The legacy of the dead - the Savar collapse, part 2

A woman, Shefali, learns of the discovery of her sister's corpse.

The site of the Dhaka factory collapse is now cleared; new concessions and reforms are announced. Some further reflections...

1127 corpses; unionisation on the horizon

Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.

The capitalistic mode of production (essentially the production of surplus-value, the absorption of surplus-labour), produces thus, with the extension of the working-day, not only the deterioration of human labour-power by robbing it of its normal, moral and physical, conditions of development and function. It produces also the premature exhaustion and death of this labour-power itself. [73] It extends the labourer’s time of production during a given period by shortening his actual life-time. (Marx – Capital, 1867) (1)

We concluded our earlier article(2) with the observation;

The thousands of injuries and deaths that have occurred from factory fires and collapses remain a mere minimal cost factor of the next season’s retail fashion and their continued profitability.

We’ll now enlarge on the chilling but routine ‘economic’ calculations that determine the operating conditions of the Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry. We say ‘economic’ because the calculations are normally presented as a matter of impersonal economic measurement for the garment profiteers of the ruling class – while for the working class they are the measures by which a social division of labour and distribution of wealth is imposed upon them. Any critical analysis must try to expose the ‘objective’ economics for its actual function as reproducing the conditions of class society and its exploitations – and how this “produces also the premature exhaustion and death of this labour-power itself”.

[The second section will deal with the concessions granted by state and bosses in the aftermath of the disaster and their implications.]

Indefinite exploitation

With the rescue efforts over, the death toll stands at 1127. 2,438 survivors were rescued from the rubble, many severely injured and most traumatised. At some point a certain number will probably become the official total of victims. But it seems no one will actually ever know exactly how many died in this disaster; for keeping records of who was working in the building at any time was, for the bosses, as careless as any other possible care and safety measures on behalf of the workers. Confusion reigns, with various official sources having all quoted contradictory figures. While police, army and the employers’ federation BGMEA first gave figures suggesting a rough total of over 3,000 workers present at the time of collapse, the probably more reliable eyewitness testimonies – of surviving workers themselves and local residents - estimated a figure of over 5,000.

Over 1500 survivors are injured, many with loss of limbs. Add to that the long-term psychological traumas to be suffered by survivors, rescuers and relatives, haunted and impoverished by the horrors they’ve experienced. Bangladesh is not well equipped to deal with such physical and mental care and it remains to be seen whether the present promises by government, industry and foreign buyers to provide life-long medical aid and compensation to victims will be kept.

But for all the noise now being made about compensation for past failings and future safety improvements, the reasons for the very existence of conditions that have allowed such disasters to happen boil down largely to hard economic facts.

The threadbare cloak of propaganda

All the guilty parties engaged from the start in a predictable media offensive to try to deflect blame and limit ‘reputational damage’. The government initially absurdly blamed opposition activists for the collapse. The BNP party is conducting an ongoing series of “hartals” - street blockades, strikes and shutdowns of commercial areas – against the government in pursuing its political demands (largely prompted by recent convictions in War Crimes trials). A government minister claimed that BNP and Hefajat activists had caused the collapse by ‘shaking the pillars of the building’ as if they possessed the Biblical powers of Samson! Not to be outdone in an opportunist use of hundreds of deaths, the BNP promised 20 lakh compensation ($25,000) to victims – but only if their party was voted into power. Social media networks ridiculed this as another expreesion of the general corruption of party politics:

Excellent idea, sir. How about paying it right now if your intentions are so pure. Or do you intend to come to power and loot money from the people, to pay the people back?

Meanwhile the self-proclaimed ‘defenders of Islam’, the Hefajat-ul-Islam group, pronounced the disaster as ‘a curse of the venerated master’ in response to the government’s failure to implement their demands. Hefajat's 13-point demands includes passing a law in parliament with a provision for the maximum punishment of death sentence for those defaming Allah, Prophet Mohammad and Islam and conducting smear campaigns against Muslims; putting an end to the infiltration of all ‘alien culture’, including adultery and free mixing of males and females; and the banning of women from the workplace(3). For the zealots, the more than 3 million female garment workers, their freedom of movement in public space and margin of economic independence are a terrible blasphemy. This is another sign of the growing polarisation in the country between secular tendencies and religious fundamentalists.

Meanwhile in the West the US right wing economist Benjamin Powell claims that sweatshops are a good thing and beneficial to their workers as they’d be worse off without their employment(4). This is like the logic of the ‘free choice’ offered by the mugger – ‘hand over your money or you’re dead’(5). That the multinational corporations and their local agents have such a monopoly on the limited choices available to those exploited in the sweatshops and so can define the social conditions of existence of workers so completely is not considered problematic by this peddler of libertarian free-market banalities.

Similar arguments have been used as excuses for taking no effective action to make sustained improvements in conditions – e.g., that to withdraw investment as a sanction against sweatshop conditions would harm the workers most by depriving them of livelihood. Bangladeshi garment factories pay probably the world’s lowest industrial wages and are certainly the cheapest place to make clothing; but any harm would surely be forgotten if it were found possible to make production costs cheaper somewhere else (maybe poorer parts of Africa in the future?). Then Bangladesh would be quickly dumped as a main supplier and the supposedly charitable provision of sweatshops by the kind capitalists would be removed to a more profitable field of exploitation.

The international buyers are busy expressing fake concern and innocence; yet it is they who have driven prices down, with this race to the bottom being implemented by local garment bosses in the form of wage freezes and the deteriorating working conditions that resulted in the Rana Plaza collapse. In recent years buyers, while making profits of billions of dollars, have forced reductions of up to 40% from local firms. They also often dictate specific textile suppliers to the garment makers; these textile suppliers are often subsidiaries of the foreign buyers, thereby increasing their profits and squeezing local profit margins further by their textile monopoly.

