When news of the building collapse spread around Savar, not far from the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, workers streamed out of the poorly constructed factories ready to help with the rescue effort — and ready, too, to smash cars and barricade roads.
They felt in equal parts compassion for their fellow workers and anger at the faceless system that grinds their daily lives into hours making garments and minutes for rest. Fear of police retribution did not stop them. They needed to be on the streets, to register their living humanity before a world that saw them only hunched over their machines or as dead bodies being pulled out of disasters. Workers with blood in their veins are an unfamiliar sight.
Factory owners hastened to shut down their subcontracting units and take refuge behind Atiqul Islam, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
This man showed little care for the injured and the dead. He worried about “the disruption in production owing to unrest” and said that this worker violence was “just another heavy blow to the garment industry.”
One expects such officials to be discomfited by idle factories and restive workers. Every second that the machines are silent costs them money. Benevolence is a costly business.
Trade unionism and left-wing political activity had deep roots in Bangladesh at its birth in 1971. In what had been an eastern province of Pakistan, centers of anti-colonial struggle morphed into labor and socialist movements. Out of these currents rose the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which led the charge toward independence. That legacy remains in the calendar: May Day is a national holiday.
However, privatization of industry and state operations began in earnest in 1975 and picked up steam in the 1980s. That was the period when the government decided that Bangladesh was to become a link in the global commodity chain for garment manufacturing, which now accounts for 80 percent of its export earnings.
Export Processing Zones (EPZs) were established, where labor organizations were banned. This attracted multinational garment firms to Bangladesh and they made arrangements with local subcontractors — who in turn controlled the production on very tight margins. The only outlet for workers’ grievances and the miserable conditions they were forced to endure was the anarchic outbreak of violence. This was how employees expressed their anger — and it provided both factory managers and the government with an excuse to tighten their repressive hold on the lives of workers.
The credit crunch that started in 2007 dented the export-led model favored by the Bangladeshi state. A slowdown in the shops in the West led to the sacking of a quarter of the workers in Dhaka’s EPZs. Over the past two years, Bangladeshi workers have taken to the streets to protest about the dismissals of their colleagues.
Workers in Ashulia walked out because one of their own — reported as “Salman” — had been taken into custody. Their protest was met with police force and one man was shot dead.
Workers in Narayanganj went on strike after one of the firms fired 126 workers. When the leaders of the strike were attacked by thugs believed to have been hired by the factory owners, the workers responded by demolishing Kolapatti, a marketplace where the thugs had their headquarters.
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.