How new policing methods have, for the moment, dampened workers' struggles.
In October 2010 a new Industrial Police Force (IPF) became operational in Bangladesh. After years of refusal, reluctant to provide the extra funding, the government finally agreed to demands of the garment manufacturers and established a permanent paramilitary force to deal with workers unrest in the industrial zones. The widespread strikes and riots of the previous years, ongoing since the mass revolt of 2006, had also prompted the state's initiative. In particular the 2010 wage protests, where thousands of workers began to move beyond their suburban industrial belt into the city and trashed a wealthy commercial and diplomatic area of Dhaka, were a warning sign of how things might develop.
The ready made garment (RMG) industry's central role in the national economy (employing approx. 3.5 million workers, 85% female and earning $12.59 billion from garment exports in the last fiscal year, around 80 per cent of total export income) made essential the need to commit to suppressing the class struggles in the industry. Apart from simple increased productivity, it remains essential to try to improve reliability of supply for foreign buyers; the fast changing world of fashion and its short 'seasons' means fast turnaround and delivery times are key to profitability. For Western companies concerned about maintaining a clean Corporate Image it's also necessary to quieten and conceal workers' public complaints and actions about sweatshop conditions and low pay. Offering an attractively obedient and low paid workforce to potential foreign investors in the Economic Processing Zones (EPZs) meant stopping the unrest.
"Exports will increase if the workers' unrest is solved" (US Ambassador James F Moriarty - The Nation, 17 Sep 2010)
“The garment sector is one of the key industries that keep the country’s economy growing. But a bunch of workers have been trying to destroy this industry for long,” she said, adding that the IPF would rescue industries from the clutches of these vested quarters.
The IPF would also maintain law and order keeping a healthy relation between workers and owners, she said at a programme for the launch of Chittagong Zone industrial police at the Port Labour Colony ... (Home Minister Advocate Sahara Khatun - The Independent, 5 Dec 2010)
The police had traditionally relied mainly on brute force to combat workers' unrest in the EPZs - and in their first major engagement with garment workers in December 2010 it seemed the new Industrial Police (IP) would continue these tactics;
... in and around Dhaka 3,000 workers fought cops and blocked roads – while the Chittagong EPZ was forced to close as 4,000 workers battled police. As clashes intensified police fired 600 rounds of rubber bullets, 150 teargas canisters and made numerous baton charges. Workers replied with missiles and sticks; roads were blocked with burning and vandalised vehicles while 11 factories and 20 other commercial buildings were ransacked.
This was the first major test of the Industrial Police unit recently formed to curb workers unrest - and they sought to show a firm hand. Cops eventually began using live rounds and shot dead four people. Eight others received bullet wounds. Across the country around 200 were injured, including 50 cops. http://libcom.org/news/cloth-dyed-blood-18122010
The IP clearly wanted to establish themselves as an effective paramilitary force in the eyes of all - workers, bosses and the state - by going in hard. But since then their operations have revealed a wider range of more sophisticated tactics. IP training programmes have emphasised acting as mediators between bosses and workers;
"The job of the industrial police would be counseling, rather than normal policing. They must give advance information and they must grow trust through their activities," he said.
"They will identify problems and try to improve the working environment in the industrial sector," Parvez said. (Anwar-ul-Alam Chowdhury Parvez, RMG boss and ex-president of BGMEA employers federation - Daily Star, 6 Oct 2010)
Naim Ahmed, Rector of Police Staff College, said, “The industrial police will be trained to resolve disputes between owners and workers through arbitrations.”
They will also gather information from the factories and identify the causes of possible unrest, he added. (Daily Star, 4 Oct 2010)
Local intelligence gathering is a crucial weapon and is being coordinated with the employers federation;
BGMEA set up a control room in its office to monitor the overall activities of the garment factories. Two members of the police and one member of intelligence agency will act as coordinator round the clock.
