River workers' strike over - deal struck - but strike wave grows

The Bangladeshi river vessel strike ends - but other strikes keep rolling...

Submitted by Red Marriott on May 18, 2010

Saturday, 16th May 2010, Dhaka; Government Ministers and boat owners have signed an agreement with union leaders that ends the 8 day strike of river vessel workers. The deal includes;
dropping of all criminal charges relating to the strike, and release of all those arrested;
a revised pay scale giving wage increases of from 50% to 100%.
But it remains unclear whether this 50% to 100% rise is only the original unsatisfactory pay offer which triggered the strike - or if it is 50% to 100% on top of that.
The union federation’s general secretary Ashikul Islam said;

‘We have decided to call off the strike after the government signed the agreement to meet our demands in phases.’

The devil is in the detail and one can imagine that the time scale for the implementation of the "demands in phases" may become a point of conflict. There have been 4 strikes in 17 months over broken pay promises, so this may be only a temporary truce.

But only the day before reaching agreement the shipping Minister was threatening mass sackings and had been forced, in the face of strikers defiance, to twice extend deadlines demanding a return to work. The bosses were forced to the negotiating table by the strength and effectiveness of the strike. In a modern economy the interruption of the speed of circulation of commodities - including passengers - remains a powerful leverage point for workers.

Leaving the negotiations, the shipping Minister described the strike as;

‘a deep conspiracy against the government by a group of workers who carried out subversive activities.’
He said the strike had hampered economic activities and caused sufferings to people...

Some inconvenience is inevitable in such events, but can sometimes be converted into solidarity; regardless, the Minister's comments seem a fair and informative description of how workers can win strikes.

A rolling strike wave
The boat workers strike coincides with wider struggles breaking out across the country -

Rangpur, largest city of the north-west
; an indefinite bus workers' strike begins. A union secretary declared;

"We have enforced the strike as our seven days' ultimatum expired on Saturday. The strike will continue until the demand for wage hike is met," Mojid said..”

Chittagong, main southern sea port; casual day labourers struck against being paid less than minimum wage for unloading ship cargoes. They returned to work on promise of a pay rise. The workers are not unionised and the strike was self-organised;

Labourer Kashem Ali said, “We did not dare to protest this in fear of C & F agents [their employers]. Now we are united and we shall establish our right by any means.”

Also in Chittagong; Last week an indefinite strike began in the ship-breaking industry against tightening of regulations regarding detoxification certificates for ships. The industry employs tens of thousands of low paid workers in hundreds of yards and the strike appears to have been called by the employers and in their interests - rather than the workers - to pressure the government to abandon the new regulations. 30% of the world's condemned ships are recycled in Bangladesh; labour is cheap enough here to make it profitable to use the most primitive methods to scrap ship with hand tools. It is horrible, dangerous work with terrible environmental consequences. Much of the steel is recycled into rods for use in construction - reinforcing concrete, steel fixing etc.

Across the country; last week 1.3 million weavers struck, protesting import restrictions on Indian yarn. Called by the Bangladesh Handloom and Powerloom Owners' Association, many of whom are home and artisan workshop loom weavers who supply the garment factories. According to the Association, about 0.6mlln looms have closed and the remaining 1.4mlln looms are operating well below production capacity due to the high price of yarn.

weavers of Pabna, Sirajganj and Narsingdi took to the streets and blockaded the Dhaka-Sylhet highway in Narsingdi for four hours. Some 5000 weavers blocked the Dhaka-Sylhet highway In Narsingdi from 10:30am to 2pm Thursday bringing traffic to a halt. (bdnews24.com)

The Bangladeshi handloom industry meets 80% of the total demand for fabrics. The country’s annual yarn demand is estimated at 1mn tonnes, of which knit sector uses 0.7mn tonnes and the weaving industry the rest. Local yarn traders have objected to being undercut by cheaper Indian yarn. The strike ended when the import ban was lifted.

In the garment industry
; strikes and demonstrations involving thousands of workers regularly break out and are spread to neighbouring factories. A demand for a minimum wage of Taka 5,000[approx. £50/$72/EUR58] is a generalised demand, though local wage issues and payment of arrears are often the initial spark.

These struggles are predominantly fired by a constant battle of the poor against both inflation and, often, terrible working conditions. So far there has been little co-ordination and linkage between these struggles beyond their respective industries; but, as they proliferate, this may (or not) impose itself as a logical necessity.