From 23 October to 15 November, over more than three weeks, garment workers in Bangladesh were struggling for an increase of the minimum pay rate. The last time such a demand was raised was five years ago. In the meantime, conditions have become dire for many of the sector’s 4.4 million workers, who have been hard hit by soaring prices of food, house rents, and costs of education and healthcare. Many of the garment workers were finding it difficult to make ends meet, forced to figure out merely how to survive. The strike was the most important workers’ struggle in Bangladesh in more than a decade.
Working conditions in the garment sector
Workers in the garment industry have an important place in the Bangladesh economy. The garment industry accounts for 80 per cent of Bangladesh's total export earnings. They are an important reference point for the working class in that country. But nonetheless both their working and living conditions are downright miserable.
- Lack of safety measures leads to many accidents at work.
In 2012, fires at the Tazreen textile factory led to 110 deaths. Then in 2013, in one of the worst industrial disasters ever, 1,135 people were killed the infamous collapse of Rana Plaza, shining a spotlight on the extremely abusive conditions in the garment industry. Furthermore, from November 2012 to March 2018, there were still 5000 incidents with 3,875 injuries and 1,303 deaths. Thereafter the number of accidents has diminished, but even in 2023 safety standards are still disregarded, as was demonstrated on 1 May when 16 workers were hospitalised with severe burns following an explosion.
- Long working days and excessive pressure and stress.
The workers often work long hours and have little time between shifts. Sometimes they work for up to 18 hours per day, arriving early in the morning and leaving past midnight. Workers have very little workspace, sitting in small chairs that stress their backs and necks, and they have to work in cramped and unsafe areas. They face an elevated risk of illness because of completely inadequate sanitary conditions, poor hygiene practices and congested conditions. Moreover, workers can be physically assaulted for failing to meet output volumes targets. Women, 58 percent of the workforce, are often subjected to sexual harassment.
- Ultra-low wages, affecting workers’ physical health.
A new report of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), published in May 2023, has shown that garment workers in Bangladesh are experiencing alarming nutritional deficiency rates which is clearly connected to the low minimum wage. According to a survey by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), 43% of textile workers suffer from malnutrition; 78% are forced to buy food on credit; 82% of the workers are unable to pay for healthcare; 85% live in shanty towns and 87% cannot send their children to school. These workers need at least 23,000 taka ($209) per month to stay above the poverty line .
In response to these gruesome working conditions workers have demonstrated their combativity on a number of occasions in the past decade:
- In 2013 more than 200,000 textile workers across Bangladesh protested for higher wages, which led to hundreds of factories being closed.
- In November 2014 a strike of garment workers at 140 Bangladeshi garment factories compelled the bosses to grant a 77% rise in the minimum wage,
- In December 2016, a strike in Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, quickly snowballed into widespread unrest. Garment workers abandoned their factories to call for a living wage in response to ever-rising costs.
- In December 2018 when workers saw that the wage offer was much too low, tens of thousands of them took to the streets. In January 2019 52 factories shut down operations as a result of more than a week of protests.
- In April 2020, in defiance of the nationwide lockdown, 20,000 workers organised massive protests to demand their wages after clothes factories had stopped paying their staff due to a lack of orders.
The strike of 2023
In the previous decade Bangladesh had relatively high economic growth, low inflation, and good foreign exchange reserves. Exports jumped from $14.66 billion in 2011 to $33.1 billion in 2019. But economic pressure has come from new high global commodity prices, high imported inflation, and supply chain disruptions. Inflation in Bangladesh reached nearly 10 percent this year and the taka has depreciated by around 30 per cent against the US dollar since the beginning of 2022. Foreign reserves have fallen about 20 per cent this year, which forced the government to take the multibillion-dollar IMF loan.
In the face of these conditions, on October 23, Bangladeshi workers from hundreds of plants in Mirpur, Narayanganj, Ashulia, Savar and Gazipur came out on strike demanding a living wage higher than the offered 10.000 taka ($90) per month. The proposed increased wage offer of 25 per cent was seen as an outrage and protests spread to the capital Dhaka, sparking mass demonstrations with tens of thousands on the streets, leading to the suspension of production in hundreds of the 3500 factories.
There are almost no reports about the first week of the strike, from 23 to 29 October, but there are signs that workers tried to extend the struggle to more garment factories. But these attempts were obstructed by the employers and the forces of repression. Factory owners prevented the trade unions from speaking to the workers by intimidating and threatening its officials and members. At one point groups of workers went to a factory where the workers were not allowed to leave. They called on them to join the demonstrations. At another moment thousands of workers attempted to block strike breakers entering a factory. In both cases they were met with violent assaults by the industrial police.
