Report from Bangladesh
I visited Bangladesh for a week in November 95 to meet the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) and other unions. The NGWF have been in contact with the International Workers Association (the anarcho-syndicalist International) for over a year. The Solidarity Federation has been in regular correspondence and providing solidarity with the NGWF throughout this period.
Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, became independent after a vicious civil war in which millions died, either from the bullets of the Pakistan army or from the starvation that resulted from the war. The short life of this country has never seen a stable government, just a succession of coups and counter-coups between the various factions of military and civilian bureaucracy. The only consistent thing has been the poverty and misery of capitalism.
Recent years has seen some stability with the shambolic election of the
Bangladesh National Party (BNP). These elections were a joke and the result was fixed. The BNP was an alliance of all the competing factions so it was the same people anyway.
The political situation at the time of our visit was extremely tense. There were constant demonstrations and much violence between the different factions, mainly Islamic fundamentalists and counter-fundamentalists (made up of various left groups). Whilst we were there fundamentalists attacked some student residences and burnt them down because of the students' anti-Islamic ways. Two students were killed trying to escape in an auto-rickshaw, after the fundamentalists set fire to it. In protest at the failure of the police to do anything about this a number of students chained themselves to a fence in a park on hunger strike demanding action. The students seem to be dominated by the Bangladesh Workers Party a sort of social democratic communist party, using communist rhetoric but social democrat in practice. The government had collapsed and elections are due this year. People laughed when they read in the papers that the elections would be fair because the army is going to supervise and make sure they were.
The country itself is desperately poor, one of the world's poorest nations. The poverty is beyond belief. While on the visit I saw many hundreds of people begging, some just lying in the street dying of hunger, everywhere we went there was people asking for money or food. I was offered babies in the street. It was explained to me that this was so I would take the baby home and give it a chance of life as they would surely die otherwise. It really was heart breaking.
The people who were lucky enough to work and thus to eat and have somewhere to live were not much better off. The homes of the workers I visited could only be described as shanty town slums, though the people who lived in them kept clean and made them very homely. We visited an area where the homes were built over a lake on bamboo poles. Many thousands of people lived here most of them garment workers. The lake was an open cesspit as the houses had no water or sanitation, people just crapped through a hole in the floor directly into the lake below, where people were wading about in it growing rice and other crops. I thought at first that this was some sort of squatted area but people actually pay rent to live here. The houses, made of bamboo and tin sheeting roofs were 10 feet square just enough room for a bed and a few sticks of furniture, usually a couple of families, about 8 people. The rent for these houses is about 1000 Takka per month, the same as the average wage of a garment worker - about $25 US per month.
The NGWF was founded in the early 90s and has currently 15 - 20 000 members, out of a workforce of a million. They are based in the main industrialised areas of Bangladesh, though mostly in the capital Dacca. The workers usually work 7 days a week from eight in the morning until eight at night, often later, producing clothes mainly to export to Europe. The average age of a garment worker is 18 though many are as young as 9. The factories are sweat shops. Those I visited were unionised and I was told the conditions were much better than in non unionised factories.
Around 80% of the garment workers are women as is the case with the membership of the NGWF. The union is committed to direct action and its structure is the same as the CNT (the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union). Though the union has no written revolutionary aims its practice and approach to day to day struggle give it a revolutionary nature. The NGWF has had to fight extremely hard to establish itself, the majority of other unions in Bangladesh are just fronts for political parties. There is a constant battle between these unions often violent to win over workers to their particular political faction. The NGWF has managed to stay independent despite the pressures of these parties. The bosses also resort to violence to prevent the union organising. The union is very careful when it tries to organise in a factory because the moment the owners discover them they will immediately sack the workers concerned. Unemployment in Bangladesh means life on the streets and ultimately starvation.
If the union in a particular factory is strong enough they will take action.
