RM examines a new wave of workers' struggle in Bangladesh.
Khalishpur industrial belt, Khulna, south-west Bangladesh; striking workers at Platinum Jubilee Jute Mills attacked union leaders last Saturday, Sep 15th, accusing them of conspiring with management against workers' demands. The 5,000 workers - on strike since Sep 3rd - are casualised day-labourers and are demanding permanent contracts. Some had previously worked at the factory for up to 25 years, but were recently re-employed on a casual 'no work-no pay' basis. Sacked and retired workers have also begun daily demonstrations at the factory gates, demanding payment of wage arrears.
In the morning there was conflict at the factory gates and union officials had to be protected by police from angry strikers. A group of strikers
then went to the house of Mohammad Jahangir Hossain, general secretary of the mill’s trade union, blaming him and the trade union president, Delwar Hossain, for conniving with the factory management against the labourers on strike. Jahangir was not home at the time. The labourers in fury ransacked the house.
On their way back, they found Delwar and beat him black and blue, witnesses said, adding a severely wounded Delwar took refuge in a nearby house. (New Age, Sep 17 07)
Police arrived soon afterwards and arrested two workers for the assault.
Prior to the emergence of the now-dominant garment sector, jute was the largest industry in the country. A botched nationalisation soon after Independence in the early 1970s, corruption and lack of investment have for decades affected the industry, as have irregular power supplies impeding production due to the country's weak elecricity infrastructure. Cash flow problems - mainly caused by central government - have also impeded supply of raw materials when funds to pay jute farmers are not available.
The global market for jute has in recent years grown; it is a natural, biodegradeable, eco-friendly product with many applications as hessian/burlap, rope,twine,yarn, packaging etc. Bangladeshi soil produces superior quality jute; yet the jute mills have been deliberately run down and disinvested in - mass redundancies have continued for the last few years, including 40,000 at Adamjee in 2002 - once Asia’s biggest jute mills.
The World Bank (who along with other western powers encouraged/pressured the installation of the present caretaker governement) has made privatisation of major industries a condition of continued aid and funding. The private investors are now being ushered in as 'saviours' of an ailing industry. This month it was announced that 8 state-owned jute mills would be sold off. Other privatisations have occured or are in the pipeline for docks and airlines. Mining and other energy extraction contracts will also be up for grabs.
The wider unrest
This local incident at the Khulna mills is another indication that the economic, political and social crisis continues to deepen. The illusion that the present caretaker governement and its Emergency Rule would offer a glimmer of hope to the poor is shattered; the army-backed regime's honeymoon period is long gone. Mass slum clearances have left thousands homeless with no alternative provision. Thousands of unlicensed rickshaw drivers have had vehicles seized and been forced off the streets. (Rickshaw driving is often the only work available to those moving from village to town seeking work.) Rampant inflation of basic necessities is now so high that it begins to even affect the middle class. The growth in power of the Rapid Action Battalion, a crack paramilitary force formed to deal with civil unrest, has led to the term "cross-fired" entering the language. This refers to the official statements routinely issued to 'explain' the death of anyone by an RAB bullet. Many have been cross-fired or died in police custody in recent years.
Following last month's nationwide student revolt (that grew to include a wider participation), last week new unrest broke out in the Ready Made Garment sector - where bosses have, since the great revolt of 2006, repeatedly refused to honour wage agreements. Garment bosses complain that business has been damaged by labour unrest; in fact international buyers are concerned about damage to corporate image by association with sweatshop labour as much as reliability of supplies; yet many RMG firms remain reluctant to comply with agreed improvements in factory conditions and after 15 months of negotiation no agreement has been accepted for an RMG minimum wage.
That the only immediate response to class struggle remains brute repression is itself a sign of long-term weakness in the social/political structures; the inability to create effective forms of mediation such as an integrated trade union sector (never mind a half-credible functioning political democracy) means that the stakes are high. Most unions are as riddled with corruption and political rivalry as other political and economic institutions. So the class struggle tends to take a self-organised, unmediated form where unions and parties tend to tail-end struggles and seek to gain control after unrest breaks out.This is not to imply that unions have no influence at all - workers do respond to unions calls for actions when, for example, it's used as supplementary pressure during wage negotiations. But the impoverished hand-to-mouth existence of most workers means that the necessity of immediate and determined action on the job to resist greater exploitation makes most attempts at formal mediation obsolete. While workers are obviously not against what concessions can be gained by union bargaining (though in the RMG sector this has been only some minor improvements in conditions, so far - and even less in the jute sector), the more immediate needs of on the job struggles generally leaves the slender union representation trailing in its wake. The recent attack on jute mill union leaders suggests that workers may be developing a practical critique of all those who seek to control and limit their struggles. The class struggle has weathered the storm of Emergency Rule enforced by the military and appears to be returning with greater force and confidence. None of the recurring conflicts of Bangladesh have been resolved.