Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers strike after factory collapse

Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers strike after factory collapse

Hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike on Thursday in protest at the deaths of hundreds of workers in a factory collapse the previous day.

Workers downed tools and blockaded major highways in several industrial areas outside the capital Dhaka, forcing factory bosses to declare a day's holiday.

Factories where the owners did not grant the day off were attacked.

The chief of police told press that many of the workers also "wanted to donate blood to their fellow workers", over 1000 of whom were injured in the collapse.

Hundreds of workers laid siege to the headquarters of the main manufacturers' association demanding that those responsible be punished. They smashed windows and destroyed vehicles until being run off by police.

After cracks in the building were discovered, the plant’s 3000 workers were evacuated on Tuesday, however managers ordered them back to work.

The factory collapse is the latest of many tragedies in Bangladesh's garment export sector: over 100 workers were killed in a fire when they were locked in to their factory in November last year.

Comments

NannerNannerNan...
Apr 26 2013 12:17

jesus christ why is the Bangladeshi working class so millitant? I've been looking around and I still have absolutely no idea. These workers must face such crushing poverty but they are so goddam millitant! I wish this could happen over here!

Can I get some historical context to this? Libcom has nothing it seems

Steven.
Apr 26 2013 16:36

We have a lot of recent history on it:
http://libcom.org/tags/bangladeshi-garment-workers

as for why are they so militant, I don't have any decent comparative data, however it seems to be a pretty general characteristic where you get huge numbers of particularly manufacturing workers in one place, especially concentrated in one industry.

Text workers in the UK, for example, used to be extremely militant until they were outsourced to lower wage areas of the globe - and the militancy has been outsourced with them. There have also been big strike waves of garment workers in Vietnam in recent years.

Beverly Silver's excellent book Forces of Labour looks at this pattern in detail:
http://libcom.org/library/forces-labor-beverly-j-silver

(N.b. there will of course be plenty of historical background particular to Bangladesh itself but I'm not aware of it. I would have thought that a good chunk of the background would be in the struggle against British colonialism in the last century)

syndicalist
Apr 26 2013 17:06

I agree with Steven on the concentration issue. My only comment on militancy would be as follows. When hundreds upon hundreds of garment workers are being killed either by fire & building collapse, it breads militancy. A question is, what becomes of the militancy?

Red Marriott
Apr 26 2013 22:15

I think the Bangladeshi working class is so militant for some of the same reasons that other young emerging proletariats were, such as the early British and Russian ones were in their own ways. Thrown together in large workplaces and tight communities and with mediating structures such as unions and legalities weak or absent, often with a hand to mouth existence on the lowest wages - a high level of militancy and solidarity was a material necessity to force any sustained improvements.

Bangladesh also emerged as a nation-state from a very bloody 1971 Independence War and remains a very violent society where conflicts of various kinds can quickly become dangerous. And, yes, when 100s of impovershed workers are quite regularly killed and maimed at work we would expect some angry response.

What becomes of the militancy? Well, no, syndicalist, it hasn't evolved into a syndicalist union. Though I think many of the best aspects of workers self-organisation can be seen in the fact that such a high level of militancy is sustained under such harsh conditions.

As to whether the present strategies of the contending classes are in their own best interests - well, arguably the ruling class might increase social stability by allowing unions in the industry. But the profits keep rolling in, so they've not seen the need so far. For the workers; most, if not all,the 'unions' function more as lobbying groups/NGO appendages/front groups for political parties rather than workplace negotiators and, like unions the world over, seem often more concerned with maintaining these roles and establishing their negotiating position in the workplace than any radical overhaul of social conditions. But one must add that there are apparently some genuine working class militants operating within these orgs, often at considerable risk to themselves. Such as Aminul Islam; http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/04/bang-a17.html - who became a rank'n'file organiser after he'd been blacklisted as a result of winning a compensation case against his bosses. He defended many workers, resisted intimidation from cops and bosses and paid with his life.

syndicalist
Apr 26 2013 22:33
Quote:
What becomes of the militancy? Well, no, syndicalist, it hasn't evolved into a syndicalist union. Though I think many of the best aspects of workers self-organisation can be seen in the fact that such a high level of militancy is sustained under such harsh conditions.

