Return of the repressed; new days of rage for garment workers - and the disappeared...

Ashulia factory fired - May 2012
Ashulia factory fired - May 2012

After a long period of relative quiet, workers are again taking mass action in the Bangladeshi garment industry. Also; some comments on the recent wave of political 'disappearances'.

Submitted by Red Marriott on May 27, 2012

Since the deployment of the new Industrial Police Force (IPF) in 2010 struggles had been much reduced by the IP's innovative tactics(1). But recent events in Dhaka's industrial suburb of Ashulia and elsewhere suggest that workers' anger, solidarity, willingness to struggle and sheer weight of numbers can't be contained indefinitely.

Thursday, May 12th 2012, Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka; during the evening shift Salman, a store room worker at the Hameem Group factory, is reprimanded by a manager for using his mobile phone at work(2). The argument escalates into a physical fight. What happens next is unclear. According to police and management Salman was then taken to jail; it was reported matter-of-factly by several newspapers that;

According to the police...the director beat up Salman and handed him over to the police, they said. Ashulia police confirmed that he was sent in jail on Saturday.

But a different, even worse, version of events was soon to circulate amongst workers...

Saturday morning, May 14th, Hameem Group factory; Workers arrive at the factory to begin work. Seeing that Salman is still absent and hearing of the incident on Thursday, rumours spread that Salman was tortured to death by the managers and his body hidden. The workers gather in the factory, demanding to know what has happened to Salman - the Industrial Police arrive and begin trying to disperse the workers. The workers resist the cops and intense fighting breaks out. A store room is set ablaze and sweater machines are vandalised. By 10am the clashes spill out onto the main Dhaka-Tangail highway where police make repeated baton charges and workers respond with volleys of bricks, burn tires and block traffic.

The Hameem Group workers call out workers from neighbouring factories to join them; soon thousands of workers are fighting with police. The cops fire rubber bullets and tear gas. In the chaos, there are chases and counter-chases - in a crowd running away from a police charge a female garment worker, Nahar, 30, is hit by a bus and killed.

Workers begin attacking garment factory buildings along the highway, damaging 50 properties. Over 50 vehicles, 12 belonging to the Hameem Group, are also damaged. Fearing a contagious effect, 300 local factories stop production and send workers home - losing millions in lost production and adding to the mass of workers on the streets.

A police constable has a rifle snatched from him by a group of workers. Several TV crews are attacked and their cameras smashed, probably partly in response to recent use of film footage to identify rioters. Clashes continued until 1.30pm, by which time the area is swamped by cops and the Rapid Action Batallion para-militaries.

Apart from the dead worker, over 100 people are injured, including around a dozen cops and six journalists. Management of the Hameem Group estimate damage to the factory and machinery at Tk 10 crore (over $1 million).
[youtube]rlGJjvVb1GU[/youtube] (Protest footage starts at around 1.02 secs)

Sunday morning, 15th May; workers begin work in the Hameem Group factory but, with still no visible sign of Salman the vanished worker, soon stop and leave the factory. Gathering on the highway at 9am, they again quickly bring out nearby factories; 50,000 workers converge on the street. Fighting begins on the road, workers set afire tires and logs, blocking traffic. Another 100 people are injured, including workers, journalists, pedestrians and two police constables. A hundred teargas shells and 1000 rubber bullets are fired. Hundreds of factories are again closed for the day.

In an attempt to calm the situation Hameem management and police bring a 'Salman' to the factory. But the workers claim "This Salman is not our Salman" and, unconvinced, the unrest continues into the afternoon.

Eventually Hameem management are able to convene a meeting with the workforce where a return to work is agreed. Six arrested workers are released by police and the real Salman is apparently produced to the workers' satisfaction. The police rifle snatched by workers the previous day is recovered, found hidden under a pile of firewood.

Monday morning, Narayanganj, 10 miles south-east of Dhaka; workers protesting the illegal summary sacking of several co-workers agitate stop work at the Sinha Textiles factory. Hundreds of workers barricade the local highway and fight pitched battles with cops for two hours. Several other factories are vandalised.

Tuesday morning, Narayanganj; Sinha Textiles workers find themselves locked out and the factory under "indefinite closure". Though such dismissal without any advance warning is illegal it is a frequent occurrence. At 9am, as hundreds of workers demonstrate and fight cops for an hour, several vehicles are vandalised and a bus is torched.

While fleeing from police baton charges, another young female worker, 22-year-old Sonia, is killed when hit by a bus. 30 people, including 10 cops, are injured.