But, controlling an industry worth $20 billion a year in exports, the elite of local factory bosses have nevertheless attained a luxurious lifestyle of mansions with swimming pools; so reduced sale prices from foreign buyers aren’t allowed to affect their accustomed lifestyle but instead cost-cuttings are passed on to workers. The deaths of workers are simply one component of overall production calculation, as spelled out starkly by one commentator;

Publicly available estimates suggest that upgrading safety standards would cost about $3 billion. If spread over 5 years, the upgrades would cost about 10 cents per piece of garment exported out of Bangladesh. $600 million per year committed to prevent major disasters does not seem like a large number. But think about it, if it saves 300 lives, that’s a cost of $2 million per life of a worker whose skills have an economic value of maybe $1,000 in wages per year. It is much cheaper to mourn and pay workers families $2,000 each in compensation. skewed.

Yet the funding needed to reform the health & safety failings are a drop in the ocean of the massive profits flowing into the garment bosses and foreign retailers;

The Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labour rights monitoring group, estimates that it would cost $600,000 on average to elevate each of the country’s 5,000 factories to Western safety standards, for a total of $3 billion. If the $3 billion were spread over five years, it would add less than 10 cents to the factory price of each of the 7 billion garments that Bangladesh sells each year to Western brands. This means, perhaps a 25 cent increase for the final buyer per item. The total apparel market is worth around $400 billion, and the Western consumers are the chief beneficiaries.

Despite this small outlay Gap, Walmart and most US companies have so far refused to join other Western brands in signing up to a new post-Rana binding agreement to collectively invest in upgrading workplace safety measures. This investment is mere pennies to them and would barely be noticed on their profit sheets, yet it appears unacceptable to them on principle that these mighty global powers should be seen to yield to such pressure.

Similarly, to significantly increase workers’ wages and transforming quality of life would cost a relatively small portion of the garment capitalists’ profits. As Zahid Hussain, a World Bank economist, stated in 2010;

labor costs typically constitute 1-3 percent for a garment produced in the developing world. Hence, large increases in labor costs do not require correspondingly large increases in retail price. For example, for a typical sportswear garment, doubling wages would increase retail price by roughly 1-3 percent; tripling wages would result in price increases of 2-6 percent. These estimates assume that all of the increased cost is passed along to the consumer. If some of the costs are absorbed by exporters, retail price increases would, of course, be commensurately smaller.

The pressure for ever-cheaper prices demanded by international buyers is passed on down the hierarchy of the local supply chain. A minority of larger factories and firms are contracted to supply; to maintain profit levels they must make savings on wage costs and/or improve productivity by greater sweating of the workers. The smaller producers they sub-contract to are also relatively primitive in terms of technological innovation and investment; inevitably it is the workers who bear the burden.

The compliance system whereby foreign buyer and local producers seek to defend themselves and protect their Corporate Image by claiming that regular health & safety checks and audits are carried out is further exposed as a sham. Buyers and larger local producers – whose workplaces appear compliant - pretend to keep their hands blood-free by unofficially sub-contracting parts of production to cheaper, smaller non-compliant death-traps such as the Rana Plaza factories. Smaller entrepeneurs will be under great pressure to deliver under tight turnaround times and to realise tighter profit margins. So cheap, unsafe premises and low wages are inevitable. Everybody knows it goes on and everyone pretends they don’t. (Though it’s true that two of the Plaza factories had passed standard compliance checks for working conditions, these checks had never even considered assessing the structural soundness of the workplace buildings.)

Workers’ solidarity in life and death

It has been reported (though without supporting documentation) that Bangladesh refused technical and manpower aid from the EU, UK and US during the rescue operation ‘for reasons of national pride’. It has also been stated that emergency services were inadequately trained and lacked appropriate equipment for this kind of disaster – and had failed to be adequately equipped despite previous expert advice of what was lacking. All of which goes some way to explaining why it was ordinary people nearby at the time, many of them local garment workers, who initiated the rescue efforts and who continued to participate in large numbers alongside fire and army personnel. Rescuers, journalists, UN officials and others have testified that these unofficial volunteers were at the forefront of the rescue efforts from the start;

They were pretty ordinary people but took up the heroic job of rescuing those who got trapped inside the broken-down nine-storey building in Savar on the outskirts of the capital yesterday.
Just after the building collapsed around 8:45am, local people and relatives of those who were inside — dead or alive — rushed to the site. They did whatever they could do to bring the victims out, at times putting their lives at risk of being killed in a further collapse of the yet-standing pillars and walls.
[...] Volunteer rescuers went inside the rubble, removing bricks and pillars and breaking through walls. They created passages to carry the victims out to safety.
Through holes in the concrete, the volunteers were also supplying water and food to those trapped inside.
When rescuers were hammering away at the walls to get inside, the unstable structure seemed to be wobbling at the resonance. At any point the walls could have fallen upon the rescuers themselves.
After a while, the fire brigade joined the rescue operations. Later, the Rapid Action Battalion and army came in.
Mahbub and his friends Mozammel, both rickshaw pullers, entered the building with a hammer and torch.
“A huge number of people are trapped. How can we just be onlookers? We will work as long as we can,” said Mahbub.
A few steps inside, somebody was heard shouting, “Hey, brother, give me a torch. Hurry up, there’s someone crying in the dark.”
It was Sobuj, a garment worker of nearby PRZ fashion, who had rushed there just after he heard of the fatal accident; it might be because he felt a connection with those who had been working in five garment factories in the building at the time of the collapse.
And that reflected when he said, “I came here to save my colleagues though I know the rooftop may cave in on me anytime.”
[...] Appreciating the volunteers, a fire brigade official said, “The rescuers did a very risky thing. Their lives were at risk and also any mishap could kill or further injure the people inside.”
However, the fire brigade officials did not stop the rescuers because some of them had their family members inside, he added.
One staircase in the rear of the building was almost cleared with the help of local people.
Some were frantically looking for their loved ones but the majority were driven to the site by their conscience. Some people were also seen clearing the streets that lead to the accident spot for ambulances and external help.