Meanwhile, in the wake of some recent garment unrest, the government has strengthened intelligence surveillance in industrial hubs in a bid to avert fresh trouble. (News Today, 26 Oct 2011)
The 3,000 IP personnel are divided between four industrial zones across the country; Dhaka zone-1 Ashulia, Dhaka zone-2 Gazipur, the southeastern port city of Chittagong and at Narayanganj a few miles south of Dhaka. The most decisive tactical innovation appears to be the permanent stationing of the IPF within the industrial zones; whereas previously the police had to travel from the city centre out to the garment factory areas now they can implement a much more rapid response and contain incidents in one workplace area before they spread. Whereas it would previously be the norm for striking workers to leave the factory and then quickly march to neighbouring workplaces to picket them out, the IP are now more often forewarned of trouble via intelligence reports and so can quickly deploy to isolate protests - if necessary, augmented by other police departments and presumably using a form of what we know in the UK as 'kettling' to contain workers' demonstrations. They can then play their mediating and counselling role to encourage negotiation and resolution of disputes between bosses and workers in individual workplaces. (Crowd psychology techniques appear to be an increasingly routine weapon in the arsenals of police forces of the world.) And so the garment workers' long tradition of picketing out nearby workplaces - a practical application of the class-wide solidarity of "an injury to one is an injury to all" - is, for the moment at least, broken. The practical common identity as a class, above and beyond identification or loyalty with a particular workplace, is suppressed. The paramilitary/counselling IPF unites the carrot and stick approach; in the absence of functioning trade unions on the job (which bosses still refuse to allow) the IP takes a surrogate role, playing a role normally reserved for unions; the mediating of conflicts between exploiter and exploited.
BGMEA officials said formation of an industrial police, implementation of minimum wages board and awareness raising programmes helped in reducing the unrest which threatened Bangladesh's clothing sector in 2010. [...]
Md Rafiq, an official at the BGMEA labour unrest cell said deployment of industrial police in major clothing making areas helped to improve the situation.
Abdus Salam, director general of industrial police told the FE: "In many cases we are working as arbitrators between the workers and owners to address the grievances and ensure smooth production in the factories."
The chief of industrial police said: "We're expecting the incidents of unrest will drop further in the years ahead as the number of policemen is rising to tackle the situation." (thefinancialexpress-bd.com - 30 Dec 2011)
These tactics seem to have worked well so far for the ruling class. The IPF claim a 60% reduction in incidents of RMG worker unrest in the past year and emphasise the value of both intelligence gathering and conflict mediation in this success. Imposing such institutional mediation is intended to kill the explosive spontaneous responses to grievances that have long characterised the struggles of garment workers and their strengths. Their immediacy and contagious solidarity is stifled and dissipated by the time lag involved in negotiation procedures and quickly quarantined within individual workplaces by the paramilitary rapid response of the IPF.
Meanwhile the RMG industry continues to expand, with growth of 15% predicted for the next year. Still dominating the national economy and accounting for around 80% of exports;
Mr. Shubhashish Bose, Vice Chairman of EPB[Export Promotion Bureau], said, “Bangladesh’s export target for 2011-12 is US$ 26.5 billion, which is much more than last year. ...
Mr. Bose says, “In garments, Bangladesh mainly exports basic apparels that are not high value products but are needed by people all the time. So, even if there is recession in Europe or the US, people have to buy these apparels because it is a basic necessity for all. So, our apparel sector will not be very much affected and we can look forward to a double digit growth to achieve the export target.” (fibre2fashion.com - 3 Jan 2012)
But while garment bosses are expecting bumper profits the workers are seeing wages lagging far behind inflation, with rocketing food, fuel and housing costs. With many RMG workers living hand to mouth, the necessity to struggle collectively for material needs is as strong as ever, and strategies to overcome the new policing methods will surely begin to evolve.
1] "In an unusual development that shocked many, the wealthy Gulshan Avenue neighbourhood - close to the diplomatic zone and embassy area of Baridhara - was invaded by 5,000 workers who smashed up offices, banks and shops. Media and TV offices were also attacked. "Gulshan police chief said the protesters had targetted the area's high-end shops."" http://libcom.org/news/rage-over-wage-04082010
2] BGMEA - Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers & Exporters Association.
3] This is probably also another reason for the great reduction in Bangladeshi news reporting of RMG workers unrest. We can speculate that the reporters in their Dhaka city offices would have formerly been in closer contact with their nearby police stations and would follow police deployments out to the industrial zones. The smaller scale of present disturbances and greater distance from police tip-off sources now make a trip to the industrial suburbs less worthwhile for the newshounds. (If any readers are wondering - this reduction in reporting of unrest is largely why we have, in turn, had little to say recently on the subject.)
4] For a short history and analysis of these struggles, see; http://libcom.org/library/tailoring-needs-garment-worker-struggles-bangladesh