The 18 month 'truce' as both sides adjusted to the tactics of the new Industrial Police Force is well and truly over. The IPF tactics may even begin to backfire now by provoking a possible escalation; as workers begin to appreciate that their own levels of organisation, co-ordination, tactics and numbers involved must be sufficient to combat the now-greater organisation of the cops.

* * *

The Disappeared

Whichever of the two main parties are in power, every Bangladeshi parliamentary term of office tends to follow a predictable route, becoming ever more repressive. The present ruling Awami League's term is no different, though now somewhat worse than their recent predecessors, seemingly intent on crippling all organised opposition.

In the past two years there has been a wave of unexplained disappearances of dozens of political opposition figures. They have included local party activists of the Bangladeshi National Party(BNP), some more prominent BNP politicians and some student unionists. So far there only apparently been one disappearance due to activities related to labour struggles. Aminul Islam was a former garment worker; elected by workmates as a convenor on the Workers Representation and Welfare Committee at his workplace (the WRWC being the only form of minimal workforce representation allowed by bosses) he was sacked for his militancy. Helped with his legal case against his former employers by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a group that has argued for higher pay and better working conditions, he later became a union organiser for BCWS. The BCWS was active in the 2010 campaign for a minimum wage - since then its leading activists have suffered harassment, arrest, torture and legal frame-ups. Mr Islam was previously arrested by the security services in 2010 and tortured.

He was last seen alive in April 2012 in the industrial area of Ashulia, outside the BCWS offices, where the premises appeared to be under police surveillance. Receiving a phone call from a worker requesting help, he left home but never arrived at the agreed meeting place. His family filed a missing person report with police. Two days later his tortured body was found dumped by a roadside 100 kilometres away. The local police buried his remains as unclaimed and of unknown identity, but also had pictures of the corpse published in the press. These were seen by his friends and relatives, leading to the body being exhumed and positively identified. Signs of torture were obvious on Aminul Islam's body, with numerous wounds, bruises and broken bones.(3)

Whatever the routine official denials, nobody is under any illusions as to the state security services' role in these murders. While militant workers, rank'n'file labour activists and unionists have suffered harassment, arrest and torture, for the moment, at least, most disappearances continue to be of political activists related to the BNP;

In reply to a question posed by MP Tarana Halim in the Bangladesh parliament on March 14, minister of home affairs, Shahara Khatun, commented that most of the victims of enforced disappearances were affiliated with criminal groups and abducted by their rivals. (our emphasis)

Minister Khatun expresses here either an unintentional or deliberately cynical sense of irony; the opposition BNP's history is every bit as corrupt and murderously repressive as the present Awami League regime - so in that sense his explanation is perfectly accurate.

1) See;
2) Recent years have seen an explosion of mobile use in Bangladesh, now ranked 13th in the world for usage; As they have become more affordable for workers no doubt they are being used to co-ordinate factory strikes and protests.
3) For more info on Islam's death;
Correspondence released by Wikileaks in 2010 revealed that the UK government had been training the para-military Rapid Action Batallion, notorious for its many assassinations;
While international criticism has led to a decline in RAB extra-judicial killings - with victims routinely reported as caught in "crossfire" - the state has merely replaced these with its tactic of disappearances. On the present wave;



12 years ago

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Submitted by Steven. on May 27, 2012

That's terrible about the disappeared, but encouraging to see that the decline in militancy following the introduction of the new police force now seems to be on the wane. Thank you for your continued excellent coverage!


12 years ago

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Submitted by Hieronymous on May 28, 2012

I agree with Steven, this is crucial information. Red Marriott, thanks for following the situation and making these outstanding posts.

I recently bought a couple new ridiculously cheap pairs of trousers under an American brand (Dockers). Both were made in Bangladesh. Looking a little more deeply into it, the reason is clear: garment workers in Bangladesh are the lowest paid in the world, making on average $0.21 (US) an hour. Currently wages are rising in China, pricing them out of the labor market. Right now garment workers in China make $0.93 an hour, with wages rising steadily. Hence the growth of the Bangladeshi garment industry's prominence in global markets.

The following is an example why Chinese textile and garment manufacturers can't compete. Workers in Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, famous for the Foxconn complex with hundreds of thousands of workers making all kinds of consumer electronics, have the highest per capita income and urban living standards in all of China. Yet the city has severe labor shortages as workers have been leaving the city in droves.

