Workers Hammer No. 213
Women garment workers fight starvation wages
On 12 December 2010, police in Chittagong, Bangladesh opened fire on garment workers protesting starvation wages, killing at least three. The killing occurred during several days in which tens of thousands of workers, who are mostly women, blocked roads near the capital, Dhaka, and besieged factories in the southern Export Processing Zone, protesting the refusal of factory owners to honour a wage increase agreed following an earlier round of class struggle last summer.
Two days after the police killings, a fire in the Ha-Meem clothing factory in Ashulia near Dhaka killed between 26 and 31 workers and injured at least 100 more. That the exact number of dead in both the fire and the police killings is not clear speaks volumes about the value placed on workers’ lives in this wretchedly impoverished South Asian country.
The ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh employs around 3.5 million workers and accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s export earnings, some £7.7 billion last year. It provides the country’s second largest source of income after remittances from Bangladeshis working abroad, millions of whom are forced to toil in the most dangerous and lowest paid jobs in the Near East and Europe to support their families at home. Bangladesh’s garment industry has grown dramatically over 25 years, supplanting the traditional exports of jute and tea, and consolidating a female proletarian layer with significant potential social power. Bangladesh’s clothing factories supply major Western clothing brands, including Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Gap and Wal-Mart, while paying the lowest wages of garment workers in the world. The legal minimum wage won last summer (but not generally paid out by the factory bosses) is 3000 taka (£28) a month, far below subsistence and coming in the context of sharp rises in food prices.
Garment factory fires like that in December — virtually mass murder by factory owners — are anything but rare. The Bangladesh Daily Star (27 February 2010) published a partial list of garment factory fires since 1990, including eight in which at least 20 died. In describing conditions typical of these atrocities, the International Labor Rights Forum wrote of a fire last year at the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory in Dhaka in which 21 workers died:
“Lasting nearly two hours, the fire consumed the oxygen in the air, suffocating the workers. The smoke could not get out because the factory’s windows were sealed with heavy metal shutters. Workers could not escape because exits were locked. Security personnel had reportedly locked two of the factory’s main gates when the fire broke out to prevent theft by garment workers leaving the factory”
— Fighting Poverty Wages in Bangladesh, SweatFree Communities, December 2010.
Recent years have seen explosive waves of labour protest and strikes by Bangladeshi garment workers who are engaged in a battle for survival in conditions of near-slavery, often forced to work more than twelve-hour days, seven days a week to fill orders, in hazardous conditions. Trade unionists, even where allowed to function legally, are banned outright from organising in the factories, and are frequent targets of arrest, torture and killings by state forces. Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, documents at least seven garment workers killed in 2010 by government forces and 2528 injured in the course of protests (odhikar.org, 1 January). They cite 259 arrests of workers’ leaders in 2010 including garment workers’ leader Mushrefa Mishu, who has been held in custody since the mid-December strikes and is seriously ill. Trade unions internationally must demand in solidarity: Free Mushrefa Mishu and all other detained worker activists!
Several trade unions internationally have issued statements of support for the embattled Bangladeshi workers. Workers Uniting, formed by trade unions including Unite in Britain and the United Steelworkers in the US and Canada, took out a full-page advertisement in a Bangladeshi newspaper, the Daily Ittefaq, last July which was reproduced and mass distributed in Dhaka and Chittagong by the Textile Garment Workers Federation. It proclaimed: “Workers Uniting supports the very modest demand of Bangladesh’s garment workers for a minimum wage of at least 5,000 taka [£45] a month.” Derek Simpson, outgoing leader of Unite, condemned the global “race to the bottom” in sweatshop wages, saying that “these women in Bangladesh are having to work for as little pay as the employers can get away with”.
Statements of international solidarity from the trade union bureaucracies are a welcome change from protectionist campaigns against foreign workers such as when Simpson backed the wave of chauvinist strikes on Britain’s building sites for “British jobs for British workers”. Genuine proletarian internationalism, summed up in the Communist Manifesto slogan “workers of the world unite”, is a call for unity in class struggle against the capitalist rulers in each country and is counterposed to the politics of the reformist trade union bureaucracy which is loyal to its “own” bourgeoisie. Simpson’s professed opposition to the “race to the bottom” in wages would ring hollow to Bangladeshi immigrant workers in Britain, who are among the poorest sections of the proletariat in the country. Far be it from the union bureaucracy to mobilise the social power of this powerful union in a class-struggle fight to defend jobs and wages against vicious capitalist austerity. By and large the union bureaucracy has supported the racist “war on terror” directed against Muslims which was launched under “their” Labour government.
