‘Made in Bangladesh’: Globalized Capital’s Genocide of Workers

The death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, in the outskirts of Dhaka, on 24th April, is a staggering 1,127. That statistics makes it the deadliest garment-factory disaster anywhere in the world. An estimated 2,500 suffered injuries. The dead – a majority of them, women – were workers in five ready-made garment (RMG) factories housed in the upper floors of the building. These factories were among thousands of low-paid exploited and largely feminized labour force tributaries feeding the globalized supply chains of Western apparel sharks like Walmart, Primark, Benetton, Bonmarche, Joe Fresh, Mango, Monsoon among others.

The Rana Plaza collapse was not an accident. The eight-storey building was an illegal construction, sans valid permits for running factories, and pretty much left unmonitored. Cracks and fissures in the walls and columns had been visible, and conditions had so worsened that the day before it all crumbled, inspectors had finally ordered safety evacuation. But workers were forced back into assembly lines in such unsafe and dangerous conditions – under threats of salary cuts, layoffs, and possible loss of outstanding dues.

None of this is an aberration in Bangladesh’s RMG industry. When 112 garment workers were choked and burnt to death at the Tazreen garment factory last November, it was found that so many got killed because they could not escape the death trap. Doors and exits were locked from outside, even after initial news of fire spread. Such is the pressure of delivering time-bound seasonal shipments to the global retailers that even fire alarms or building cracks don’t set off minimal safety protocols. The RMG industry has routinely witnessed an unending series of building collapses and factory fires resulting in hundreds of deaths over the last decade. Not a single exemplary punishment, long jail term, sanction or punitive measure has been meted out to the guilty. The Tazreen workers who lost their limbs and kin of their dead comrades are yet to receive the meager compensation announced by the government, while Tazreen’s owner roams scot free.

In the meantime, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) with its complete apathy, ruthless indifference and criminal negligence to working conditions and safety in the RMG factories has been “Leading Bangladesh to Prosperity” while Walmart corporation on the other end of the supply chain continues to draw low-end Western buyers with its “Save money, Live better” jingle.

Rise of the RMG sector and plummeting of wages

In 1981, the number of RMG manufacturing units in Bangladesh was less than 30. Three decades later, that number has swollen to 5700 factories in the 2011-12 fiscal year. This was a direct effect of the ‘structural readjustment programme’ imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on Bangladesh in the Ershad-era of the eighties. In the backdrop of a global economic slump and a the national economy reeling under excessive foreign aid-dependence and deficits, Bangladesh relented to adopting a neoliberal, export-propelled economic policy, leading in turn to a meteoric boom of exclusively export-led sectors like the RMG industry. During 1980-87, the sector grew at an average annual rate of 106%, surging past the traditional Jute sector by the close of the eighties. At present, the US$ 20 billion RMG industry contributes to 80% of total export earnings and 17% of the GDP of Bangladesh. An estimated 4 million workers are employed in the garment industry, and female workers constitute 80% of this workforce.

RMG workers of Bangladesh have the lowest hourly wages in the world. The legally instituted minimum wage is far below the living wage, and that too is often withheld. Wage struggles by garment workers have hitherto been dealt with an iron fist, with the Bangladesh government working hand-in-glove with the BGMEA. Although widespread workers actions forced the owners to revise existing wage structure, once in 2006, and again in 2010, yet it has been shown that taking price-rise into account, real wages went down steadily. The revised wage structure of July 2010 is still a malnutrition wage.

Women workers, mostly between 14 and 25 years of age, are employed in large numbers in sewing and finishing lines. They are doubly exploited, with lower wages and higher regimentation. Behind neoliberal claims about emancipation of Bangladeshi women and the unleashing of their full productive potential lies a cruel picture of reinstitution of gender hierarchies and ruthless oppression of the ‘cheaper and more docile’ female labour by global capital. As an example, in the RMG industry a woman worker is estimated to earn 65% of the wage of her male counterpart, while a female operator earns 86% of the wage of a male operator on an average. In a recent interview given to Democracy Now, 24-year old Sumi Abedin, a senior sewing worker in Tazreen garments said that after working 6 days (sometimes 7 days) shifts of 11 to 13 hours, she made an estimated Rs. 2,500 to Rs. 3,200 (including overtime) per month. Sexual harassment at the workplace is rampant, and basic rights like maternity leaves routinely denied. When rescue operations were on at Rana Plaza, two newborns were discovered from amidst the rubble alongside their mothers. Children of the woman-machine!

Attacks on the Right to Unionize

When British colonizers were overthrown, the newly-independent East Pakistan’s industrial landscape had Jute, Textile, Steel and Sugar enterprises as its giant bedrock. After the Liberation War, Bangladesh nationalized these enterprises en masse in 1972. Prominent trade unions, mostly organized by left parties, were functional in these industries. The unions were politically active and played a vital role in the watershed events of the 60s and 70s which shaped the modern history of Bangladesh. But soon after independence, efforts were made to co-opt the militant trade unions and turn them into dummy unions of the ruling parties. This process reached its peak during the military regime of the 80s. There was no way the World Bank project of privatization, downsizing, imposed sickness of industries and creative destruction of Bangladesh’s traditional industrial mainstay could push through smoothly had it not been complemented with the government’s policy of breaking workers’ strongholds, installing corrupt leaders and a systematic crackdown on trade unions which still stood for the workers’ agenda.