Actually, I wasn't suggesting a syndicalist union as a blind solution, but asking a question. Having followed and having been in contact with Bangladesh garment workers from the early 1990s, I have hoped that the self-activity becomes something more then period mass outbreaks when tragic stuff happens. Or used by the mayrid of parties and party supported "unions" for favors, photo ops and political transmission belt. Thats all.

Red Marriott
Apr 26 2013 23:06

I didn't assume you meant that exactly in a mechanical way, though presumably you'd see it as a desirable outcome. But why do you think things haven't developed further and what would that mean in practice? I also think that there is a less visible day to day struggle and solidarity going on that makes the "mass outbreaks" possible.

But I don't know if the Bangladeshi garment workers are expressing the most modern forms of struggle or if they'll follow a path towards a more historically 'classic' development of social democratic concessions - unionisation, social security etc. The 'social wage' in the form of subsidised housing, pensions, healthcare, infrastructure etc is already growing in even the poorest countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal.

syndicalist
Apr 26 2013 23:26
Quote:
[Red Marriott]I didn't assume you meant that exactly in a mechanical way, though presumably you'd see it as a desirable outcome. But why do you think things haven't developed further and what would that mean in practice? I also think that there is a less visible day to day struggle and solidarity going on that makes the "mass outbreaks" possible.

As an anarcho-syndicalist, sure that would be something I'd prefer. But I don't see that in the cards or the immediate cards, for sure. or even something I would agitate for at the moment...unless there's stuff going on and organizing going I am unaware of....
And the NGWF, which we had worked with long time ago, clear took a path of traditional leadership, authority and trade unionism.

No doubt there's daily agitation....by the traditonalists and by leftists. Although I'm an anarcho-syndicalist, I think unionism --- as opposed to some forms of shop committees and coordinated assemblies of committees --- will generally be a dead end in Bangladesh. Too much partyism, manipulation by NGO's and international trade union centers.

For sure I am clueless where these struggles will go. And this is partly why the unknowns are interesting, as well as questionable.

Joseph Kay
Apr 27 2013 05:51

Thanks for this Red...

On the 'why so militant' thing, I think what others have said - it seems a common trait of newly formed proletariats thrown together under sweatshop conditions and without mediating structures (whether unions, health and safety law, welfare, etc). I'd second the Beverly Silver book, though it's focussed on the car industry.

I also think that if hundreds of workers were killed here, you'd see a pretty strong reaction too, though not necessarily on the scale of Bangladesh where there's a living movement/tradition with its own memory and developed forms of expression.etc. There's a reason the state is relatively reluctant to kill people (deaths in custody notwithstanding - and they're definitely a factor in urban riots), and why ultimately health and safety law was conceded. I can''t bring myself to think it would be 'better' if work here carried a high risk of 'accidental' death or murder for organising, but together with (what's left of) welfare it does lower the stakes of work/class struggle.

It's the classic 'development' problem - sooner or later countries exhaust rural-urban migration and want to move away from low wage absolute surplus value production and move up the value chain, invest in productivity/relative surplus value production. That's often accelerated by class struggles, and is often accompanied by concessions such as civil/political/democratic rights (again, Silver's good here; the Economist has also described democratic concessions as 'a promise of future redistribution'). But the more countries that have already followed this path, the harder it is to follow, as if Bagladesh and Vietnam and China stop making cheap textiles, someone else (East Africa?) has to start...

On the union thing, to put it simply, seems to me from an anarcho-syndicalist pov, unions are good to the extent they spread and deepen self-organised class struggle and bad to the extent they mediate or limit it. Bangladeshi workers seem to be doing fine on this front, and i'm sure if they feel the need for more formalised networks or organisations they'll set them up.