The locals were soon joined by other volunteers, some of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to help. There were many complaints from rescuers and relatives of shortages of relevant equipment;

Rescuer Tajul Islam, a bricklayer, said that he had been in similar operations on three spots in the past three years and could recover about a dozen dead bodies and rescue more than 30 survivors using ordinary equipment such as hammers, chisels, iron cutters, hacksaws and shovels.
He said that it was only ordinary people conducting engaged in the rescue operation who were getting into the floors. ‘None from the troops or fire fighters want to go inside the rubble through holes. Only we are rescuing survivors,’ he angrily said about midday. He found that the rescue operation was continuing in a haphazard manner.

The rescuers, mostly students, day labourers and employees of other apparel firms, said that the salvage operation was being hampered for want of equipment such as concrete cutters, hammers and jacks. They were calling for the engagement of troops with modern equipment in the operation in a fully-fledged manner.
The military said that they had all the necessary equipment and had kept them standby. Heavy equipment would be used when they would be required so that more people could be rescued alive.
A soldier, however, told New Age that he could not understand why they were not being ordered to get inside the rubble with their equipment.
A military team went inside the rubble in the evening to rescue people believed to have still been alive. (ibid)

By the second day the conditions were becoming hellish for both rescuers and those trapped in the rubble;

Stench coming from the bodies that have already started decomposing filled the air at the collapse site. Volunteers were continuously using air-freshener to facilitate the rescue operation.
Sanaullah, a day labourer who has been taking part in the rescue work for the past three days, told New Age about 3:15pm on Friday that such a rescue operation needed a large number of trained and technical people. ‘As I was once trained by the Border Guard Bangladesh, I joined the operation but could not rescue many survivors just for lack of equipment. I went inside down to the third floor of the building through bored holes. I found more than 50 bodies and survivors on the floor but could not recover or rescue them,’ he said.
‘If we had equipment such as jacks to lift up the upper floor to avoid further collapse, we could have rescued more survivors,’ he added. (ibid)
The state’s lack of preparedness exposed by these events makes the prospect of natural disasters in the country even more frightening. Bangladesh is at risk of both major earthquakes and rising sea levels (or a possible combination of the two via quake-induced tsunami in a country where much of the landmass is seasonally flooded and is barely above sea-level).

It was the ill-equipped volunteers who put themselves at greatest risk – incredibly, some even performed limb amputations when finding trapped survivors(6). This is the account of one of them, Didar, who’d been working at an adjacent factory at the time of the collapse and had immediately joined the rescue effort;

‘I had gone further into the building, looking for other ways to find people inside and I was calling out whether there was anyone here and then I heard a woman’s voice asking for help,’ he said, explaining how he found Aanna.
‘There were two dead bodies beside Aanna. I tried to see whether it was possible to rescue her without chopping off her hand, by moving the machinery but I was scared that if I moved any of the machinery the roof may collapse further,’ Dildar continued.
‘So I told her that the only way I can get you out is to chop your hand of, and she agreed. ‘I went out and told the doctor the situation.’
The doctor, however, did not dare to enter the concrete tunnels within the building.
‘He was too scared to go in and do it himself as he thought that the building could collapse any minute. So he told me how to do it. He gave me an injection and a surgical knife. I went back in and gave her the injection and started cutting. It took 10 minutes. It was hard. I was weeping and Anna was weeping. It hurt her a lot.’
Aanna’s rescue took four hours. It was about 2:00pm when she came out.
However, this was not the end of Didar’s heroism.
‘Later that day at a different part of the building, I found two men who had their legs stuck. I had to tell both of them that the only way I could rescue them was by cutting their legs off. They both agreed,’ he said.
‘One of the men’s legs was almost already severed. So, in fact, I could remove the leg tearing with my hands. In the other case, I used a surgical knife — again the doctor said that he was too scared to go down and do it himself. The knife was much sharper this time.’

Didar had already spent nine hours digging a passage through the rubble to free 17 trapped men, eventually leading them to safety. Many ordinary people contributed in various ways. Thousands donated blood, a local company and its workers freely provided oxygen supplies into the rubble, medical staff at local hospitals worked round the clock to provide free care to victims etc. This selfless bravery and solidarity was one of the few inspiring aspects of a generally horrific situation.

Within a few days the high temperatures had accelerated decomposition and visual identitification of corpses became difficult; personal ID documents, clothing, mobile phones and DNA tests became necessary;

Shahinoor’s body was pulled out of the rubble at 12:00noon. Rescuers found a mobile phone along with it, and having pulled out the sim card and inserted it into another cellphone, they called the last number she had dialed. The person from the other side immediately identified the victim as Shahinoor from Shonatola, Bogra.

