Workers, not serfs

Shariful Islam

Having only 147,570 sq-km, Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of RMG after China

It is a shame that workers had to call a hunger strike for their unpaid wages and Eid bonuses. Notably, 1600 workers from Tuba garment factory are making a call for justice. These poor, helpless garment workers have not been paid for the last three months. How are they surviving? How do they manage to eat, pay rent, and provide their children with education or healthcare? Who will think about their wellbeing?

The workers, who are major drivers of our national economy, are not paid on-time and are often subjected to various forms of mistreatment. When, they want to raise their voices against any injustice being done to them, they are treated very badly by law enforcers or by their employers’ hired goons. But if these garment workers, or workers in any sector for that matter, are not saved, how will our country go on? For sustainable development to blossom in Bangladesh, there is no other alternative than to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its RMG workers.

Unfortunately, RMG workers have become marginalised these days. I am personally aware of the injustices being done to them. From 2008 to 2009, my older sister worked in a garment factory. Like tens of thousands of others, she had a very low-paying job, while often not being paid on time.

Shiuly, one of the garment workers in the recent Tuba group crisis, points out that she has around Tk30,000 in dues with Tuba Group. She has been unable to pay her rent and grocery bills for the last two months and her landlord has already started threatening to evict her.

But is it right to neglect these garment workers? It can be mentioned here that in the 1970s, after the birth of Bangladesh, many perceived the country as a “bottomless basket case,” and many thought that the country would remain permanently locked in a “below poverty level equilibrium trap.”

There is no denying the fact that Bangladesh’s economy was mostly aid-dependent at the initial stages. Bangladesh has come a long way since then and has graduated from a predominantly aid-dependant nation to a trading nation.

In this context, the RMG industry has made a crucial contribution in bringing Bangladesh to its current position, and the cornerstone of the RMG sector is the hard-working workers. Bangladesh exported RMG goods worth only $69,000 when Reaz Garments exported its first consignment to the USA in 1978. Over the years, our RMG industry has witnessed a steady growth and within three decades, it has become the largest export-earning sector of the country, generating 80% of the export earnings and contributing more than 10% to the national GDP.

Notably, due to the low wages and low safety standards, Bangladesh tends to be the first destination of the MNCs, more so in the case of RMG. It is easily understandable from the fact that, despite being a small country, having only 147,570 sq-km, Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of RMG after China. The main reason is the cheap labour.

According to a New York Times report, “Bangladesh has more than 5,000 garment factories, handling orders for nearly all of the world’s top brands and retailers. It has become an export powerhouse largely by delivering lower costs, in part by having the lowest wages in the world for garment workers.”

In this age of economic globalisation and neo-liberal economy, the principle of profit over people plays a crucial role. Here, the state or a certain class of the society benefits from this economic globalisation, while creating a huge social inequality where certain sections, particularly the working class, become vulnerable in the name of development. In case of the RMG sector in Bangladesh, this claim is quite evident. While the owners become richer day by day, the workers die from factory fires, collapses, while suffering from hunger, malnutrition, and disease due to lower wages and lower safety standards of their workplaces.

Although garment workers are the major drivers of the national economy in Bangladesh, they are hardly treated well by their employers or even the government, at least when it comes to ensuring the minimum wage or safety standards. Despite all the lofty promises made by the government and factory owners, there is hardly any evidence of implementation.

Furthermore, the issues of garments workers, their lives, and their living and working conditions are seldom covered in the mainstream media. Only after some major incidence do the marginalised sections of the society come into focus.

Without any delay, the wages of the Tuba garment factory workers must be paid along with their Eid bonuses. It’s not an act of benevolence towards them, it’s their legal right. For the long-term interests of Bangladesh, the government must address this issue urgently, and there must be a permanent solution towards ensuring better wages and safety standards. The bottom line is that Bangladesh needs to save its garment workers in order to save itself.

Source: Dhaka Tribune

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