Faced with appalling living and working conditions, with miserable wages and price rises in basic necessities like rice, thousands of textile workers in Bangladesh have launched massive and very determined struggles. In June there were bloody confrontations with the forces of order. The workers were so angry that they rejected the offer of an 80% pay rise drawn up by the government, the bosses and the unions. The strikes spread spontaneously to factories at the edge of the capital Dhaka and to other parts of the country, especially in response to state repression. The workers’ indignation with their situation also expressed itself in the destruction of machinery, seen as symbols of their enslavement. But they also set up barricades, blocked motorways and invaded the centre of the city, in order to make their voices heard and defend themselves collectively.
Exploitation and class struggle in Bangladesh
Bangladesh has seen more and more wildcat strikes, often violently put down by the state, especially since the explosion of unrest in 2006. The country employs 3.5.million workers in the textile and garment industry. 80% of this production is exported by the big international corporations. These western merchants of ‘designer goods’ are full of noble speeches about demanding decent wages for their workers and banning child labour, but they exert a huge pressure on local employers to keep the price of labour power as low as possible. This is perhaps one of the cheapest labour forces in the world. And in a world context of overproduction and crisis, even wages of 19 euros a month seem rather high to the capitalists!
The textile workers, who have often just come from the countryside, cannot survive on such poverty wages. They live in the slums of Dhaka that are often exposed to floods. Their living conditions are in many ways worse than those experienced in the early days of the industrial revolution. The majority of the workforce is made up of women who work over 10 hours a day, many of them through the night, at a frenzied pace in conditions of searing heat. They are victims of all kinds of brutality from the bosses and foremen, including physical threats and sexual abuse. One worker in five is less than 15 years old. The archaic infrastructure and lack of safety regulations mean that accidents are extremely frequent. In 2009 hundreds of workers died in two factory fires.
Now that the poorer countries are witnessing such violent and visible explosions of anger, the bourgeoisie is becoming aware that repression alone is not enough and it is trying to complement the police with more suitable organs of social control – trade unions. In Bangladesh, the main unions have very little grip over the workers. This is why unofficial unions are taking up the slack, presenting themselves as a real opposition and criticising the lack of trade union rights. As a trade unionist in Bangladesh put it: “Because legal recourse is virtually impossible, spontaneous demonstrations are often the solution” (www.lemonde.fr). With the same concern, the local trade union, the BGWUC, aware of the need to keep things in the proper framework, emphasises that “minimising repression can give the union leaders the chance to intervene quickly in the workplace to prevent nascent conflicts from degenerating into the usual violence” (www.dndf.org).
In other words, the trade unions are insisting that before resorting to the truncheon, the bosses should call on their services to stifle the class struggle. This is why western trade unionists have been travelling to Bangladesh recently. Members of the UK union Unite and the American United Steel Workers have been over there helping local trade unions. It was the same in 1980 when British, French and other trade unionists went over to Poland to help build the Solidarnosc trade union and support its efforts to corral the mass strike.
The common struggle of the working class
Against the various weapons of the enemy class, the proletariat has to be vigilant. The wildcat strikes and militant street demonstrations in Bangladesh are part of a huge international movement which began in 2003 with the public sector strikes in France. Since then, this dynamic of resistance has grown, especially in the poorer regions, as we have seen in countries like Algeria, Turkey and China.
For years the workers in the peripheral countries have been presented as being in competition with workers in the more developed regions. But now they are showing themselves to be our class brothers and sisters; victims like we are of the economic crisis of capitalism. This is why the bourgeoisie prefers to impose a black-out on their struggles while spreading the same old lies. It needs above all to hide all signs of a growing solidarity between the workers.
In this process of international struggle, the workers of the advanced countries have a particular role in extending the movement and, given their historical experience, in providing it with the perspective of revolution. WH 24.810