* * *

The thin veneer of concern

The government and industry statements have been revealing in their failure to hide the indifference behind the shallow concern expressed. In response to violent protests by workers after the collapse, the PM demanded the workers obediently go back to work, saying:

"Or else, you'll have to lose your jobs, go back to villages and fall into untold sufferings with your children and parents and thus reeling to death," Sheikh Hasina said while winding up her speech at the 17th session of the 9th parliament in the evening.
Mentioning that taking care of the workers is the duty of her government, the Prime Minister said she does believe that those who had unleashed vandalism on vehicles, mills and factories, shops, business establishments in the name of anger are not workers.

PM Hasina’s statement here admits that the workers her government are so ‘caring’ of are forced to work in death trap factories as the only alternative to the hunger that her government allows the poor to suffer in rural villages. And these are the conditions that have guaranteed a regular supply of new blood from the village to the garment factory.

She also lied her way through an interview on US TV with CNN, claiming "Any business person, if they commit any kind of crime, our government always takes action." If that was remotely true conditions in the garment industry would be very different, someone would have been prosecuted for earlier disasters and the Rana building would never have been built. She also claimed that the collapse was just “an accident”. Another minister claimed it was only a minor incident. The PM had originally denied that Rana, the Plaza building owner, had anything to do with her Party - but was forced give up this lie when several pictures were published showing him at functions with the local Awami League MP and there were numerous statements that Rana had operated his gangster operations under the patronage of this MP.
Meanwhile the garment bosses’ federation BGMEA complained to the media that they were "exaggerating the tragedy" and their ‘graphic reporting’ was creating an unhelpful “image crisis” for their industry. Yet at that time only about a third of the bodies had been recovered.

To illustrate the scale of hypocrisy and corruption endemic to Bangladeshi politics one only need look at the appeal filed this week by the BGMEA against a High Court ruling that its headquarters in Dhaka were illegally built and must be demolished. The land was illegally transferred by a state department to the BGMEA. The present PM Hasina, in a previous term of office, laid the foundation stone of the building in 1998. The present leader of the BNP opposition, Khaleda Zia, inaugurated the building while PM in 2006.

* * *

The Rana disaster has come only a few months after the Tazreen fire(7). The embarrassment of image-conscious Western corporations and the government’s haste to protect the country’s dominant industry – worth $20 billion annually, accounting for about 75% of exports and 13% of GDP – has pressured them into some major concessions.The government had, just before the disaster, given itself powers to enforce minimum wages in industries. It has now forced the reluctant BGMEA to agree to increase the minimum garment wage.

But decisive pressure has also come from Western labour lobbyists led by the US-based International Labour Organisation and various NGOs. The ILO has long been demanding that the Generalised System of Preferences that Bangladeshi exporters have been seeking - giving exporters from poorer countries tariff-free access to US markets - is denied them until major improvements have occurred in garment workers’ conditions. At present less than 2% of Bangladeshi garments enter the US under GSP; but to retract GSP or deny its expansion might greatly damage potential profits and further soil the industry’s international reputation. This has accelerated the government’s post-Rana reforms. It has announced a raft of policies to ensure workplace safety, stricter enforcement of building regulations and increased inspection etc.

The Rana Plaza owner (caught trying to escape the country) and the bosses of the five factories in the complex are to be prosecuted – the first time a case of this kind will have been brought against negligent factory bosses made answerable for deaths of employees. The case against the Tazreen factory owner, site of last year’s fire where 112 workers died, had been allowed to quietly fade away but now the prosecution is to be revived. As sacrificial lambs, these unprecedented legal actions are further evidence of international pressure for reform.

The unions’ day has come?

The government has also announced that workers will now be able to form unions without the permission of their employers, as was previously required (and was nearly always denied). It seems the state is here playing its role as arbiter of the overall interests of the stability of class society, even at the expense of particular factional ruling class interests. As recognised by a section of liberal opinion, both local and international, it has long seemed not only humane but also economically rational and socially stabilising to institutionalise workplace bargaining by allowing unions to mediate worker/employer relations.

Considering that existing union membership is no more than 3% of the 4.5 million workforce, one can expect that there will be quite a recruitment scramble from the existing unions, none of whom have been allowed by bosses to gain much experience of on the job negotiations. Garment ‘unions’ have till now functioned instead mainly as lobbying, legal support and welfare groups, some allied to Western NGOs. There has been some clandestine organising activity, but this has been made difficult and sometimes dangerous by interested parties, as seen by the murder of rank’n’file union organiser Aminul Islam in 2012(8).

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, in more ways than one. Most of the existing laws that are perceived to lighten the load of the working class and poor have been easily ignored and left unenforced, as proven by the very reasons for the Rana collapse. So obstacles may still be put in the way of unions to be established and to function as workplace representatives.

If in the long term the stench of rotting corpes clings more to the Awami League’s reputation than to the opposition BNP it is only because of which party happened to be in power at the time of the disaster. The ruling class across the parliamentary spectrum are equal stakeholders in an industry that is the central pillar of the national economy; both parties by their governance have been equally the overseers of the brutal conditions that led to the slaughter. (Then again, the Awami League may reap future electoral benefits by now posing as the great crusading reformers of the industry.)

If this incident will become a tipping point to change attitudes and improve working conditions is a question asked usually after such tragedies. It is more likely now, just as factory legislation did eventually improve conditions in 19th century Britain and after the deaths of 146 garment workers in the Triangle factory fire of 1911 in New York. Apart from moral issues, as production develops increased sophistication, needing a more skilled workforce, the greater investment in labour power makes it more valuable and so less disposable.

