Wage battles erupt in the Bangladeshi garment sector – and unions can’t contain them

Garment workers protest - Jan 2019
Garment workers protest - Jan 2019

The past two weeks have seen mass walkouts and wildcat strikes by thousands of garment workers. After five years the industry’s minimum wage structure has been adjusted but workers have rejected the proposed new wage levels.
The protests began after the first announcement by the government Wage Board of the new wage levels in September. By December there was a large movement of factory walk outs and road blockades as workers rejected the deal. These struggles reignited in the past two weeks before a general drift back to work in recent days.

Submitted by Red Marriott on January 20, 2019

Negotiating the rate of exploitation
The government wage board is composed of government ministers, garment bosses and trade union leaders; it first announced its wage review in September last year. Its recommendations were rejected by workers and led to strikes and street protests in December. In the industrial sectors of Dhaka, Gazipur, Savar and Ashulia the wildcat strikes broke out again in the past two weeks; 35 factories were closed and tens of thousands of workers poured into the streets. Factory property has been attacked and looted, roads have been blocked and vehicles set on fire by protesters. Last week police used baton charges, rubber bullets and tear gas against workers - killing a male worker, Sumon Miah, and injuring 50 others.

A breakaway group of hundreds of workers laid siege to the bosses’ power centre, the employers federation BGMEA Dhaka HQ, demanding wage arrears, smashing vehicles, machinery and windows and fighting with BGMEA officials.

Since the strikes and lockouts have ended hundreds of workers have been sacked. On returning to work, at some factories workers found lists of names and/or photos of those dismissed pinned to the entrance – clearly intended as a warning against further protests. The factory areas have been saturated with a heavy armed police presence. 25 workers have been charged with riot offences and hundreds of others are wanted by the cops for charges laid against them.
* * *
On the treadmill
The Bangladeshi ready made garment (RMG) industry is by far the country’s largest employer and earner. It employs 4 million workers, around 60% women[1], in 4000 factories. It has a steady export growth averaging over 7% per year at present and annual export earnings of $31 billion. Yet it pays the lowest industrial wages in the world and, even with the new increase, RMG workers will remain the lowest paid of all, despite the fact that it is the 2nd largest global garment exporter. (It is expected to soon overtake China’s lead as the Chinese move into concentrating on higher value products.) The monthly minimum wage was set at $68 in 2013[2] and has now been set at $95. For comparison, the minimum wage in China is $265 a month, Indonesia $220, Vietnam $131, India $128 and Cambodia $100.

The Bangladeshi pay structure is a complicated combination of basic pay plus a variety of legally-required and optional allowances (eg, rent and travel), bonuses and incremental payments. Overtime wages form another part of most workers’ take-home pay. Wages are calculated according to a seven-step grading system for each job classification, based on seniority and experience. There is also a 5% per year increase – which falls far below annual inflation.

Aside from the fact that the pay rises are far below what workers were demanding and what independent observers consider a living wage, the rises are also unevenly distributed between different grades of staff with some grades gaining no real increase at all or even becoming worse off.

The garment bosses, who grow richer by the year, act like the worst caricature of 19th century top-hatted miserly capitalists. They are represented by the BGMEA employers federation which has bitterly lobbied against even the modest increases agreed by the government wage board (which it is represented on). As always, they falsely complain that wage rises will cripple the industry. A Bangladeshi Marxist academic exposed this lie in simple terms;

Dr Anu Muhammad, chair of the economics department at Jahangirnagar University and a longstanding advocate of workers’ rights, characterised the persistent scenario whereby wages remain sticky downwards in the otherwise lucrative sector, in the following way:

“It is said that the industry collapses when wages increase. But the information available to us says the opposite. In 1994, the minimum wage was Tk 930, the export earnings from garments was $2.1 billion; in 2006 the export earnings increased to $6 billion dollars. After increasing the minimum wage to Tk 1662 in 2006, garment export earnings stood at $13 billion by the year 2010. After the minimum wage was fixed at Tk 3,000 in 2010, garment export earnings amounted to $25 billion by 2013. After fixing the Tk 5300 minimum wage in 2013, export earnings in the year 2014 was $29 billion dollars. The export figure growth following a wage hike is always seen to outpace the wage hike. Yet there is no end to lying, cheating and torture.”[3]

The garment bosses already get preferential subsidies from the State for electricity and other costs as well as generous tax breaks. These subsidies add up to considerably more than the industry pays in tax. This cosy arrangement is unsurprising; many politicians have business interests in the industry, some are factory owners and the BGMEA makes regular donations to leading political parties.

To add insult to the workers’ injury the government this week announced that it has conceded the further tax cuts the BGMEA had demanded in response to the wage increases. Tax on exports will be lowered from 0.60% to 0.25%. This is the second recent cut; after the first wage review in September the BGMEA had demanded and received a cut from 1% to 0.60%. These hefty 75% tax cuts for the garment bosses will go a long way to compensate for the added costs of wage rises.