The statements of solidarity with workers in Bangladesh by the trade union bureaucracies include wretched appeals to their “own” capitalist rulers. The Workers Uniting statement pledges: “The AFL-CIO will ask our government to work together with the government of Bangladesh to guarantee that Bangladesh’s workers have the right to freedom of association, to organise independent unions and to bargain collectively.” In Britain, Unite backs the “Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops” campaign organised by War on Want which appeals to the British government to “regulate the business practices of UK retailers to ensure that overseas workers are guaranteed a living wage, decent working conditions and the right to join a trade union” (waronwant.org).
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not workers’ organisations but are funded by capitalist governments, churches and business enterprises and appeals by the trade union leaders to NGOs on behalf of the garment workers only serve to give a humanitarian gloss to imperialist exploitation in the world’s poorest countries (while salving liberal consciences by promoting the mythical power of the consumers in the West). But the brutal capitalist exploitation that is endemic in the garment industry — from Bangladesh to the Philippines to Indonesia — will not be ended by appeals to the “good conscience” of the imperialist butchers in Britain and the US, but through class struggle that targets the profits of the manufacturing capitalists in every country.
The capitalists will do what they need to do in order to increase their profit margins — by intensifying exploitation of workers at home and/or by exporting their capital, thus moving jobs to countries where labour costs are cheaper. In opposition to protectionism, the labour movement must fight for international working-class solidarity, linking the economic and other struggles of workers in the US and Britain with those of workers around the world, particularly in Third World countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. What is ultimately necessary is the sweeping away of the global capitalist order through a series of socialist revolutions that establish an international planned economy.
Women’s liberation and the programme of permanent revolution
For us revolutionary Marxists, the young women garment workers in Bangladesh are not mere victims in need of charity from the West, but are the backbone of a multi-billion pound industry that is vital to the economy of Bangladesh. Driven from the villages by desperate poverty, Bangladeshi women workers face brutal forms of exploitation, but they also stand to gain a new consciousness and for the first time in their lives participate in organised struggle against oppression as a class. In this hideously poor country that remains largely rural, the proletariat is small relative to the rest of the population but has tremendous social power and is a crucial link in the chain of the world economy.
The venal ruling class of Bangladesh is tied to the imperialist powers by a thousand and one threads, not least to British imperialism, the former colonial power that exploited and dismembered the subcontinent. A WikiLeaks report in December revealed that British police forces, starting when Labour was in government, have been training the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion that is notorious for torture and killings of Bangladeshi workers leaders, tribal activists, leftists and other political opponents of the government.
The horrific conditions of life in Bangladesh are a product not only of imperialist exploitation but of the tyranny of religious obscurantism. Whether under the Awami League, the Bangladesh National Party or military rule, Islamic strictures lead to brutish treatment of women who are secluded from social life and treated as chattel property of fathers and husbands. A job in the garment factories, however dangerous and poorly paid it may be, is one of the few socially acceptable ways for a woman to earn a living and to achieve a degree of independence. But to address the most basic democratic questions facing women workers in Bangladesh — who are subject to exploitation by employers, murderous state repression by the police, the danger of rape, as well as malnutrition for themselves and their children — requires a revolutionary socialist programme.
In 1994 the courageous Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin was hounded out of the country by rabid Islamic fundamentalists incensed by her fight for the rights of women including to contraception and abortion. But the anti-woman hordes mobilised by the mullahs were not unopposed: in June 1994, 500 women garment workers in Dhaka armed with sticks mobilised in defence of Nasrin and against a strike call by fundamentalists, the aim of which was to pressure the government to arrest and execute Nasrin (see “Women and the Permanent Revolution in Bangladesh”, Women and Revolution no 44, Winter 1994-Spring 1995).
The emancipation of women as part of the liberation of the downtrodden of the entire subcontinent requires a struggle for permanent revolution — the perspective fought for by Lenin and Trotsky in the great October 1917 Revolution in Russia: the workers seizing power at the head of the oppressed masses, agrarian revolution to liberate the peasantry, the socialisation and rational reorganisation of the economy in the interests of human needs not profit, and the fight to extend socialist revolution internationally, especially to the imperialist heartlands.