The murdered garment workers have died on the battlefield of the war of labour and capital. It has been partly fought by local bosses as a proxy war on behalf of Western buyers (while they in turn fight their own skirmishes with foreign buyers over prices and profits). With the emergence of a legalised trade unionism the terms of engagement will change but the battle will continue. We had said in 2010;

The stubborness of employers to deny for so long trade union rights seems an overall strategic weakness; the granting of basic employment rights and an acceptable minimum wage would presumably give greater stability to the sector and the increased costs be offset by a reduction in stoppages. Introduction of official trade union negotiating procedures would also be likely - as it is designed to do - to some degree at least, take initiative away from self-organising workers and their often spontaneous wildcat actions and put it in the hands of union bureaucrats who would tend to dissipate and fragment the present high level of class struggle by channeling it into long drawn out official procedures.
In recent statements by the Labour Minister the government now appears to believe - despite continued reluctance of employers - that trade unions are a desirable mechanism for mediating and controlling labour unrest. The issue is whether unions can tame the prevailing mode of struggle of workers and replace its intensity and spontaneity with the formalities of long drawn out bureaucratic and legal procedures. The working class must be dispossessed of its present direct control of its own struggles and domesticated into accepting the alienation of its class power, its passing to a union bureacracy - otherwise unions will be an irrelevancy for capitalism.
"If the union reform is implemented, will it work? Certainly the institutionalising of certain health and safety measures (deaths in factory fires are common, as are many occupational illnesses) as well as legal powers to enforce a living wage that is actually regularly paid would be popular among workers. But this depends on the garment bosses and the state showing a willingness to both grant reforms and then actually enforce them - which has never been the case so far. Promises have repeatedly been broken on these issues - and if there are no concessions on offer to win through union negotiation on behalf of workers, then unions will remain as largely irrelevant as they are today. (Another factor is that unions have often been as corrupt as most other political institutions in Bangladesh and have often been merely instruments of the political goals of one of the main political parties.) The unions have to try to establish credibility and take representative control of a workforce that has, over the past 25 years, shown itself consistently capable of a high level of self-organisation and solidarity. It is possible that the well-established current forms of mass struggle - regular wildcat strikes that then picket out neighbouring factories, roadblocks, riots and attacks on bosses' property - will prove hard to overcome."

The emergence of a modern trade union structure in the industry would embody various tensions. The garment workers’ class struggle has been largely unmediated, militant and intense. It will undoubtedly continue and will probably both overlap with, and also often overflow beyond, the boundaries of trade union structures – as it tends to do at high points of struggle elsewhere. But with most existing unions allied to NGOs or political parties a reformist outlook as the mediators of the price of labour power and its conditions of exploitation will undoubtedly dominate their function(9). One can add that in Bangladesh institutional corruption is commonplace and that the likelihood of a trade union sector completely escaping this influence are small; which may lead to varying degrees of cynicism and disaffection by workers(10).

Struggle ongoing...

Massive losses have been incurred recently by garment bosses, due to workers’ strikes, adding to the pressure for reforms(11). Since the collapse occurred, garment workers have been continuously demonstrating, with periodic rioting and fighting cops in various industrial areas. Two weeks of generalised wildcat actions throughout the industrial areas had virtually closed down production; the BGMEA responded in early May by shutting all the Ashulia factories for three days, the stoppages costing manufacturers millions of dollars. Workers are demanding a more than 150% minimum wage rise and food and transport payments.

The BGMEA had originally tried to pay workers who survived the Rana collapse and relatives of victims only one month’s salary as an immediate compensation payment. But furious workers picketed their HQ and successfully demanded four months pay, as had been paid to survivors of last year’s Tazreen fire.

Thousands of workers have been punching in attendance cards and then walking out of factories, blocking roads, laying siege to the BGMEA HQ, attacking factories and vehicles. Panicked bosses, losing grip of workplace discipline, closed factories for three days to curb this wildcat behaviour.

As mass agitation continues for substantial wage increases and against the lockouts the employers have this week again closed indefinitely 60 factories in the Ashulia industrial suburb. A 3,000-strong Industrial Police Force was introduced in 2010(12), but, after an initial success in subduing strikes and protests for a time they now appear to be overwhelmed and at present unable to repress the ongoing rage of thousands of workers permanently in the streets.

A phoenix rising from the rubble?

We now have to qualify Marx’s assertion in the quote at the beginning of this article. Capitalism does have a historic tendency to accumulate and develop its productive forces by a ruthless exploitation of the worker to the point of exhaustion(13) and even periodic slaughter in deathtrap workplaces in pursuit of maximising profitability. (Though we should remember that if 1100 workers die in one very visible incident we tend to be more shocked than if told of three workers dying invisibly every day of the year.) Yet in Bangladesh it has reached a historical point where these circumstances have become a potential limitation on expansion, for various reasons; eg, of threatening social stability, disruptions of intense class struggle, accidents and disruptions scaring off potential investors, the need to invest in a more skilled workforce more worthy of long-term preservation. This dawning rationality flows out beyond the ‘golden egg’ garment industry to the wider society. Nothing ever happens just the same way twice; but as the growth of a working class ‘social wage’ of increasing welfare and healthcare provision, social housing, pensions, workplace legislation, unionisation, increasing literacy, infant mortality and adult lifespan etc continues in even the poorest Asian countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh - there seem to be similarities with previous developments in class society during the emergence of a western proletariat in the 19th century(14).

The extension of the social wage is not only arguably a good investment in social stability, with a healthier, more educated and so more productive workforce. It also may pave the way for what is a desirable major development for Bangladeshi capital; the creation of a durable internal consumer market.