After two weeks of strike action, massive demonstrations and the inevitable clashes with the police, the tri-partite Minimum Wage Board (MWB), a government-appointed panel, promised to improve the original wage offer. Under the instructions of the trade unions, the workers agreed to go back to work on Wednesday 6 November. But when they heard about an improved monthly minimum wage of only 12,500 taka (£90) to start from 1 December, the struggle resumed and the protests escalated. The proposal was far below the 23,000 taka a month workers needed to keep their families from starvation.
But in the following week the workers were not able to develop enough pressure to force the government and the employers to meet their demands. The only clear response of the ruling class came from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, threatening the workers that they should “work with the pay rise they already received or return to their village”. So on 15 November the strike ended more or less in a defeat for the workers who did not get everything they had demanded: ie a pay rise of 300 per cent. Instead they got a pay raise of only 56.25 per cent, which is far too low to meet their daily nutritional needs.
In order to sabotage the struggle and to beat the workers the ruling class used different instruments
- In the first place approximately 20 unions, sabotaging each autonomous action of the workers, such as the attempt to extend the struggle to as many plants as possible. When a new wage offer was announced on 7 November the unions were the first to call the workers to return to work, even if they were aware that the new pay offer was far from sufficient.
- In the second place the massive campaign of the political opposition, which presented the workers’ struggle as the spearhead of a popular movement, demanding the resignation of Sheikh Hasina’s government. Her government is obviously hated by the majority of the workers, but their demands were not focussed on the fall of the government .
- In the third place, repression by the state. Striking workers or even union officials were massively arrested, beaten, harassed, and thrown in jail. During this strike five workers were killed, dozens injured and hospitalised, and as many as 11,000 workers face criminal charges. Sometimes goons armed with rods entered the workplace to assault a sit-down protest of the workers.
Weakness of the struggle
As revolutionaries we should not shy away from exposing the weaknesses of the strike. And then we are faced with the massive destruction that took place during the strike, where about 70 factories suffered damage, two were burned down and many were ransacked. But it is not clear what was done by the working class and what was done by lumpenproletarian elements or even criminal gangs. But it is undeniable and cannot be excluded that, as an expression of impatience or even desperation groups of workers have been tempted to destructive actions such as attacking buildings or buses, looting factories, etc . And this tendency comes to the fore especially when the extension of the struggle clashes with its limits and remains isolated from the class as a whole. In such circumstances minorities of workers often think that they can make a breakthrough with destructive actions of blind violence. And this tendency becomes stronger as daily living conditions are more appalling and workers receive neither a wage nor strike pay during the strike.
But destruction, as a form of blind violence, is in contrast to class violence, because the raison d’etre of the working class struggle is to do away with all random violence. In working class violence the defence of the strike and its perspective, end and means, are intrinsically connected. To achieve a given end, the only means that are appropriate are those that serve and reinforce the road to that end.
Lessons of the struggles
Leftist organisations and trade union organisations internationally have organised ‘solidarity’ with the workers struggle in Bangladesh. Through these actions they try to confuse the workers by advocating international ‘solidarity’ between unions rather than between workers; by presenting campaigns to put pressure on the brands to pay more for the clothes produced as the way to express solidarity with the garment workers. Against this, the working class must bring forward its own lessons, which can enrich the struggles of the world working class. In particular it must emphasise that strike of the garment workers in Bangladesh:
- was not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a worldwide struggle and a response to the struggle of the workers that took place in the UK, France, the US and some other countries in the world since the summer of 2022;
- has taught us that the involvement of 20 trade unions is not a guarantee for a victory. On the contrary, a large number of unions is better able to divide the workers involved and to obstruct further unification of the struggle;
- has demonstrated that clashes with the police or other violent actions by minorities of workers, decided outside the organised workers’ assemblies, do not strengthen the strike, but acts against the unity of the workers as a class.
Dn and Rr 11/12/23
 Blockades of the BNP even intertwined with blockades of the garment workers, as happened on Tuesday 31 October when the blockades of opposition parties occurred amid the blockades of the garment workers.
 Articles in leftist publications do not criticise the destruction carried out by workers. They present any form of violence by the workers as an expression of its combativity and resilience.
 International Confederation of Labour; World Federation of Trade Unions; the German trade union Ver.di. See in particular: Textilarbeiterinnen in Bangladesch kämpfen für eine Anhebung des Mindestlohns um mehr als 200 % und fordern internationale Unterstützung on Labournet Germany.