Soe
Apr 27 2013 14:55
Quote:
"...if they feel the need for more formalised networks or organisations they'll set them up"

I don't know the specifics in Bangladesh, but I'm not so sure it's as simple as "if they wanted formal organisations, they'd set them up." The reason is that labour flexibilisation in Asia has, like elsewhere in the world, increased contraints on formal worker organising and led to significant drops in union density. I think I read that currently only about 1 per cent of Bangladeshi garment workers are unionised. I suspect the figure used to be higher. This is not to say that trade union density is the definitive measure of worker organisation (I don't believe it is). But drops in union density suggest that there are significant contraints on organisation that other types of organisations/networks will also have to overcome.

Red Marriott
Apr 27 2013 17:29
Quote:
I think I read that currently only about 1 per cent of Bangladeshi garment workers are unionised. I suspect the figure used to be higher.

I don't think so, but if so only marginally so and any drop is not due to increased labour flexibilisation. The Bangladeshi garment industry is little more than 30 years old, has consistently expanded and always had pretty flexible employment procedures, so any "constraints on formal organising" have always been present. Garments is by far the country's largest single industry now and has never had much union density as bosses have in practice always been allowed to deny by repression a workplace role for unions, regardless of any official legal 'right to organise'. Any union organisation on the job that exists would generally be covert.

Some historical background here; http://libcom.org/library/tailoring-needs-garment-worker-struggles-bangladesh

Red Marriott
Apr 27 2013 17:44

On the early development of the industry see also;

Quote:
It would be interesting to note in this connection that, from the
very outset, most RMG factory owners tried their best to keep the
factory units as informalized as possible, because that would provide
them with greater flexibility in terms of labour management, unit
production and working hours, without significant social obligations
to their workforce. Any kind of unionization, including in-house
unionization, was also perceived as undesirable by most garment
factory owners because, as they argued, at the formative phase of
their manufacturing businesses they could not afford to be distracted
by “unreasonable” workers’ demands and “unnecessary disruptions”
by the trade union leaders who, at one point or other, “might try to
pursue their own selfish agenda in the name of worker’s
participation”. It is alleged by some trade union leaders that even in
the very few factories where a kind of in-house unionization was
allowed, the union leaders were hand-picked by the management who
sooner or later became “the agents of the owners” in the name of
“management-labour solidarity”. [url]http://www.unrisd.org/80256B3C005BCCF9/httpNetITFramePDF?ReadForm&parentunid=8DDEE7A220A7A155C1256D5500425415&parentdoctype=documentauxiliarypage&netitpath=80256B3C005BCCF9/%28httpAuxPages%29/8DDEE7A220A7A155C1256D5500425415/$file/ch6.pdf[/url]
Soe
Apr 28 2013 01:19

Thanks Red. This is all very helpful and definitely there's a lot for me to read to better understand the situation in Bangladesh.

Yet it seems to me that this additional information supports my initial point. We can't read a lack of formal organisations as indicating that workers don't want formal organisations. Rather, the particular challenges faced by Bangladeshi garment workers (whether 'flexibilisation' or simply employer thugery and police repression) constrain certain forms of (formal) organising.

Red Marriott
Apr 28 2013 11:27
Soe wrote:
Yet it seems to me that this additional information supports my initial point. We can't read a lack of formal organisations as indicating that workers don't want formal organisations. Rather, the particular challenges faced by Bangladeshi garment workers (whether 'flexibilisation' or simply employer thugery and police repression) constrain certain forms of (formal) organising.

Well, it seems your original point was that the development of increased flexibilisation constrained formal organisation - which isn't actually the case. Equally, we can't read an absence of the dominance of formal organisations as proof that workers do or don't want them. I'm wary of projecting our preconceived prescriptions from our experience onto very different situations.

syndicalist
Apr 28 2013 13:45
Quote:
I'm wary of projecting our preconceived prescriptions from our experience onto very different situations.

I fully agree with that. Yet we should try and make some heads or tails out of things as well. Of which you have made some articles as well.

Soe
Apr 29 2013 04:28
Quote:
I'm wary of projecting our preconceived prescriptions from our experience onto very different situations.

I agree.