In export-sectors like RMG, trade union rights were practically wiped out. Workers lost collective bargaining power, as unemployment rose with closure of old state-run enterprises, inevitably resulting in rock bottom wages and horrid working conditions. Instances of kidnap, torture, arrest and murder of popular organizers have become rampant. In April 2012, Aminul Islam, a key organizer of the Workers Solidarity Center was abducted and later murdered following brutal torture. Resulting from the absence of organized TUs, each time an industrial catastrophe takes place, the workers burst out in protests which take the form of road blockades, dharnas, breaking of barricades and strikes, but also inevitably result in isolated instances of violence on cars and offices of owners. The labour department, which is comfortably numb and mute to systematic violence of workers’ rights, uses the excuse of ‘violence of protestors’ to form Industrial Police units and vigilante forces which routinely spy on workers and organizers to curb their protests and break their struggle by all means.

Of No Liabilities and Huge Surplus Value

After the collapse of Rana Plaza, the BGMEA, Bangladesh government and the Global apparel giants all turned fingers at each other to fix liabilities. Sohel Rana, owner of the collapsed building who also doubles up as local henchman of Jubo League (the youth wing of the ruling Awami League) went absconding and was only arrested several days later under huge public pressure. BGMEA warned of capital flight and subsequent economic doom for Bangladesh, if workers’ protests continued! Police cracked down on road blockades. Sheikh Hasina did not bother to visit the site for days. International condolence messages were quick to arrive but Wal-Mart refused to take any liability, passing on blame to an infinite and intractable network of contractors, sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors who procured for them. In response to demands raised by activist groups to enforce western retail giants who profit from low wages in Bangladesh to sign a plan which makes them pay for maintaining fire safety protocols and building standards, Wal-Mart and Gap have flatly refused to be signatories.

Noted economist Anu Muhammad calculated the global dimension of exploitation (EPW, August 20, 2011) in the Bangladesh RMG industry. For every garment that is sold at $100 in the western market, he showed that the governments of those countries get $25 as value added tax revenue, the foreign buyer makes $50 and, of the rest, a little more than $24 goes to the owners, raw material suppliers etc, while the workers get less than one dollar. Data from Bangladesh Export Promotion Bureau says that in the year 2011-12, garments worth USD 19 billion were exported from Bangladesh to North America and Europe. By Muhammad’s calculation, the VAT revenue accrued by the respective governments where the RMGs were retailed amounts to a total of about USD 5 billion. This was much more than the ‘foreign aid’ (less than USD 2 billion) received by Bangladesh from these countries. “In other words, the poor garment workers of Bangladesh provide more to the developed countries than what the latter pretend to give as ‘aid’, and an even larger amount is appropriated by the corporations involved. Local and foreign stakeholders are sharing the cake in different proportions at the cost of millions of workers” (Muhammad, 2011).

Waves of Resistance

The Rana Plaza catastrophe has ignited Bangladesh, and thousands of workers took to the streets. On 28th April Garment Workers observed a nationwide strike. Factories in Dhaka were closed for several days demanding immediate reinstatement of fire and safety standards, adequate compensation for the dead and injured, medical assistance for the injured, appointment of adequate number of inspectors, closure of RMG units which were in violation of safety norms, and bringing all the guilty to book. The workers’ protests generated huge mass support in Bangladesh and solidarities worldwide. The sheer scale of tragedy means that this time greater pressure can be mounted on the global retailers and foreign governments to enforce international labour standards and a change in the labour laws. On the occasion of May Day, all left parties in Bangladesh called for a General strike, which saw countrywide protests by the workers and solidarity from the student-youth of the Shahbag generation.

The plight and resistance of Bangladesh garment workers find natural resonances in Pakistan, Argentina, Sri Lanka, India, Mexico and other sweatshop-strewn ghettoes of global capital spread across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The vast pool of migrant garment workers of Bangladesh finds their wretched conditions reflected among the Dagongmei of China. In 1911, 140 garment workers, most of them women, were killed in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. 100 years later, the same macabre scene is reenacted – but this time the death-trap factories have moved to Bangladesh and Pakistan. But as twenty-first century global capitalism driven by uneven geographical development, shifts locations of primitive accumulation to the third world, resting on “nineteenth century conditions for more and more of its core proletariat”, writes Richard Wolff, “the other sides of relocating production to former colonies are the declines of jobs, working conditions, and crises, as well as the austerity policies imposed on working classes in Europe, North America, and Japan. Everywhere, this uneven capitalist development displays growing inequalities of wealth, income, political power, and cultural access. Everyone moves closer to explosive social tensions and conflicts -- in China and India as in the US and Europe.”

A globalized capitalistic order, therefore calls for translational workers solidarity and a globalized resistance. South Asian, African and Latin American workers will have to rise in united resistance to topple the current neoliberal order and stride towards a new alternative.

Liberation Archive