these wounded workers were arrested and taken by the police. Attacked by the police and the private security of the bosses, workers jumped above the walls to come out of the factory.

Enraged workers started gathering on the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway outside the factory. Workers of FS Sweater factory were joined by thousands of other workers and their families from neighboring slums where most of the workers live. By noon the workers blocked the traffic on the highway and took out a procession for their demands and against police repression. This procession of workers was attacked by bigger, reinforced contingents of police force that once again resorted to beating the workers and opened fire on demonstrators. Police also went inside the slums and beat up workers and their families. Workers and their families in turn chased the police. The traffic on the highway remained blocked till evening.

By the end of the day, one worker was shot dead by the police in front of FS Sweater Factory. As per official accounts eighty workers sustained bullet injuries. While the wounded and angry workers went back to the slums, the news of repression and of death of a worker spread throughout the industrial suburbs of Dhaka. Next day, 21st May, was Sunday. Although no major incident happened that day, the news of police atrocity continued to spread. At this moment the bourgeoisie did not expect any major trouble on Monday and did not take any preventive action by way of union, political or police mobilization. Different leftist factions contented themselves with issuing some statements 'condemning' the police attack.

A mass explosion of accumulated anger

It is not clear what type of self-organization and co-ordination developed among the workers that propelled this revolt. But it seems to be very elemental and rudimentary, essentially informal and among the workers in the same areas. What united the workers across many towns around Dhaka and in Dhaka itself was their burning hatred against brutal exploitation, daily repression and the latest police atrocities. The depth of this anger expressed itself in generalized confrontation between workers and repressive forces of the state everywhere in coming few days. It also expressed itself in burning down of several hundred factories during this revolt.

On Monday, 22 May 2006 movement erupted at fully fortified Savar EPZ, another suburb of Dhaka. In the morning, workers of Universal Garments Limited gathered in front of the factory to demand payment of their back wages and were attacked by private guards of the factory. Instead of dispersing, the attacked workers of Universal Garments went to neighboring factories and called other workers for support. Together with other workers, they went from factory to factory calling other workers to join them – at one point more than 20,000 workers are reported to have joined this militant procession. Hundreds of factories of Savar EPZ and New EPZ had joined the strikes by the afternoon. The highways going out of Dhaka were blocked. Striking workers fought back against police and paramilitary forces sent to attack them. Repressive forces of the state opened fire on workers in different parts of industrial suburbs and in Dhaka. Several hundred workers were injured by bullets; more workers were killed in firing by the forces of the state. Enraged by news of death of workers, by evening workers in other industrial suburbs were coming out of their factories.
On 23 May all industrial suburbs of Dhaka were paralyzed by a generalized revolt – most workers stopped work and took to the streets demanding end to repression, release of arrested workers, higher minimum wages, weekly time off, overtime pay for extra work, public holidays etc. Most highways out of
Dhaka were blocked. Thousands of agitating workers from suburbs and from within Dhaka paralyzed the capital. There were clashes between the forces of the state and workers everywhere with paramilitary forces opening fire. 
By this time the bourgeoisie had become aware of the gravity of the situation and set out to mobilize all its political and oppressive forces. There were calls from bosses to hand over the city to the Army. By evening of 23 May, Bangladesh Rifles (Border Security Force) was deployed in huge numbers throughout the industrial suburbs. The 'central unions' belonging to different bourgeois political gangs (
BNP, AL, Leftists), none of whom has any presence among garment workers, were brought together and they cobbled together a list of demands. On the evening of 23rd May this 'union co-ordination' issued a list of demands. A bourgeois commentator observed, possibly with some exaggeration regarding the insurrection part, "While an insurrection was already in process, the unions put forward a list of demands 'threatening' to go on strike from 12 June (20 days later) if these demands are not met" (http://pinr.com) 