[quote=Arrival City]After the 2008 New Year holiday, during which half the workforce traditionally take a vacation in their home villages, Shenzhen officials were shocked to discover that two million workers had failed to return; 18 percent of the city's migrant workforce had decided to leave for good, despite large labor shortages: by the end of 2007, Shenzhen had 700,000 unfilled jobs. City officials raised the minimum wage from 450 to 750 to 900 yuan ($132) per month, but it did little to attract workers back. In 2010, when hundreds of thousands more failed to return, Shenzhen announced plays to raise it yet again, to 1,100 per month, after facing labor shortages of more than 20 percent. Again, the promise had little noticeable effect. Officials were left bewildered. Some speculated that China's competitiveness in low-wage manufacturing was doomed, but few had good explanations [from Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World by Doug Sanders (2010) p. 60].[/quote]

I think Bruno Astarian's "Crisis Activity and Communisation" offers an adequate explanation: the return of the "anti-work impulse," especially to places of rapid industrialization like China and Bangladesh.

Red Marriott

12 years ago

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Submitted by Red Marriott on May 28, 2012

Astarian's article may offer a partial explanation for the Chinese labour shortage, but it could also be that labour shortages elsewhere mean there is wider choice of workplace, encouraging prole mobility. Many Shenzhen non-returnees would've presumably found work elsewhere. It may also encourage those from peasant backgrounds to be seasonal proletarians, moving between town and village.
But I've not heard of similar effects in Bangladesh, where the poor often lack sufficient land resources to stay in the villages and the flow seems relentlessly into the factories. As I commented beneath Astarian's article;

I'm not convinced by some of Astarian's categorisations; eg, putting into the 'anti-work' category 60s-70s European car workers and Bangladeshi garment workers now, comparing a sudden non-work-based Greek revolt with 30 yrs of often violent factory struggles in Bangladesh. Similarly, the Paris Commune, Spain 36, Greece 2009 etc, all with such differing historical causes and circumstances, all gathered within the category of "crisis activity". I'm wary of projecting of what may be "contextless universals" across the broad face of history.

I also disagree with the author's interpretation of Bangladeshi garment workers struggles; (s)he seems to define them as at points becoming 'non-demand' based and appears to take this view from Echanges articles I haven't read. This sounds to me like a possible projection (by Echanges?) of one's ideological preferences/preferred conclusions - of what one wants to find confirmed in events. (I've heard that Bangladesh was also recently cited in a debate elsewhere as supposed example of struggles without demands; I hope this doesn't become an established myth.) All the struggles in the Bangla garment sector I know of are demand-based (as are the examples given in the article); demanding payment of arrears, demanding re-employment after lockouts, demanding an end to management brutality, demanding a minimum living wage etc. To define their general character as anti-work is unconvincing to me; one can find news interviews, filmed in the midst of these violent protests where workplaces are attacked, with workers saying they are acting to demand payment of arrears and/or against brutal conditions, or they are protesting lockouts and being prevented from working. Destruction of factory property is seen as a bargaining tool - 'you don't give us what we want/are owed, we'll make you pay' - "collective bargaining by riot". The anti-work angle is no more than one possible aspect, latent rather than any predominant defining characteristic.

The first incident reported above in Ashulia was a response to management brutality; once a satisfactory resolution was negotiated, work resumed. In the Naragayanj incident the violence was a response to sackings and lockouts. So, again, I wouldn't categroise them as "anti-work".


12 years ago

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Submitted by Hieronymous on May 28, 2012

Yeah, points well taken.

I'm still not convinced by the "no demands" argument of communization theorists. I still see the importance of the early IWW's struggles for demands (simple ones like more pay for less work) and against negotiations. As you say, "collective bargaining by riot," or future strikes as a means of enforcing management to keep their promise in meeting demands (sans contracts that would bind workers from doing so). I still see this uncompromising class war position as crucial in any struggle today.

I also agree about prole mobility in China. Foxconn, like other domestic and foreign manufacturers, has been building factories in the Chinese heartland, away from the coastal boomtowns, in places like Langfang, Taiyuan, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, and Chongqing. Since so many workers at the factories in Guongdong come from Henan province, Foxconn has plans to build factories there -- like the one in Zhengzhou. Since migrant workers from the hinterlands can't find legal housing due to the hukou (户口) system of residential registry, they can avoid precarious housing, and more importantly reject the alienated speed-up conditions by working closer to home with less pay, but with more mobility from job-to-job.

That doesn't exist in Bangladesh, where peasants don't have recourse to return to their villages or towns. I've been reading E.P. Thompson's "Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism" and the parallels between the England in its industrial infancy and Bangladesh seem revealing. I wonder if those burning down their factories over demands for back pay, for a return to work after lockouts, and calling for an end to police and management brutality are similar to Luddite loom-breakers.

