The garment workers of Bangladesh have been struggling for decent conditions of work and living wages since for nearly a decade. The movement has reached a pinnacle in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in November last year which took the lives of more than 1000 workers!
This tragic disaster has sparked off one of the strongest mobilizations of garment workers in recent times and has succeeded in winning important advances. One year on the struggle remains strong and continues to score victories. The most recent of which has been an increase in the minimum wage to $100.
The significance of the present mobilization is both in terms of its scale as well as its intensity. Workers have targeted factories and there have been frequent incidence of arson and violence. It has been reported that the strike resulted in the closure of more than 100 factories and a 20 percent decline in national productivity. The strike has already encompassed a vast majority of workers employed in the sector which serves as the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy.
The mobilization in Bangladesh has also served to inspire actions throughout the globe targeting western retail conglomerates which have acted in support of the just demands of the workers in Bangladesh. Important mobilizations have taken place against Walmart and GAP in the USA where workers of these retail giants have voiced their support for the garment worker’s agitation and likewise activists from Bangladesh have given their support to the agitation against unfair labor practices by Walmart. Such solidarity actions have been instrumental at creating safety accords which mark a victorious milestone in the struggle of the garment workers.
The aftermath of the Rana Plaza incident
The Rana Plaza tragedy revealed in full the exploitative nature of capitalism in Bangladesh as well as which vested interests played the leading role in the most ruthless exploitation of the workers. The garment workers haven’t been silent victims to this. Several times there have been major mobilizations in the garment industry each aimed at the abolition of sweatshop conditions existing in the 5100 factories in this sector. The mobilizations in 2006 and 2009 were significant in the fact that it showed the power of the masses of the workers mobilized in struggle. The mobilizations following the collapse of the Rana Plaza and another major factory have exceeded them both in terms of scale and impact. Notably, it has succeeded in giving the struggle of the garment workers an international dimension.
The present mobilizations may be traced to the ‘wildcat’ general strike action and has often been characterized by ‘plebian anger’ directed against the very means of production in which they work. The first object of anger for the workers has been the garment factories themselves. Soon after the tragedy at Savar, garments workers have burnt several factories in protest. This action has been reminiscent of Marx’s description of the initial period of struggle by the proletariat in the Communist Manifesto: “They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with their labour, they smash machinery to pieces, they set factories ablaze.” However, unlike the primitive workmen of the mid 19th century that Marx described, the garments workers aren’t interested in ‘restoring the abolished status of the medieval workman’ but in achieving higher standards of welfare and better conditions of work!
This combination of plebian anger with a more advanced trajectory of struggle is a potentially revolutionary combination which can open the way for further more advanced struggles in the near future and gives the garment workers’ fight immense importance in the socio-political landscape of Bangladesh. What is severely lacking in this picture is the presence of an organized revolutionary force which can channelize this raw energy and lead the workers through more advanced tactics in their battle against the viciously exploitative garment bosses and their imperial protectors. Among the major obstacles to build an organized movement of the garment workers are the restrictions on freedom of unionization. Indeed many have lost their lives trying to organize the garment workers into unions.
Importance of international solidarity:
One of the most significant aspects of the present mobilizations of the garment workers is the strength and spread of international solidarity. It must be noted, while the previous mobilizations occurred in an international situation without any revolutionary mobilizations anywhere, the present struggle is being waged with the revolutions in North Africa and the Levant. Furthermore, the waves of upheavals in the last two years in Europe and America have radicalized the workers and youth in those countries. When the worker’s uprising had emerged in Bangladesh there were already protests against companies like Walmart and Gap. The ground was ready for a widespread international solidarity of workers in Europe and America.
Some of the most significant solidarity actions took place in Boston, Madrid, and Toronto among other places. These were aimed against the leading retail corporations which source products from Bangladeshi sweatshops in the name of ‘cheap fast fashion’. Gap and Walmart as well as several important Canadian and Spanish retail brands have been the target of these actions. In addition to this, the dogged advocacy and activism of labor lawyers have been successful in putting pressure on these mega-marts.