Despite deployment of the Bangladesh Rifles, factories remained closed, the city and suburbs remained paralyzed by workers’ revolt on 24th May. But government now compelled the bosses' body, BGMEA and the newly cobbled together 'union coordination' to sit in a meeting. By evening the Minister for Labor, with BGMEA and Unions Reps on both sides, declared that bosses have agreed to all demands of the workers on revolt – increase of minimum pay to 3000 Taka, mandatory weekly time off and other holidays, 8 hours working day and overtime pay for extra work etc. "It is now time to go back to work”, the union co-ordination proclaimed. It is another matter that a few days later once workers revolt ebbed, the BGMEA representatives proclaimed that they will not honor agreements of 24th May 2006

While the edge of the workers revolt was blunted from 25th May 2006 their anger and revolt continued to simmer and explode. There was fresh round of large scale rioting and clashes between workers and forces of the state from 29th May – 4th June. This renewed wave of strikes erupted to protest non-implementation of proclamations of 24th May 2006. Between these days one more worker was killed, hundreds more were injured by bullets.  Savar and other EPZ were once again shut down by striking workers. These businesses were finally opened from 8 June 2006 with deployment of much bigger paramilitary forces.

The role of the unions

One of the major political weaknesses of the bourgeoisie in Bangladesh is the fragility of its democratic apparatus and as a result of democratic mystifications. The current Prime Minister, Mrs. Khalida Zia, is the wife of assassinated military dictator Zia Ur Rahman. There have been other military dictators in the short history of Bangladesh so far. The political process is characterized by gang wars, killings, and large scale bombings between main bourgeois factions – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khalida Zia and Awami League (AL) of Hasina Sheikh. The reason of this fragility is perpetual bloody battle between China and India to control Bangladesh – BNP aligned with China and AL with India.

Due to this weakness of its state structures, bourgeoisie has not been able to set up a trade union apparatus, especially in the garment factories. This weakness of the bourgeoisie allowed workers to develop their revolt and give it such a sharp edge for several days. But once the bourgeoisie saw the danger of the situation they quickly set out to redress it. Union coordinations were quickly set up – mostly at formal level, with no presence in the factories.  Agreement between them and bosses was widely propagated on radio, TV and newspapers. They were presented as standing up for workers. A demand for 'union rights' was pushed forward. Although workers have not been sucked in by these lies – as shown by persistence of workers revolt till 6th June and unions’ inability to control it – in the absence of major development of workers self-organization, union lies have not been without influence.

The bourgeoisie itself has seen the danger of its present ways – especially of absence of unions. This has been expressed in numerous proclamations by bourgeoisie that if unions have been there, if 'democratic rights' of workers have been respected, the workers movement would not have exploded the way it did. "Trade union leader Mishu said 'if there had been trade unions in factories… the situation would not have turned violent'" (New Age 3rd June 2006). Another trade union boss declared, "The absence of trade unions is very much more dangerous than the presence of active unions" (Letter from International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation to Prime Minister Khalida Zia). There has even been talk to take help of International Labor Organization in setting up the unions. 

Lessons of the garment workers revolt

There is no doubt that garment workers’ revolt has been the biggest and the most militant struggle so far of the working class in the history of Bangladesh. Despite all odds workers were able to rise up in revolt against brutal exploitation. They were able to develop their struggles in a courageous way in the face of violent repression. The explosion of this revolt and its persistence for nearly 20 days, despite all the repression, expresses great determination and will to fight of the working class. It is an important advance in the development of proletarian challenge to capitalist exploitation. This is the reason the bourgeoisie everywhere blacked out all news of this movement.

Experience of Bangladesh shows that physical absence of unions is not enough. Important thing is the ability of the working class to consciously reject the unions. Even more important is its ability to develop its own self-organization. Development at this level has been very rudimentary, if at all. Although this movement would not have developed if workers have not stood up to the repressive forces, in the absence of self-organization the revolt sometime took the character of rioting. While some of the weaknesses are expression of the lack of experience of the working class in Bangladesh, they also point toward the need for appropriating all the experience of the workers’ movement world wide. It is the responsibility of the revolutionary organizations of the communist left to contribute to the development of the workers’ consciousness of their class identity and of their historic goal: the communist revolution which alone can put an end to the brutal exploitation of the working class not just in Bangladesh but throughout the world.

Communist Internationalist, 13th June 2006

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