It is not that capitalism has any great humanitarian heart or conscience; but the complex inter-relations between morality, exploitation, image and profitability shift according to circumstance and give varying weight to the component parts. Fashion, even more than most other industries, is a spectacular image-driven market. The carefully tailored Corporate Images, advertising campaigns, catwalk shows and feel-good marketing ploys are tarnished by a backdrop of sweat-shop realities, mangled and burnt bodies and rioting, striking impoverished wage-slaves. In the multi-billion dollar intensely competitive fashion world this “image crisis” is a growing concern.

Unlike other neighbouring industrialising countries, Bangladesh has so far not utilised its mass of cheap labour and accumulation process to move up the value chain(15). Its profit model is still to make cheap and sell cheap in high volume, with the whole economy centred on the garment sector. The recent factory disasters are a symptom of this industrial model and the long term response will express an indication of which roads of development are to be taken. To diversify and invest in a higher value productive process, more technologically skilled and specialised, means also investing in a workforce equipped with sufficient skills, health and social wage to produce such commodities. It may be the legacy of the Rana collapse to accelerate the social reforms that will facilitate that process. As always, reforms are a double edged sword; they tend to deliver a measure of institutionalised improvement for the working class while also tying them to new social obligations. Higher wages and rising standards of living via welfare and social wage breed new obligations as consumers and citizens, new debt burdens and greater state intervention and regulation of social life etc. Safer workplace conditions and higher pay will be linked to the mediation structures of unions, with the aim of taming the characteristic explosive spontaneity of garment struggles by taking direct control and self-organisation from workers into the hands of union bureaucrats.

But Bangladeshi capital may have left it a little late for such mediating intervention, after allowing for three decades a strong culture of proletarian self organisation, militancy and solidarity to develop among garment workers – maybe a tough nut to crack? We shall see.

2) See our earlier article;
3) In a likely sign of increasing polarisation between both government and opposition parties and secular and Islamic fundamentalist currents, Hefajat called a recent (6th May) large national demonstration in Dhaka in support of their demands which became a bloody clash between protesters and police with several deaths. Alternate street protests from BNP and Islamicists – increasingly violent – have kept up pressure on the government.
5) As argued in a reply to Powell by individualist/mutualist anarchist Kevin Carson;
6) Other accounts;

SAVAR, Bangladesh (AP) — The heat in the rubble was sweltering. It closed in on his body like the darkness around him, making it hard to breathe. Working by the faint glow of a flashlight, he slithered through the broken concrete and spotted a beautiful young woman, her crushed arm pinned beneath a pillar. She was dying, and the only way to get her out was to amputate.
But Saiful Islam Nasar had no training, and almost no equipment. He's a mechanical engineer who just days earlier rushed hundreds of kilometers (miles) from his hometown in southern Bangladesh when he heard the Rana Plaza factory building had collapsed and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of garment workers were trapped.
He also understood that maimed women can be cast from their homes.
"I asked her, 'Sister, are you married?' She said 'Yes.' I asked her, 'If I cut off your arm, will your husband take you again?' She said, 'My husband loves me very much.' And then I started to cut," he said.
He had brought a syringe loaded with painkiller — his father was a village medic, and had taught him how to give injections — and he cut through her arm with a small surgical blade. It was easier than he expected because the arm had already been so badly damaged.
He pointed at fading specks of blood staining his vest and pants. He began to cry.
"There was no alternative," he said.
Sayed Shohel Harman, an unpaid community volunteer for the fire department, found a survivor whose arm was pinned under a concrete slab. The man begged Harman to give him a knife so he could cut off his own arm and free himself. Harman refused, saying he would go and get help.
"The doctors said it was too risky for them to go inside," Harman said. "They told me to go back and try to drag him out."
When he returned, the man was there, but his arm was gone. Another volunteer had given the man a knife and he had cut through his own flesh and crushed bones.
"I just sat down after seeing that," Harman said. "It was horrible."

7) See our earlier article;
8) This article also describes some already-existing tensions between Bangladeshi garment labour groups – tensions that will likely grow in the increased competition as a result of the announced liberalising of trade union legislation.
9) Revolutionaries may point out ‘the reformist nature of unions’, but if most workers are not expecting or demanding that they ‘be revolutionary’, such an observation is – for the moment - of little interest to anyone else.
10) A strike that broke out this week among tea workers in the north-eastern region of Sylhet and has spread elsewhere shows some of the possible tensions that may occur among competing garment unions. A tea workers union was founded a few years ago but the old leadership – who have caused resentment among the membership by becoming close to local politicians of the ruling Awami League - was recently ousted in an election. Yet they are refusing to relinquish control of the union HQ to the new leadership and this, along with demands on employers, is one reason for the strike. Most existing labour groups are allied to one or other of the political parties or to NGO’s.
11) Even before the Rana collapse, political street blockades by Islamic and opposition parties had prevented many workers attending work and hindered shipments of garments abroad.
12) See our earlier article;
13) See our earlier article on malnutrition and the Ghost Panic;
14) This appears to contradict those theorists claiming the present day as an era of capitalist decadence where the granting of reforms by the ruling class are no longer possible – or, at least, show it to be a narrowly Eurocentric view.
15) Though the Bangladesh garment sector is predicted to see further rapid growth as a result of China’s move up the value chain – with Bangladesh replacing the reduced Chinese capacity for low-end cheap garment production as China restructures and reinvests into higher-end commodities.


May 24 2013 11:32

The author speculates about Bangladesh moving up the value chain of the global capitalist economy. I don't think that's going to happen to any substantial degree in the near future because, as of 2010, only 28% of the population was urban. Countries move up the value chain when they have urbanised sufficiently and when the previous stage of industrialisation has trained up a working class ready to move on to the next stage.

