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Bangladeshi garment worker murdered by bosses - and other developments

Cops disperse garment workers protest; Mirpur, Dhaka, Feb 08

Last Wednesday (30th Jan) two workers in World Dresses Ltd, Mirapur, Dhaka, were attacked and beaten by management staff at the end of an evening shift.

Khokon and Malek were apparently almost the last of the workforce on the premises at 8pm, as they were washing themselves before leaving. Five officials appeared and accused them of loitering with intent to rob the company. They then beat the workers severely:

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"‘We repeatedly told them we had gone to the washroom, but they beat us saying that we had stayed back to steal things,’ said Malek, the injured worker, in Dhaka Orthopaedics Hospital.
‘They broke my hands and legs and hit Khokon in the head, chest and abdomen until he fell unconscious,’ Malek said."

As their condition deteriorated, the management staff eventually took them to hospital; Khokon died at 3am, while Malek is still hospitalised with broken limbs. A manager and security guard have been arrested, while police say they are looking for three others. The company has promised compensation to Malek and to Khokon's family.

Fearing unrest and attempting to hide the incident, management closed the factory on Thursday, falsely claiming a failure of power supply. When knowledge of the attack reached the company's workers, hundreds demonstrated outside the factory on Friday morning and blocked the main road for two and a half hours. When police baton-charged the crowd they responded with stones and bricks. Ten workers were injured. As the para-military Rapid Action Battalion arrived in the area, workers dispersed.

They regrouped for a meeting with officials from the BGMEA (garment bosses' federation) where the officials promised compensation for the victims and payment of all workers' wages for that day. 1800 of the 2000 then returned to work.

Some garment sector bosses remain as brutal and arrogant as ever, but the wider ruling class is nervous and worried; of the threat of growing worker unrest, of stiff competition in the global marketplace, particularly from Vietnam, India and China - and now a US recession will hit their main export markets hard. Interest rates of 17% (compared to 3 and 4% in China and India) also handicap Bangladeshi garment bosses. "Bangladesh apparel exports to USA amounted to $1354 million in the first five months (July-November) of the current fiscal year which was $27 million less than that earned during the corresponding period of the previous year". Tighter profit margins means bosses have to try to sweat the workers even harder to remain competitive. As well as expressing a routine bosses' contempt for their labour force, this recent murder is probably a symptom of these fears. The Cambodian experience may be a warning to Bangladeshi bosses;

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Does Bangladesh face downturn in garment exports like Cambodia due to economic recession in the United States and continuing labour disputes at home?
This question has become relevant as Cambodian readymade garment exports plummeted by 46 per cent during the last quarter of 2007 due to these two factors, chairman of the Cambodian Garment Manufacturers Association Van Sou Ieng was quoted by AFP as saying.
President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Anwarul Alam Chowdhury Parvez said, "Country's RMG export was on the right track until January. The ongoing labour unrest is yet to show any adverse effect. But then it will hit hard the industry if it continues."
He said the US economic recession will continue for the next 6/7 years. If Bangladesh fails to handle the labour issues it will fail to get advantage of the New Partnership Development Bill. And this may result in a fall in export to the US.
"Labour issue is one of the main concerns in the US," he said.
Parvez said the ongoing labour unrest is hampering production in the factories, increasing the cost of goods and also casting negative impacts on the country's image.
"The industry leaders, government and also the media have to tactfully handle the labour issue to keep the sector alive."
The New Nation 3 Feb 08


[Picture; Paramilitary policing of garment workers.]

Such worries are presumably what prompted the military government to now launch a crackdown on labour activists working for foreign labour rights organisations such as the US-based 'Workers Rights Consortium' (which gathers workplace information for US colleges and universities). In the absence of any official recognition of trade unionism in the industry, these activists and their NGOs sometimes play a role as proxy unions in workplace negotiations. Charges have also been filed against other union activists; "In recent days, the authorities have invoked Emergency Power Rules and have filed criminal cases against dozens of trade union members, including leaders of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers’ Union Federation." All those arrested have been accused of flouting the Emergency Power Rules - which prohibit processions, meetings, assemblies and trade union activities - brought in a year ago when the military-backed 'caretaker government' assumed power.

* * *

As inflation bites deeper - the middle class feels the squeeze
The present government's problems and unpopularity accumulate. Rampant inflation is another factor fuelling worker unrest and, along with very high interest rates, is now also seriously attacking the living standards of the middle class. Some families complain their expenditure in the past year has inflated by 50% and they can no longer afford children's education fees; a crucially important mark of class status in Bangladesh.

Quote:
Consumer Association of Bangladesh (Cab) in a study published on December 31, 2007 said lifestyle expenditure of people has increased by 16.78 percent in 2007. Year 2006 had an increase of 13.52 percent.
It said prices of consumer goods increased by 18.92 percent in 2007 while it was 15.22 in 2006.
The association said the price of rice increased by 35 percent in 2007, edible oil 63.12 percent, flour 56.94 percent, pulses 26.60 percent and milk products 27.45 percent.
House rents also increased by 21.48 percent in 2007 while transportation costs increased as price of fuel increased by 21.80 percent on average.
General Secretary of Cab Quazi Faruque told The Daily Star that the prices of some goods, which had seen a significant rise in 2007, increased in similar measure during the month of January, 2008.
The prices of different kinds of rice, edible oil, and flour increased between Tk 7 and Tk 10 a kg in that month, he said.