Herbert Gutman, drawing heavily on Thompson, in his essay "Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America" seems to capture this tension in describing the imposition of factory discipline on the wave-after-wave of newly proletarianized immigrants, many of whom were European peasants thrown off the land, to the U.S.:


... workers new to factory production brought strange and seemingly useless work habits to the factory gate. The irregular and undisciplined work patterns of factory hands before 1843 frustrated cost-conscious manufacturers and caused frequent complaint among them. Textile factory work rules often were designed to tame such rude customs.

It's clear that for almost two centuries industries like textile and garment manufacture have scoured the planet for spatial fixes to working class resistance (in addition to technical fixes, borrowing from Beverly Silver's Forces of Labor). In a pattern that's been pretty predictable since the Luddites, workers attack the imposition of alienated work with violent force. Since the 19th century, it has left a pretty bloody trail.

I'm interesting in seeing how this plays out in Bangladesh and which new locale of hyper-exploitated low-wage labor capital will seek out next. Are the uprisings in Bangladesh the work of contemporary Ned Ludds?


12 years ago

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Submitted by Hieronymous on May 28, 2012

Also significant is that 85% of garment workers in Bangladesh are women, many of whom are at the forefront of these struggles. This mirrors the strikes at the massive textile/garment complex at El-Mahalla El-Kubra (the government-owned Egypt Spinning and Weaving Company that employs 27,000 workers), where women workers fomented the agitation beginning in 2006 that reached its peak with the general strike that started on April 6, 2008.

Here's an excellent documentary, called The Factory, of that phase of class struggle in Egypt:


These mass strikes of garment workers, invoking sympathy strikes of workers in nearby factories and then whole communities, seem to be defined by solidarity actions that spread well beyond the struggles that spark them. If only they could spread across borders...


12 years ago

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Submitted by Harrison on May 29, 2012

Thanks for this report, very well written & interesting.

Red Marriott

12 years ago

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Submitted by Red Marriott on May 29, 2012

Some interesting stuff, Heironymous.
Luddites? Well in breaking looms they were defending traditional craft skills against new factory technology, so I don't think that applies to Bangladesh where workers enter the industry as unskilled and learn on the job. For young women it is also often the first experience of work outside the home so, unlike the Luddites who were defending an established craft community, the garment industry has accumulated a new factory proletariat from scratch. My article; goes into the history of the post-Independence War formation of the 85% female workforce.

Bangladeshi garment bosses have kept wages low, though giving some other 'social wage' concessions; it remains a profitable industry and East-West disparities will likely keep it a viable export industry. But;

which new locale of hyper-exploitated low-wage labor capital will seek out next.

One destination;

"Why would the Chinese government push some of its labor- and energy-intensive industries to move to special economic zones in Africa, even as the U.S. Congress bans the U.S. Agency for International Development from financing any activities that could relocate the jobs of Americans overseas? Because Chinese planners want industrialists at home to move up the value chain. Polluting industries such as leather tanneries and metal smelters are no longer tolerated in many Chinese cities. And as the world economy recovers from the recent economic recession, wages and benefits will resume rising in China's coastal belt, as they had been before the crisis. Some factories will move further inland, but others will go offshore, closer to both the sources of and the markets for raw materials.
The early stages of industrialization might bring pollution, low wages, and long workdays, especially if the Chinese zones are successful. But like China's resource-backed loans, the planned economic zones promise to provide African countries with some things they very much want: employment opportunities, new technologies, and badly needed infrastructure. This is an opportunity for African states to ride into the global economy on China's shirttails rather than remain natural-resource suppliers to the world." (D. Brautigam - Jan 2010; )


10 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by orange.ruffy on June 20, 2013

Agreed that struggles like these can't be extrapolated to infinity per the argument against demands, re: Hieronymous' point

"I'm still not convinced by the "no demands" argument of communization theorists. I still see the importance of the early IWW's struggles for demands (simple ones like more pay for less work) and against negotiations.

However, the tendency of mass struggles in Bangladesh to turn towards arson, destruction, etc., gives the lie to simplifications like the below from one of the IWW's current FAQs, which seems to represent an increasingly popular position in our minoritarian milieu, though not the global class struggle:

Workers should not worry, because the IWW does not advocate property destruction (we just don't worship "private property" like a religious icon!)

The IWW believes that the working class should own and operate the means of production, and we cannot do that if we destroy it!