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News :: International
Garment Workers Revolt: Bangladesh on Fire
03 Aug 2009
The garment industry in Bangladesh employs more than 2 million workers, 80-90% of whom are women. Bringing the impoverished nation $11 billion annually, the garment industry is Bangladesh’s largest income earner. If you go into your closet and start reading tags, you’ll probably find more than a few items made in Bangladesh. It should surprise no one that the destitute women who make our cheap clothes labor in incredibly unsafe buildings for as many as eighty hours a week, suffer intolerable working conditions, including verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, while earning little to nothing.
Bangladeshi Unrest
This naturally gives bosses a competitive edge in the world market. Rising food prices and declining pay leave all but the strongest in a state of permanent malnutrition, which has manifested itself in delirium and hallucinations on the job, as workers report being attacked by ghosts and witches. "We can’t eat, we can’t sleep, we can’t live," fumed Bengali garment worker Fatema Begum. "Every day, every hour we are slaving away in the factories for no pay. Why should we?" Why, indeed? Begum spake these words while lining the street with tens of thousands of her coworkers and neighbors in and around Dhaka in late June.

The immediate issue that triggered demonstrations was pay cuts amidst existing non-payment of wages at a sweater factory in Savar, outside Dhaka. 1,800 workers went on strike, forcing management to agree to their demands. When strikers returned to work, however, three workers were turned away, charged with "leading" the strike, whereupon the rest of the workforce left the factory again, demanding reinstatement of the three. Arguments heated up, bosses were beaten up and police entered the scene, firing rounds of live ammunition, killing two demonstrators. That’s when the textiles hit the fan. Tens of thousands of workers poured out of their factories in solidarity and filled the streets, joined by unemployed workers and slum dwellers. Dodging rubber bullets and breathing teargas, demonstrators fought back, chucking bricks and stones at their attackers, blocking highways, burning tires, and doing serious damage to the commercial districts.

The U.S. may have seen the last of factory fires like Triangle in 1911 [see BAAM issue #19], but eerily similar fires rage on in Bangladesh as a fairly common occurrence, where scores of women, trapped behind locked exit doors, have to decide whether to slowly suffocate or to plunge to their deaths on the streets below with their hair in flames. In 2005, a factory collapsed on its workers, killing 64 and injuring over 70. In late June, however, Bengali workers decided to do their own burning. Tens of thousands stormed the factories and machines that caused them so much misery and set them ablaze. Busses and trucks were similarly doused with gasoline and torched. Like the insurrectionary Greek populace, they learned that the black smoke from flames would clear the white smoke of police chemical weapons.

For three days, over 50,000 enraged workers took control of the streets. As many as 50 factories, including some of the largest in the country, smoldered while the strategically minded workers blocked highways to keep firefighters from reaching the sites for hours; sweatshops and transport vehicles were reduced to ashes. Crowds also broke into the camp of the Ansars [essentially a right-wing paramilitary aiding police] and burned that, too. Police injured over 150 workers, 30 quite seriously. 20 cops were reported injured. It would seem that the deployment of 2,000 police ended the insurrection. I could only find confirmation of 12 arrests, though more were promised.

The latest unrest coincided with the release of a government report on the industry that employs nearly 40% of Bangladesh’s workforce. The report indicated that one in seven factories do not regularly pay their workers and that one in three were in flagrant violation of already severely inadequate labor laws. As godawful as these official numbers are, workers on the ground say that the reality is exponentially worse, pointing to the prevalence of workplaces faking compliance when government inspectors come by.

The dominant culture in the U.S., which is a white supremacist, Euro-centric culture, is pleased to think of Bangladesh as a place with ‘too much water and too many people,’ deigning to think of the impoverished country only when it is struck by another flood [incidentally in regions where no one lived prior to English imperialists forcing them there in the 1940s]. The people of Bangladesh, however, have long cultivated a culture of resistance and have a rich history of fighting back. This latest round of unrest is not at all unusual, though it is the most remarkable since 2006 when workers from a number of factories in and around Dhaka went on wildcat strikes, burning 16 factories down to the ground while looting and ransacking hundreds of others. Cops killed three workers, injured hundreds, and jailed thousands. Ultimately, the military was called in to quell the insurrection.

Likeliness to rebel among the poorest wage slaves in the world means that since at least September 2008, some bosses have maintained a permanent presence of military and paramilitary forces inside factories to keep their employees in line and to extract from them unpaid overtime. The owner of one decimated factory filed suit against 1,600 workers, for ascertaining the identity of whom the police promised to conduct raids. In early July, after the uprising, Dhaka’s police commissioner was calling for ‘welfare committees’ to improve relations and communication between employers and employed and a parliamentary committee was calling for an industrial intelligence unit to prevent further disruptions of production. In Ashulia, outside Dhaka where much of the unrest was centered, a 1,580-strong crime management cell will become a permanent presence. The prime minister also told parliament that she has taken steps to form an industrial police force, and to increase the number of women police officers.

In mid-July, the Daily Star, an English-language Bangladeshi daily newspaper, reported that worldwide, apparel buyers continue to shift their favor toward Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, due to the incredibly low costs of production-- which low costs, as we’ve discussed above, come at the cost of the lives, health, well-being and sanity of the workers involved.

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