Bangladesh: Garment Workers’ Revolt Continues

December 13, 2010

It may well be the workers of the “Global South” who determine the contours of twenty-first century capitalism (or whatever system of political economy we end up with). It is here that exploitation is most brutal, where corporations go to evade the labour costs of the developed world and make cosy arrangements with repressive state machineries. In so doing, the South has become a cauldron of resentment, with peoples estranged from their governments who seem to have more in common with executives from Britain or Japan, than farmers or workers closer to home.

Conflict is endless, and one of the most heroic struggles is being waged by the garment workers of Bangladesh. Earlier this year, over a period of weeks, workers extracted important concessions from employers (and the government). Buffeted by walk outs and protests, the government agreed to raise the minimum wage in the sector by 80 percent, rising from a paltry $24 a month, which was less than unions called for, but something nonetheless.

Yet workers are protesting again in the cities of Dhaka, Savar, Narayanganj, Gazipur and Chittagong, accusing employers and the government of failing to implement the pay rise. Three people have been reported killed and around 220 wounded as police attacked the demonstrations during which “Workers put up barricades, set fire to cars, halting morning traffic for at least three hours on the road linking the capital to [Chittagong] airport.”

As the Morning Star reports, “armed police shot into crowds of protesting workers demanding a new minimum wage at a Bangladesh industrial zone on Sunday, killing three and injuring around a hundred…Police and Rapid Action Battalion troops opened fire with shotguns and used tear gas after thousands of workers began attacking factories and smashing vehicles at the Chittagong Export Processing Zone.”

Workers in the garment industry are willing to risk death at work and in resistance to their employers and the state, and have no problem with blockading major transport arteries or damaging company property to show their rage and gathering confidence.

So far, they have forced the salary increase and have pressured the government to promise that companies breaching the new pay scale will be sued. Only last week when the new salaries came into effect, the Labor and Manpower Minister said that “Legal action will be taken if any employer fails to implement the new pay scale.” It remains to be seen whether he was speaking seriously or not.

In any case, resistance to wage increases is fierce within the Bangladesh establishment and foreign companies. But $43 per month is not being seen as an end point. How could it be? This fight will run and run.

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