* * *
Unions or workers’ self-organisation?
After the 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster[4], under pressure from global buyers and Western labour bodies, legal reforms were made to try to improve the international image of the garment industry. Full trade union rights were granted to workers. But these rights to form workplace unions have been largely cosmetic, often not being enforced by the State nor allowed by bosses. The police and factory bosses have bullied, beaten and blacklisted against workers’ attempts at organisation and often obstructed the legal recognition process for registering new unions. So while more small unions now exist they are still marginal to events. They play a part in formal negotiations with the State and employers but, with tiny memberships, a thoroughly reformist and un-militant outlook, they have little influence over workers’ struggles or day to day existence;

.. the latest spell of protests against disparity in wages was not guided by the union leaders and it was evident when the demonstrating workers refused to return to work despite repeated calls from the leaders.
A couple of union leaders, who were part of the tripartite committee formed to handle the situation, admitted that the protesters were not paying any heed to them.
The workers openly said they did not trust their top leadership. Some even branded the leaders as promoter of the owners.
They said their “true leaders” had been on the run since December 2016 when unrest hit the sector as workers began protests demanding a new wage board with a minimum pay of Tk 16,000.
As a result, agitating workers over the last week did not follow the directives of the union leaders who engaged in negotiation with the government and the owners for revision of the wage structure sitting in Dhaka.
Following the labour unrest at Ashulia and Savar in December 2016, many local union leaders were arrested. On their release, some of them started working either for factory management or the government, the workers alleged, adding those who wanted to work in favour of the workers had to flee as cases were filed against them.
Talking to The Daily Star, Montoo, an operator at a garment factory in Ashulia, said many of the workers did not listen to their union leaders during the recent protests. “We don't have any trust in the union leaders.”
Echoing Montoo's view, many of the workers, who participated in the protest, said the union leaders did not guide them properly.
Khairul Mamun Mintoo, organising secretary of the Garment Workers Trade Union Kendra, said the government and the owners did not allow any mainstream union activities in Ashulia and Savar areas over the last two years.
As a result, the gap between the unions and the workers widened and during the peak of the latest unrest, the leaders failed to play any part in resolving the situation.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, agreed that trade unions have weakness in leadership as most of the unions are not organised.
He said there are many reasons for the weaknesses. For instance, the number of active union leaders in more than 4,500 garment factories stood at 750 after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013.
But the number of such active unions is around 350 now.
Around 350 unions for more than 4,500 active garment factories are too scanty, said Amin, who led union leaders in the negation of wage structure. The factory managements also do not encourage formation of unions, he said.
So the cordial industrial relations which were supposed to be in place had not established in the sector even after 40 years of the beginning of the garment trade, he added. Currently, the number of federations of unions in the garment sector is 60.
In almost every factory, the elected participation committees are present for the sake of compliance, he said. In most of the cases those participation committees are inactive and only exist on papers under the pressure from buyers, he said.
“The government and International Labour Organisation have recently been advocating for social dialogues for resolving the conflicts in the sector. But still I believe there is no alternative to trade unions in lowering the conflicts,” he said, adding, “Healthy practice of trade unionism can resolve 90 percent conflicts.”[5]

Amirul Haque has also expressed his satisfaction with the present deal that workers still bitterly oppose;

Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, said, “We welcome the revision and the new wage structure.” He was speaking on behalf of the trade union leaders who are on the tripartite committee. But various workers’ groups have at different times expressed a sharp divergence between their views and those representing them in the committee. Indeed, that now stands out as one of the key problems in these negotiations. And probably why, despite the assurances from Amirul Haque, the unrest could not definitively be said to have died down.[6]

Similar sentiments were expressed by another union leader present at the wage negotiations;

Babul Akhter, a union leader present at the meeting, said the deal should appease striking workers. “They should not reject it, and peacefully return to work,” he said.[7]

Amirul Haque has for decades been leader of the National Garment Workers Federation. Allied to UK charity War On Want, the NGWF has always functioned more as a lobbyist and aid group for workers rather than a workplace union. He has increasingly also become integrated into the arena of industrial relations as a workers representative on the government wage board and similar bodies and consultations. As a moderate reformer he walks a thin line; somewhat protected by the prestige, funding and political influence of War On Want it puts him in a gilded cage. As long as he remains moderate in his demands and approves the occasional crumbs thrown to workers he is secure. But, in a situation where such reformism delivers so little to workers, he is in constant danger of being seen as a token stooge of bosses and state. He is a leading veteran representative ‘on behalf of’ garment workers but, like other similar ‘leaders’ has little influence over the militant struggles of self-organised workers.

But these groups operate in a very different context than Western union bureaucracies. Even for relative moderates union and rank’n’file workplace organising can be a dangerous business in Bangladesh, leading to brutality, employer blacklisting, arrest and occasional police murders[8].

