As this struggle unfolded, the Tazreen Garment Factory in Ashulia went up in flames, killing 125 workers. Thousands more took to the streets in anger, demanding the heads of the owners and safer working conditions.
These actions are not a new phenomenon, but draw on labor militancy dating back to the 1920s. In those early years, workers’ movements could grow out of spontaneous resistance. However, that is harder now due to anomic working conditions in which unions are tough to organize and police repression is intense.
Following last year’s Ashulia and Narayanganj riots, the government created a crisis management cell and a force of industrial police — but not to monitor labor laws, their task was to spy on worker organizations.
Despite the difficulty of attracting underpaid and exhausted workers to union meetings, the National Garment Workers’ Federation and the communist-led Garment Workers’ Trade Union Centre are still active. Non-governmental organizations have also entered the fray, notably the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, an initiative backed by US unions. However, this backing is no protection: the center’s chief organizer, Aminul Islam, was murdered last year.
US Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena told the BGMEA last June that if it were seen to ignore labor rights it could “coalesce into a perfect storm that could threaten the Bangladesh brand in America.”
The reaction in the West to the latest “accident” in Bangladesh has been to talk about boycotts — to break the global commodity chain at the point of consumption. However, that is not enough. What is needed is robust support for the workers as they try to build their own organizations at the point of production. Pressure on north Atlantic governments that mollycoddle multinational firms would create a breathing space for workers, who otherwise suffer the full wrath of firms that couch their repression in the syrupy language of hard work and growth rates.
The Bangladeshis are capable of doing their own labor organizing; what they need is the political backing to do so. What is also needed, then, is clear-cut opposition not to this or that retailer, but to a system that produces pockets of low-wage economies in order to feed a system of debt-fueled consumption in the West.
None among us is against global connections, but it is high time we put our minds to work to reject neoliberal globalization.
Vijay Prashad’s new book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.