Another major attack on middle class income is the military's relentless anti-corruption purges (which has seen arrests of well over 100,000, including 150 politicians). Bribes and kickbacks that once routinely greased the wheels and palms of commerce have become a very risky business and in very short supply (except, possibly, among the military and their friends). They are at present concentrating on state-owned companies and have uncovered some inventive scams among middle class civil servants (in Asia such employment positions generally correspond to a much higher social ranking than they do nowadays in Western societies);

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About 80 percent of 2,800 staff at Bangladesh's biggest state-owned gas distributor took bribes to the tune of millions of dollars, the head of a government anti-graft body said Tuesday.
Employees of Titas Gas Distribution Company pocketed bribes in return for undercharging thousands of factories and homes for years, said the chief probing the company, which supplies about 80 percent of Bangladesh's gas.
Colonel Hasan, who uses one name, said so far 127 workers at Titas Gas had agreed to return four billion taka (58 million dollars') worth of assets bought with the money they took.
"But it is a tiny fraction of the money these people have made by under-billing the amount of gas a company or an individual household has consumed," he said.
"It's the tip of the iceberg. We have found that almost 80 percent of the company's 2,800 employees are corrupt. They bought flats, factories, land and shops with the stolen money." [...]
"Titas was a huge money-making machine for its thousands of employees. The tally we made was based on the declared assets by the employees, including some of the top executives," Hasan said. [...]
Bangladeshinfo.com 1 Feb 08

The workers bought themselves flats, factories, land and shops with the stolen money.

Also uncovered is a scam involving collaboration between carjacking gangs and officials of the govt. Bangladesh Road Transport Authority;

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A wide network of organised carjackers in the capital are wreaking havoc on the lives of car owners with the help of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) officials who help the thieves to alter the identities of many stolen vehicles by providing genuine documents for them, said detective branch (DB) officials.
Carjacking gangs take only a month to change the identification numbers of a stolen vehicle's engine, chassis and registration, and to procure other ownership documents, making it almost impossible to trace it.
In some cases gang members manage to secure genuine replacements of original documents of stolen vehicles, kept with BRTA.
A section of corrupt BRTA officials taking bribes ranging from Tk 50,000 to Tk 75,000 from the gang members, help prepare the genuine replacements of original documents, the DB officials said.
A DB team already found evidence that implicate at least 14 BRTA officials who verify and sign on the replacements for original documents of stolen vehicles in exchange for bribes, despite knowing that the papers submitted to them for registration and ownership are fakes.
Many carjacking gangs also prepare false documents for stolen vehicles up for sale. [...]
Daily Star - 3 Feb 08
* * *

A house of cards?
The Bangladeshi economy is more or less a one trick pony; the ready made garment (RMG) sector accounts for 75% (over $9 billion) of the country's export earnings, mainly to Europe and the US. So the emerging recession will hit the industry particularly hard. Competition from China, India and Vietnam will intensify; despite these countries bearing higher labour costs, they are offset by greater technical investment yielding higher productivity, and lower interest rates encouraging faster expansion. To add to the problems, the EU ended its restrictions on Chinese export quotas at the end of 2007 - and the US will do the same at the end of 2008. All these countries will be hit by the recession, but Bangladesh's narrow economic base makes it particularly vulnerable.

Garment bosses claim that the recent upsurge in worker unrest is caused by inflation and has nothing to do with many factories failing to comply with minimum wage laws or low wages generally; they claim there is no relationship between wages and inflation... As a response to the unrest, bosses have agreed to set up factory 'welfare committees' where workers' representatives and factory officials will negotiate conditions and attempt to mediate grievances. If this is a genuine agreement it appears to be a concession to a form of institutional trade unionism in all but name. But while workers continue to be routinely physically abused and even sometimes murdered in the workplace - while earning some of the world's lowest wages - the will and/or ability to mediate grievances in traditional trade union style seems at best severely limited or irrelevant to workers' struggles.

Bangladeshi RMG wage levels remain low and any gains are long eaten away by rampant inflation; 60% of many workers' wages are now spent on the main staple, rice. The government and industry are now discussing implementing a subsidised rice rationing system for garment workers, emphasising the economic fears and dependence on the industry. The inability or disinterest of the Bangladeshi ruling class to stabilise its economy sufficiently to pay a wage that adequately covers the cost of reproduction of labour power, or to develop much of an internal consumer market, is another aspect of its precarious foundations.

As the recession bites and problems multiply for government and business - and they attempt to make the working class pay the price - the class struggle seems set to intensify in Bangladesh.

Posted By

Red Marriott
Feb 3 2008 19:07

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