The rapid flow of new workers into the cities (estimated by the CIA Factbook as a 3.1% annual increase in the urban population) is a strong objective downward pressure on wages, ensuring that there is always a ready supply of labour to replace workers who leave or go on strike. In these circumstances, it would take an extra-ordinary level of militancy and solidarity for wages to rise appreciably above subsistence level - though even a slight rise would be of great benefit to workers at the bottom of the labour market. And, given the population is increasing at 1.59% per year, at current urbanisation rates in 20 years the population can be projected to be still less than 38% urban.

It is in this context that we should evaluate whether a relaxation of anti-union laws in Bangladesh will be of benefit to workers there. Certainly an official union bureaucracy will be a brake on militancy, but we also need to know what the sporadic, spontaneous and unorganised militancy of the last few years has achieved for workers in Bangladesh. If the only thing keeping the workers from the clutches of the union bureaucrats is the hostility of the State to unions, then I don't see much advantage flowing in terms of working class consciousness.

Red Marriott
May 25 2013 17:14

Your projected outcome regarding moving up the value chain is a possibility. But the garment sector is projected to keep growing rapidly and the government is planning to soon open several large Economic Processing Zones in various regions to attract new investors and diversify production - all of which will accelerate urbanisation. The development of large open-cast mining projects has also only been delayed by local mass resistance but is still likely to go ahead eventually.

It's a quite different case, but if one looks at India its urban population is still only around 31%, having grown 3% in a decade, yet it does seem to be steadily moving up the value chain - even as thousands of farmers commit suicide every year due to debt burdens and rural people still sometimes starve. Uneven development within industrialising countries is not surprising.

As for unions; to describe the history of garment struggles as "sporadic, spontaneous and unorganised militancy" seems misleading. (Can militancy be unorganised?) I don't know if the statistics exist, but would expect that the Bangladeshi garment sector would be pretty high up a list of strike-prone industries globally and certainly less sporadic in its militancy than most unionised sectors. Which is a reason that some see a usefulness in unionisation, to make strikes far more sporadic. Nor do I think such a high level of continuing struggle over decades can be described as "unorganised". It may be more informal and less institutional, with more room for more "spontaneous" responses, but workers are still collectively organising and sustaining it.

What has been achieved for workers? Employers have made some concessions over the years; rice subsidies for workers, creche facilities in some workplaces (including, ironically, in one of the Rana factories) improved conditions in some workplaces etc. But the struggles are localised and day to day in a very concrete sense; struggle at a particular workplace to be paid wage arrears, for a worker to be reinstated, for compensation for relatives of the injured/killed, for sacking of bullying managers, to end a management lockout etc. These can periodically spread from one factory to generalise across a whole area. So struggles occur at a level at which it's hard to find an overall objective measure of 'what is achieved' industry-wide. Without institutional reform industry-wide, academics, historians and statisticians will find it hard to come up with such a measure - and even more so for trying to quantify the strong culture of wildcat solidarity that has been developed. The reforms promised post-Rana are those quantifiable institutional/legal reforms.

"If the only thing keeping the workers from the clutches of the union bureaucrats is the hostility of the State to unions, then I don't see much advantage flowing in terms of working class consciousness."

I assume that's not meant to be a summary of what I said as it wouldn't be a fair one. My point was that unionisation would be "double-edged" for workers - an institutional form in which concessions are granted that also attempts to restrict worker militancy.

May 26 2013 03:45
Red Marriott wrote:
My point was that unionisation would be "double-edged" for workers - an institutional form in which concessions are granted that also attempts to restrict worker militancy.

On that, I think we are in agreement. I wasn't trying to summarise Red Marriott's position, but to set up an extreme pole for the purposes of analysis. My view is closer to the "unionise" than "don't unionise" pole, but I have many years experience fighting the bureaucrats in my own union to demonstrate that unionisation is, indeed, a two-edge sword.

May 26 2013 23:59

Is it simply not possible for the garment industry to cut and run to take advantage of a cheaper labor pool somewhere in the world? is the cost of constant capital for the garment industry so expensive that the western buyers can't make it worth their while to invest in setting up factories where the exploitation rate would be more in their favor than in a reformed bangladesh? I'm not saying that "sweat shops are better than the alternatives," i'm asking why capital wouldn't take advantage of it's mobility in this situation. either way, the current system obviously has to go.

May 27 2013 01:23

Bangladesh has the lowesst wages in the world so not so easy to move. Maybe somewhere in Africa would be a possibility but there would be the problem of political instability and /or lack of infrastructure in much of Africa.

May 27 2013 03:13

gaza. currently average wages in gaza are about half what they are in bangladseh, john kerry is running around soliciting private sector vestment there. i was thinking of africa as well ... but gaza ....

May 27 2013 08:04

The population of Gaza is only 1% of the population of Bangladesh, which has the 8th largest population in the world. Gaza would have full employment and militant unions before Bangladesh even noticed a seasonal drop in activity.

What working class revolutionaries need to understand is that a sea change is on the horizon. Until now, capitalism has been able to operate on the assumption that there is an inexhaustible supply of under-employed peasants and urban poor. All that was required was to have sufficient governments adopt an export oriented industrialisation program, supply sufficient infrastructure and suppress the ability of workers to organise. We are now, however, within sight of a turning point in world history. The supply of under-employed peasants is going to dry up and is already in a considerably smaller ratio to the existing working class than it was 20 or 30 years ago. It should also be realised that, as capitalism has expanded, it has required ever-larger sources of under-employed labour in order to meet its need for growth. There is no country bigger than China, and that is already majority urban now - with the rural population being strongly weighted to people not in the age range for participating in the labour market.