These actions together with the continuing advances of workers in Bangladesh have resulted in signing safety accords which bring a degree of accountability in sourcing material for retail. So far European brands have shown greater willingness than others in signing these accords. As of now, 100 brands have signed safety accords. What these advances show is the strength of the mobilization and the concrete impact on the ground. However, shortcomings remain which must be addressed.
Tactics of struggle and international solidarity:
The biggest weakness of the movement of garment workers has also been its hitherto existing strength, the spontaneous nature of the mobilizations. While this has ensured that the workers can erupt freely into unrestrained offensives, it lacks a channelized direction for putting forth demands or a long term goal. While it would be wrong to say that the entire agitation is completely unorganized. The vast majority of garment workers and the vast majority of actions taking place are outside the bounds of labor organization. The main reason for this of course, is the immense pressure mounted by garment bosses (with complete cooperation and protection from the government). In addition to the fact that since the majority of the 3.5 million workers in the industry are women, posing problems unique to organizing women in the labor movement.
This unorganized nature of agitations has created two chief problems. Firstly, it has meant that a long term united programme isn’t being placed to carry on the struggle. Secondly, it means that international solidarity efforts get scuttled owing to a very weak communication between activists in Bangladesh and those in other countries. The restrictions on freedom of political association as well as forming unions, add to the problems of organizing the garment workers. While this situation remains, the focus of demands *(which seem unclear) appear to be on winning wage increases and attaining some immediate relief from the deplorable conditions of work in the garment sweatshops. This disconnect can only be bridged by a concerted effort to organize on the basis of a programme with clear political aims. Such a programme can and must be realized in a socialist programme with the aim of revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Likewise, organizing international solidarity in support of agitations of the garment workers would be indispensable to securing a complete victory in struggle. As has already been proven through the example of the solidarity actions in North America, and Europe, solidarity is not simply a question of token gestures to ‘feel good’ about, but concrete action which produce concrete results. These actions though having impact are impaired due to the weak co-ordination and communication with activists and unionists on the ground.
Towards a programme of action:
The foundation of action is theory, and theory expresses itself in programme. The right demands and the right slogans translate into the right actions. So it is for the garments workers struggle in Bangladesh. Considering the present situation any programme for action must express the most urgent needs of the garment workers.
– Full Freedom of Organization and Association!
The foundation stone of a strong democratically organized struggle of the working class is freedom of organization and association. Repressive measures at the workplace and outside must be fought against tooth and nail. An immediate and urgent demand must be for full and unfettered right to organize at the workplace and to associate with any political party. We propose a campaign built around this demand with solidarity of workers from all sectors of the national economy as well as human rights and labor action groups coordinated globally.
– For Living Wages and a Sliding Scale of Wages!
The highlight of the movement of the garment workers is the demand for wage increases to levels with which they can afford a decent livelihood. But so far, the concessions have been sporadic and piecemeal. Each time the workers have shown their power, the government and garment bosses have given a concession. While the latest concession achieved is a sight better than the last, such victories are not founded on strong roots. What the garment workers need is a lasting solution to their problems. What is needed is a base of living wage adjusted to the cost of living for a family of 5, to be under constant adjustment to inflation levels i.e. to a sliding scale. With each increase of the cost of living wages must automatically increase in proportion. Every wage agreement must mandatorily have such a provision to benefit the workers and their families, many of whom are dependent on the labor of the garment workers.
– Full nationalization of the garment industry!
Despite all manner of efforts on accountability and imposing strict safety regulations, the garment bosses through their political clout and financial strength, manage to evade answer. One big reason why wage agreements and safety accords aren’t honored has been the protection and privilege of the garment factory owners themselves! The only way to ensure proper accountability is maintained and worker’s rights are respected is through Nationalization of the industry in the interests of the garment workers and the people at large. Such nationalization must be done so without compensation and under worker’s control following a cooperative model. Only this way can the garment workers secure their interests both in terms of decent work conditions as well as a securing a living wage.