The owners dare to make such a degrading and utterly insensitive offer because they are well organised under the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association with the shining but illegal eyesore of a head office located in the middle of a lake. They receive hefty government largesse and subsidy and other favours. They have an unholy nexus with the government and law enforcers to suppress legitimate workers’ demands and rebuff their need for better working conditions, writes Omar Khasru
AFTER six days of unrest, agitation and demonstration by garment workers, it was relatively calm on Friday, September 27. All concerned were apprehensive as to how long would this welcome respite last.
It was not clear if the garment workers in their resolve for higher wages were just taking a short break. Or they will take a bit more time to see what tangible and constructive steps factory owners and government take to meet their legitimate demands. On Saturday, September 28, the workers in Gazipur and Ashulia demonstrated for higher wages again and there were clashes with law enforcers. The turbulence, however, was on a relatively smaller magnitude.
Volumes have been discussed, dissected and divulged about the latest garment industry disturbance and disruption. This vital sector in recent years customarily maintained relative but uneasy calm interspersed by occasional outburst due to wage dispute, accidents and casualties at factory fires, mistreatment of workers, lack of timely pay and festival bonus and overall callous and deleterious attitude of the owners.
There has been elaborate analysis about the pressing reasons for the latest upheaval. What it simply boils down to, as the New Age editorial on September 27 points out, is while the apparel industry has attained amazing success, it has also been mired in ruthless exploitation. The owners refuse to concede that the situation is grim because of their gratuitous pursuit of profit, in complete disregard for human dignity and well-being of the workers.
What makes the matter grave is that rather than trying to calm the disgruntled workers and displaying poise and equanimity, the law enforcement agencies routinely use strong arm tactics and brute force to put down the protest. The New York Times editorial on September 26 (Fed up in Bangladesh) stated, ‘The government has answered by ordering police to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters rather than addressing the real grievances of the workers.’
The NYT editorial adds, ‘This astonishing response is the latest example of the blindness of Bangladesh’s leaders, including the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, to injustices the rest of the world can see but they refuse to acknowledge, let alone address. The government has not raised the $38-a-month minimum wage for clothing workers since 2010, despite persistently high inflation.’
The Tk 3,000 monthly wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is the lowest in the world by a significant margin. Here is the relative wages of garment workers in various countries, according to the US-based Worker Rights Consortium and Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights:
It is obvious that the puny wage in Bangladeshi is quite a bit lower than that in any other country and less than half of the nearest competitor. This is a glaring example of the sheer exploitation, subjugation and slave labour treatment of the garment workers in Bangladesh.
According to the Centre for American Progress, even though apparel exports exceed $20 billion per year, prevailing wages give Bangladesh garment workers only 14 percent of a living wage. The latter provides basic nutrition, clothing, housing, health care, education for children, and a decent standard of living. The New Age editorial on September 27 aptly suggests that owners offer a minimum wage in line with the universal concept of living wage.
One reason for such abuse and mistreatment of workers, as the New York Times editorial pointed out is many in the country of 160 million people are unskilled and can escape rural poverty only by taking jobs in clothing factories. There is an unlimited supply of unskilled workers that the owners can play with in hiring and arbitrary firing.
The NYT adds that ‘the government has helped depress wages. Apart from not raising the minimum wage, lawmakers have colluded with factory owners to keep workers from forming unions… The absence of collective-bargaining agreements not only keeps wages low but encourages poor safety standards.’
Tazreen fire deaths and over 1,100 fatalities last April in Rana plaza collapse are recent grisly examples of appalling disregard for workers’ lives and limbs. Many are still missing after these two ghastly tragedies. Hundreds more have died in other fires due to smoke inhalation, stampede and burns in recent years.
To make matters worse, compensation, treatment and rehabilitation as well as care of orphaned children and widowed spouses have been hard to come by. So the garment workers have been at razor’s edge, filled with pent up rage and aggravation to begin with, before the outburst of the latest tumult and turbulence.
There were at least two major examples of fuel to fire to incite, magnify and intensify the frayed nerves and accumulated wrath and resentment. The first was owner’s offer of a paltry 20 percent increase in salary which the workers found grossly deficient as well as ‘inhuman and humiliating’. That would make the monthly wage equivalent to around $45, still well below that of Cambodia with the second lowest salary. The owners’ trial balloon crushed before takeoff.
The owners dare to make such a degrading and utterly insensitive offer because they are well organised under the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association with the shining but illegal eyesore of a head office located in the middle of a lake. They receive robust government largesse and subsidy and other favours. They have an unholy nexus with the government and law enforcers to suppress legitimate workers’ demands and rebuff their need for better working conditions.
Dozens of garment factory owners are lawmakers in the parliament. They have the power, influence and authority to dominate, discriminate and make workers tow their line for most part. The workers, on the other hand, have no trade unions to uphold their rights or realise valid demands.
The second major incitement was provided by the shipping minister. He acted as a potent catalyst to instigate the workers to demonstrate. The minister is a bit of a Chameleon, who concurrently is the top honcho of transport workers, top boss and leader of transport owners and a cabinet minister to boot.
This godfather of transport industry along with his cronies sat with the usually ruthless home minister to convince the latter to treat fatal road accidents under the lesser section 304 of the Penal Code, which stands for involuntary manslaughter, rather than section 302, which is for culpable murder. This in effect gives careless out-of-control drivers a licence to kill with slap on the wrist penalty rather than severe punishment.
This gentleman has foisted himself as the self-styled boss of the garment workers. He called a gathering of the apparel workers, allegedly forced the factories to close and purportedly provided free transport to workers to attend his meeting and crown him as their chief. The workers attended the event because the rumour was that the minister would announce significantly higher salary.
That never happened. The minister instead requested Tk 8,200 ($103) monthly salary from the prime minister. Here we have a minister, acting as a self-styled head of the workers, demanding a higher salary from the government of which he is a cabinet member. There should be a limit to this farce and crude mockery of workers’ emotions. The minister should cease and desist from playing political football with the lives and livelihood of oppressed garment workers for cheap stunt and narrow self interest.
The minister’s inane gathering to enhance his unmerited standing and status was on September 21. The irate and infuriated workers took to the streets to demand higher wages the very next day on September 22. The connection between the two is crystal clear. At a late night TV talk show, the minister sheepishly claimed that he has been involved with garment workers for fifteen years. Not many ever saw him in this arena before. He was busy controlling both ends of the transport sector with conspicuous conflict of interest.
The acting secretary general of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party blamed him for the mayhem and accused him of being part of a diabolical plot to destroy the garment industry. The leaders of garment workers also blamed his cavalier and self-seeking actions for the debacle (Prothom Alo, September 26).
The New York Times editorial concluded by asserting, ‘Hasina’s government must take the first step by stopping use of tear gas and rubber bullets on mostly unarmed protesters. Next, it should raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. And … make it easier for workers to form unions.’ Very astute advice but who is listening?
As the New Age editorial indicated, the apparel sector is blighted by a pervasive trust deficit between workers and employees. Most workers deem that street agitation is the only feasible means to express and secure their legitimate demands. The owners need to work swiftly and sincerely to establish mutual trust.
The image of the industry, due to Rana Plaza collapse, withdrawal of GSP facilities by the US and other detrimental reasons, has already hit rock bottom. Unless the owners take constructive and altruistic steps their insatiable and myopic greed, as some fear, will make garment industry to vamoose just as the jute industry did in the past.
That will be dreadful for owners and workers alike. The government will have to take its share of blame and the country will suffer enormously.
Source: New Age BD