At some point in the medium term future, the flow of under-employed peasants into the cities of the Third World will dry up. Workers will start winning more of their battles, wages will climb and the victories will start extending to middle income societies (e.g. Mexico, Malaysia) and then to OECD countries. The boot will be on the other foot and the bosses won't know what hit them. They think the unions are dinosaurs. They think they've won the class war - but they've got another thing coming.

Yes, Africa is a very large source of under-employed peasants and urban poor, but there are two other factors in play:

(a) It is split up into around 45 countries; and
(b) It has a vast deficit of infrastructure.

Because of that, we won't have the population of Africa tossed onto the world labour market all at once. It will come in dribs and drabs and won't materially delay the change in the balance of power once Asia has been industrialised.

May 27 2013 10:43
semblable wrote:
Is it simply not possible for the garment industry to cut and run to take advantage of a cheaper labor pool somewhere in the world? is the cost of constant capital for the garment industry so expensive that the western buyers can't make it worth their while to invest in setting up factories where the exploitation rate would be more in their favor than in a reformed bangladesh? I'm not saying that "sweat shops are better than the alternatives," i'm asking why capital wouldn't take advantage of it's mobility in this situation. either way, the current system obviously has to go.

other posters, and the article itself, I think of address this. In that yes it would be a possibility in future moving to parts of Africa once there is sufficient infrastructure/political stability. However, apart from the things other people have raised, there is not that much incentive for it due to the labour costs for garment workers being so low compared to the total cost of the product.

Going back to the article itself, it really is excellent and I would like to thank Red for writing it. Particularly reading more about the self organisation of the rescue attempt, incredible stuff.

I think that the liberalisation of the union laws will be a really key factor here, and I think a lot will depend on whether they really do relax the law or whether they prevent unions functioning effectively in other ways. With others, I agree that this will be a double-edged sword. To dampen the militant struggle, employers will have to offer some real concessions, but then the struggle will be taken out of the hands of the workers and handed over to their "representatives".

May 27 2013 15:49

my question was whether differentials in the rate of exploitation (or differences in productivity) can't allow capital to retain it's mobility. the low % labor cost in the cost of an item is pertinent in this case is relevant, but the responses above don't explain why capital wont shift emphasis from the extraction of absolute surplus value to the extraction of relative surplus value in industries faced with higher labor costs due to unionization. yes, eventually automation will reduce available surplus value and bring on a crisis, but that seem a longer term senario than the "turning point" in world history model above. there are also vast quantities of urban surplus population. just because classical proletarianization seems to be more or less complete outside of africa doesn't mean their aren't another reserve labor pools.

May 28 2013 11:17
semblable wrote:
my question was whether differentials in the rate of exploitation (or differences in productivity) can't allow capital to retain it's mobility.

OK. Capital in the garment trade will definitely retain its mobility, for quite some time at least. This is because investment in fixed capital in that industry is fairly low and the machinery is mostly pretty transportable. Therefore bosses don't have to write off a large amount of capital if they decide to shift location. For this reason, as well as the fact that the skill levels required in garment manufacture are not especially high (i.e. peasant women coming in from the countryside don't take long to learn the machinery), the garment industry is in the vanguard of capital's geographic spread.

If the price of labour globally is going up, however, capital will be making choices within a constrained context. We'd need an estimate of the total size of the garment industry worldwide in order to work out how big a country has to be before throwing its peasants onto the labour market would go towards solving a problem with rising labour costs in its existing workforce. One thing I have read, however, is that Bangladesh has the second largest garment industry in the world (China has the biggest). As I said above, with a population only 1% of Bangladesh's, Gaza would make no difference to the garment industry. The only country larger than Bangladesh and where labour could be cheaper would be Nigeria, which suffers from the problems of Africa mentioned above (though to a lesser extent - there is already a modicum of infrastructure due to the oil industry). India and Pakistan would have comparable labour costs, while all other countries in the top 10 of world population are already higher up the labour cost scale.

semblable wrote:
the responses above don't explain why capital wont shift emphasis from the extraction of absolute surplus value to the extraction of relative surplus value in industries faced with higher labor costs due to unionization.

Yes, once the under-employed peasantry and urban poor are absorbed into the labour force, the next step is productivity improvement. Capitalists will invest in better machinery so as to increase relative surplus value. We shouldn't assume, however, that this process is an adequate or long-lived substitute for extracting super-profits from an urbanising ex-peasant workforce. Trotsky, before he became a Bolshevik, came up with the theory of combined & uneven development and it is not generally recognised that it cuts two ways. Because industrialisation often involves use of the most modern technology, even in the midst of an otherwise backward society, a rise in wages is not something that can be compensated for just by importing better technology. In many cases, the technology is already there and in use. What took two centuries to achieve in Britain is taking a generation in Asia.

semblable wrote:
just because classical proletarianization seems to be more or less complete outside of africa doesn't mean their aren't another reserve labor pools.

Sorry, but I don't understand what other labour pools Semlable is referring to. If I had an example, I could comment more meaningfully.

Jun 6 2013 07:37

Adding insult to injury, Bangladeshi police have now opened fire on a demonstration of survivors of the disaster, demanding compensation and back pay:

Red Marriott
Jul 21 2014 17:43

A programme on UK TV; BBC2 tonight Mon 21st July, 9pm, on the Rana factory disaster.

Dan Radnika
Jan 7 2017 22:15

For those who haven't already seen it, the BBC Panorama documentary on the Rana Plaza disaster is on Youtube:
Well worth watching!