It’s surprising that for the 40 years of the industry’s existence the bosses have resisted accommodating workplace unionism as a means of institutionalising, mediating and controlling struggles[9]; instead they have chosen brute repression every time. They have got very rich off it too, which largely explains their stubbornness. Yet all historical evidence from diverse countries suggests that an institutionalised union presence would be an effective way to control to some degree workplace militancy and that modest concessions that would barely touch profits would improve productivity and reduce strikes considerably. Perhaps the bosses, who know that the present union leaders have tiny memberships and little influence over starting or stopping strikes, consider them not worth dealing with as they can’t deliver an obedient workforce. Perhaps they also fear that to concede to union representation would be seen as a weakness by an already militant workforce and would open the floodgates to greater militancy. It may, though, primarily be that the pigheaded bosses just can’t think historically or strategically in their own long-term interests or the interests of wider social stability.

Many legal reforms and concessions were made in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, But these reforms exist mainly on paper or as cosmetic window dressing - mainly to satisfy global buyers and retailers worried about their corporate image and brand reputations among shoppers. Despite the official legal reforms to allow workplace trade unionism the real State practice has been the exact opposite – a wave of brutal repression has been unleashed against workplace militants and they have been threatened, beaten, arrested and driven into exile. (This repression is set in the wider national context of an increasingly authoritarian State whose ruling Awami League has just consolidated it grip on power with an electoral landslide victory.) That the recent workers’ movement has re-emerged in spite of this intimidation is testimony to the enduring solidarity, autonomy and self-organised wildcat nature of the garment workers’ struggles and their culture.

For the ruling class the pictures and lists of sacked workers displayed outside the factory gates are a rogues gallery of those who refuse to bow before the sacred gods of profit. For their fellow workers and comrades they are, perhaps, a roll of honour.

[For short news videos of recent protests, see;
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNzd4u4obxc ]

1] The number of women workers has declined 20% in the past 5 years, ironically due to safety and technology improvements introduced in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster;

“Those new technologies require new skills. Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of CPD, says their study on the impact of upgrading garment factories found that female workers are less knowledgeable about the technology that the industry is bringing in, making it more difficult for them to participate in the garment workforce; “Female workers are proportionately less knowledgeable about operating different machines compared to male workers,” Moazzem says. “[The women’s] lack of knowledge has created more scope for male workers to enter this female-dominated industry.”
CPD conducted a survey on the 15 most common types of machines operated in the garment industry and found that there are only two machines – both of them sewing machines – with which women workers have more “technical know-how” than men. Most vulnerable are the large numbers of women employed in low-end garment jobs, which are most likely to be filled by automation.
“As women used to comprise most of the low-end jobs, they have lost the most,” Moazzem says.
“At the same time, as male workers have shown better adaptability with the machines and new technologies, their participation has increased.” " https://www.newsdeeply.com/womensadvancement/articles/2018/07/20/as-safety-improves-in-bangladeshs-garment-industry-women-drop-out

2] See our earlier article; https://libcom.org/news/highs-lows-wage-rise-new-garment-minimum-wage-20112013
3] http://dhakacourier.com.bd/news/Reportage/For-a-living-wage-only/970
4] See our articles; http://libcom.org/news/house-cards-savar-building-collapse-26042013
[5] https://www.thedailystar.net/business/news/rmg-workers-reject-raise-continue-agitation-1687363
[6] http://dhakacourier.com.bd/news/Reportage/For-a-living-wage-only/970
[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/14/bangladesh-strikes-thousands-of-garment-workers-clash-with-police-over-poor-pay
[8] See, for example; https://www.solidaritycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Bangladesh-Escalation-in-campaign-to-silence-garment-workers-2017-01-14.pdf
The Bangladeshi Solidarity Center appears to make genuine efforts at a local level to improve the conditions of garment workers. But its parent US state-funded organisation has a wider foreign policy agenda behind its support for liberalisation of human rights issues in developing countries and SC has been accused of trying to monopolise the Bangladeshi union movement – see our earlier article; https://libcom.org/news/binds-tie-unions-%E2%80%98solidarity%E2%80%99-civil-society-foreign-policy-bangladesh-02082014-0
[9] See our earlier articles for comments on the prospects for unions emerging in the industry; http://libcom.org/news/3-dead-garment-workers-clashes-unions-promised-new-role-04112009 http://libcom.org/library/tailoring-needs-garment-worker-struggles-bangladesh


Red Marriott

4 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on January 20, 2019

From today's news;

Spice Girls T-shirts sold to raise money for Comic Relief’s “gender justice” campaign were made at a factory in Bangladesh where women earn the equivalent of 35p an hour during shifts in which they claim to be verbally abused and harassed, a Guardian investigation has found.
... The T-shirts, which also have the words “gender justice” on the back, were made by workers earning significantly less than a living wage. The factory is part-owned by a minister in Bangladesh’s authoritarian coalition government, which won 96% of the vote last month in an election described as “farcical” by critics. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/20/spice-girls-comic-relief-tshirts-made-bangladesh-factory-paying-staff-35p-an-hour


4 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by sathishiji on February 6, 2019

A worker was killed in Bangladesh following police attack on the workers protest