This usually starts with a walk out, demanding union recognition, though often they occupy the factory to prevent the growing trend of employers to shut down the factory once they discover the union. These struggles, not just for recognition but any demand the workers make, are usually very bitter with the workers being violently attacked by gangs of heavies. They often try to split the workers by offering some more money if they return or if this doesn't work they try death threats. In these circumstances I found it totally inspiring that they stay solid on the whole. Once a factory is unionised fully they start to improve the situation of the workers there. One of the biggest problems the workers face is that the bosses often do not pay them for months on end, basically until an order has been completed. This is a critical situation for the workers as if they do not get regular pay they have no food, housing, etc. So one of the first demands of the union is that they are paid weekly. If the union is strong they always use direct action as this works quickest 95% of the time. I heard stories of locking bosses in cupboards until they agreed to pay up, occupations, pickets of the bosses' houses, go slows and sabotage. If the union is not confident of a solid strike they will take court action because there are laws to supposedly protect workers, though it can take up to 2 years and then the owner usually appeals, which of course takes just as long. I was told of cases that lasted 7 years. The NGWF always has many people going through the court system, who receive no money during this process. The NGWF has no money, though the members do their best to help support their comrades.
One of the main areas the NGWF works is improving conditions of women workers. Women who work in the garment sector are usually paid less than men and have no maternity rights and virtually no child care provision.
Women's status in Bangladesh, an Islamic country, is that they are second class citizens. Their fight to improve the rights of women means they are a target for fundamentalists. The NGWF office, (office is rather a grand term for the lean to shed up a backstreet) has been fire-bombed and women going to the office have been attacked. It is hard to explain the difference between the women union members and the few other women we met. The best example I can give was when, one evening I was in the office chatting with some union members and a woman came in. She was wearing a veil and when she saw us, both men and women, she hurriedly left. She was pursued by a couple of the women who returned much later. They explained that she had left because there were men in the room and her husband would not approve. She worked in a factory with no union and she and her brother had been sacked because they had demanded their wages, they had not been paid for 3 months. They had heard of the union but her brother thought they were just like the other unions and saw no point. She had 2 children to feed and her husband was not working.
She was 15 and desperate. The women who caught up with her persuaded her to come to the office the next day to see what could be done. On the last day of the visit I recognised her in the group who came to say goodbye, no veil and she confidently shook hands with me.
I asked some of the others what had happened and they said that the other women had been to her house and had a lot of talks with her and her husband, took her to meet other women in the factories. They said that when women got together it did not take long for them to shake off the chains.
The NGWF has great difficulty in organising meetings of its members because of the hours they work and the problems of transport and money, but when they do they tend to be on the role of women. These meetings were mainly women only but they had many mixed meetings. There is little point in women being treated with respect at work but like slaves at home.
Internationally there has been much concern about the amount of child labour in the Bangladesh garment industry and the US has passed a law stopping the import of Bangladeshi goods involving child labour. The NGWF are actively opposed to this. They point out that usually the children are the only earners in a family and if they lose their jobs the family will starve.
The NGWF's argument is that the only way to abolish child labour is to improve the economic situation of the workers. The union has a list of demands to improve the situation of child workers. They are demanding that children get paid time off work to attend school and that once they have finished school they get increased wages. They also have a number of demands concerning health and safely with regard to children, such as improved lighting, guards on machinery, etc. Child labour is defined as children under 14 the NGWF want this extended to 16 as long as the education rights are in place.
The Friday Campaign
The NGWF's current campaign is to reduce the working week for garment workers from 7 days o 6, demanding Fridays off. (Friday is the Islamic equivalent to Sunday and the majority of Bangladeshi workers have Fridays off work). The NGWF see this as their most critical campaign yet. Not only does it improve conditions but it will also enable the union to function easier, allow them to have more meetings and develop their democracy more fully. They very much depend upon their 3 paid workers to administer the union and provide the communications between the membership. These workers are only paid as much as they earnt as garment workers and are immediately recallable. The current campaign for Fridays off began in November and in the next few months, assuming the garment factory owners do not give in, the workers will take Fridays off anyway. This will bring a massive clamp down on the union. They have been demonstrating regularly and some of these demonstrations have met with heavy police action.
They have no illusions about what will happen when they stop working on Fridays but are confident that they can win, the tactics of solidarity and direct action have never failed them before.
Shaun Ellis Jan 96