Weaving Progress In Bangladesh

August 2, 2010

Police attacking striking workers in Dhaka, 30 July 2010

Although little commented on, an inspirational and highly effective struggle is currently being waged by Bangladeshi textile workers, who have successfully extracted an increase in the country’s paltry minimum wage, and are now agitating to have it raised still further.

Last week, the government raised the minimum wage from $25 per month, to $45, although campaigners are demanding $73 in view of rising living costs. Protests and strikes have been met by constant repression. In the latest incident, striking workers in the export processing hub Ashulia were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, as the AP reports. With the government now moving away from sympathy with the workers (and saying that they “should concentrate on work” the struggle will no doubt intensify, if it continues.

The AP report quoted above also notes that “Bangladesh’s garment exports, mainly to the United States and Europe, earn more than $12 billion a year, nearly 80 percent of the country’s export income. The country has 4,000 factories employing more than 2 million workers, most of them women.”

That’s a total wage bill of just $600 million. Compared to the earning of Bangledeshi entrepreneurs (not to mention the retail chains which make billions off the cheapest labour in the world, this is simply obscene. Even if the minimum wage is raised to $73, the total wage bill will be around $1.75 billion.

Clearly, Bangldeshi workers are becoming more confident. The months long campaign for a higher minimum wage is part of a broader awakening of protest and dissent against ultra-low wage labour. Last week, for example, workers at the Vertex factory in Dhaka rioted after a colleague died, allegedly after being denied treatment by his employers.

Textile workers in Bangladesh perform many of the tasks that fashionable consumers in developed nations seem to prize, such as jeans with an “already worn” look, a much-coveted look that is produced through the spraying of finely powdered sand onto denim using high pressure guns.

As journalist Jacob Resnick found on a recent trip to Dhaka, this is a crude, dangerous practice. Visiting a workshop in the suburb of Savar Upazila, Resnick describes how “There’s no ventilation, save for bullet-sized holes in the metal roof where rays of sunshine look like tangible cylinders from the fine dust and sand in the air” while “As the men work, there is a cacophony of noise and dust and it’s nearly impossible to breathe—with or without a flimsy cotton face mask that is supposed to provide protection to visitors.”

Sandblasting as it is known leads invariably to the inhalation of silica particles – and often leads to debilitating silicosis. In Turkey, after hundreds of workers fell ill with the disease, the practice was banned, and workshops migrated to countries with lower working standards, such as Bangladesh.

Sadly, the government of Bangladesh has little desire to improve such conditions or to ensure a decent standard of living for garment workers. As the country’s home minister Sahara Kahtoon told Al Jazeera, the protests are part of a grand conspiracy to destroy Bangladesh, ranting that they intended to “destroy the vital employment and export sector as part of a bigger plan to destabilise the country and detract democracy.”

Such rhetoric is the pre-amble to repression and attempts to destroy the workers’ movement. As Kahtoon continued, “We will find out the conspirators and give them exemplary punishment” before urging “all Bangladeshis to remain vigilant against conspiracies by vested quarters.”

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