Regarding the issue of whether flexibilisation has been a factor in limiting formal unionisation in the Bangladesh garment industry to less than 1 per cent, I may have been mistaken in suggesting this may be the case, but others have nonetheless argued along these lines. This study of labour organising in Bangladesh, for example, states:

Quote:
The consequences of globalization in the context of affected industries are manifold... [including] the emphasis placed on numerical functional flexibility in labour market... At least in the short run, this combination of factors has exerted a negative influence on trade union membership density...
Red Marriott
Apr 29 2013 12:46
syndicalist wrote:
Yet we should try and make some heads or tails out of things as well. Of which you have made some articles as well.

I don’t think I’ve given the impression I’m at all against trying to make sense of events. I just think there’s often a tendency for us to reach for off the shelf prescriptions and to interpret evidence so as to confirm our preconceptions - which doesn’t help much.

Soe wrote:
Regarding the issue of whether flexibilisation has been a factor in limiting formal unionisation in the Bangladesh garment industry to less than 1 per cent, I may have been mistaken in suggesting this may be the case, but others have nonetheless argued along these lines. This study of labour organising in Bangladesh, for example...

But that article (a course training guide for TUs?) is apparently talking about the situation generally, not specifically about the garment industry, which is by far the nation’s largest industry. As can be seen by how it begins;

Quote:
The consequences of globalization in the context of affected industries are manifold: (i) slow industrial and employment growth …

This is the opposite to what has happened in the garment industry, where growth has been rapid and massive for the past 30 years and which continues today. It then goes on to say;

Quote:
Some of the consequences globalization has for work are seen in:
The expansion of the service sector at the expense of the manufacturing sector as in industrialized and rapidly industrializing countries;

Again, this is the opposite to what has happened in the garment sector. In fact, by shifting production there, expansion of Bangladeshi garment manufacturing has largely replaced that of the Western industrialized countries.

Caiman del Barrio
Apr 29 2013 13:30
Quote:
May Day 2013. Remember the victims of capitalism in Dhaka and all over the
>> world.
>>
>> May Day was first celebrated as a day of international workers solidarity
>> in 1890. It was called to commemorate the murder of four anarchist workers
>> in Chicago by the US government.
>>
>> 123 years later, capitalism continues to kill workers all over the world.
>> Some are executed or shot dead, like the 34 striking Marikana miners
>> killed by South African police last August, defending the interests of
>> British company Lonmin. Many millions more are sentenced to slow deaths
>> from hunger, poverty and despair. Others are killed in so-called
>> "workplace accidents" in mines, factories and fields where life is the
>> cheapest commodity of all.
>>
>> On May Day 2013, while celebrating 123 plus years of struggle, we also
>> need to commemorate some of the latest victims of capitalism. We think of
>> the 30 Bangladeshi and other migrant workers shot by Greek strawberry farm
>> bosses in Manolada on 18 April (thankfully, none of the gunshot wounds
>> were fatal). And above all we remember the more than 300 Bangladeshi
>> workers (perhaps many more) killed in the collapsed textile factory in
>> Dhaka on 24 April.
>>
>> Capitalism kills. And the killers are not just the cops who pull the
>> trigger, or the factory managers who ignore the cracks and lock the doors.
>> The ultimate killers are all those who profit from death trap factories,
>> and everywhere where capitalism forces us to wear out our bodies and
>> minds and risk our lives for the riches of the few.
>>
>> Primark, Matalan, Mango, Benetton, and other clothes chains profiting from
>> cheap labour are killers. The banks and investment funds that finance
>> their deals are killers. The governments in Bangladesh, Greece and Britain
>> who protect them are killers. We call on everyone to join us on May Day
>> and remember the dead with action. We need to hold the clothing chains,
>> and all other capitalist murderers, to account.
>>
>> In London on 1 May the StopG8 London group will join the traditional May
>> Day march at Clerkenwell Green at 11 am. Come and march with us: look for
>> the Stop G8 banners and black and red flags. After the march, we will move
>> on to demonstrate against those responsible for the deaths in Dhaka.
>>
>> One common struggle.
>> London StopG8.
>>