Supplanting India, Bangladesh is currently the second largest exporter of readymade garments in the world. This principal source of foreign earning brought in $27 billion in 2016, and the target is to swell that to $50 billion by 2021, the year the country turns 50. A billion dollars for each year of independence lends poetry to capitalism, but fails to account for the true, human cost of production in a country that is the byword for cheap labour. When the demands of workers for respect and higher wages took the shape of peaceful protests in December, the nationwide refusal to entertain these was indicative of the commonplace myopia of the industry having evolved into an endemic blindness about it.
On December 12, workers at various factories in Ashulia, an unplanned industrial zone that has mushroomed in what is considered greater Dhaka, went on strike for a fortnight. The strike action amounted to workers walking out of factories and refusing to work. On the ninth day, 84 factories availed themselves of the provisions of the Labour Act and, terming the actions of the workers illegal, stopped production while pursuing legal action against them. The lifeless structures resumed their soulless existence when they reopened on December 26, Boxing Day.
The resolution, if euphemism can stretch far enough for what happened to be called that, was a unanimous refusal to countenance a wage rise, and 59 factories dismissing up to 5,000 workers. The names of those made redundant were circulated among owners, to prevent them from seeking employment in the industry again, while their numbers were downplayed.
The labour minister was emphatic in his support of the stance taken by the factories, reaffirming that, like the Labour Act, serving the labourers did not fall within his remit. The factory owners and the government were complemented in their efforts by foreign voices espousing the virtues of free market capitalism about a global apparel market valued at over $3 trillion. Centuries ago, these brilliant minds were championing colonialism, to civilise the barbarians of the third world. Capitalism is their cause in the present day. Their deliberate ignorance of how much of that money reaches the workers in a country with one of the lowest minimum wages of the worldwide industry is a reminder of the central flaw of their argument: workers are chattel in a profit-maximising system that eschews egalitarianism for accumulation of wealth at the top. Being humane is a needless inconvenience, if not an outright weakness, in this environment.
In addition to demanding an end to harassment and oppression in the workplace – more widespread than the middle and upper classes of Bangladesh are willing to acknowledge – the workers wanted the minimum wage of Tk (Bangladeshi taka) 5,300 (approximately Rs 4,500) to be raised three-fold. Given that the current rate is less than one-fifth of the living wage – the minimum income required to meet one’s basic needs – and that inflation has held at over 5% since the last wage rise in 2013, this is not an unreasonable demand.
Big Garments and politics
The government responded by deploying the police, the elite Rapid Action Battalion and paramilitary law enforcers Border Guard Bangladesh during the strike, to bring the situation under control. Containment measures included the use of riot gear, batons and rubber bullets, and scores of arrests. Dozens of labour organisers were forced into hiding. Nazmul Huda, a journalist covering the strike, was accused of disseminating false news and arrested. He was linked to the ruling Awami League’s political opponent, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, some of whose leaders were blamed for inciting the protests. The home minister warned people against conspiring against the industry, a shining symbol of Bangladesh’s heralded development, and in so doing, successfully branded legitimate concerns and protests as political subversion in a country that does not tolerate dissent. Media coverage switched from diligent reporting of the strike action, that came close to giving the workers a voice, to dedicated and nationalistic advocacy of the industry.
Big Garments is not close to governments past and present, it is the government. It has cut out the middleman and the need to lobby. Regardless of who is in power, three quarters of any Parliament benefit directly from it, and are involved with the industry. State response to labour unrest has, thus, always been unequivocally in favour of the owners.
The year 2016 solidified the normalisation of fundamentalism, and saw the worst single terror attack – when five militants murdered 20 hostages at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka on July 1 – but garment exports rose 9%. Earlier, 2015 saw the extremism tide rise with targeted killings of free thinkers, and the election of one of the most prominent garments businessmen, Annisul Huq, as mayor of Dhaka after controversial mayoral elections whose validity remain contentious.
The industry thrived during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami tenure (2001-2006), when state patronage of terrorist outfits was de rigueur, and the civil society-backed oppressive military regime that followed. It survived the carnage of 2013 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami brazenly equated violence with politics, and killed and injured thousands of innocent citizens in the name of political protest in a country that is desensitised to death and destruction. That was also the year in which the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in the outskirts of Dhaka caused the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh, killing 1,135 workers. Nevertheless, the industry has sustained its growth during the increasingly authoritarian rule of Awami League.
Resilience, women’s empowerment and development constitute the public face of Big Garments, vaunted by civil society. While it is true that the millions of workers, the majority of whom are women, have employment and a measure of financial security because of the industry, for the Bangladeshi economy to function, these people would have had to be put to work somehow. The duopoly of readymade garments and migrant labour have trapped the lower classes to lives of indentured servitude with an exceptionally low ceiling. Despite both industries being labour-intensive to the point of being entirely dependent on people, workers are grossly undervalued by the state and its citizens. Other countries have used the rag trade as a stepping stone to industrialisation and more sophisticated industries, but Bangladesh’s desperate goal to become a middle-income country by 2021 is married to this low-skilled industry, with neither the country nor its captains of industry inclined towards innovation or evolution.
There are conscientious owners who add value to their businesses by ensuring the social and economic welfare of their workers, and some who are philanthropic. However, their numbers are few, and their efforts are focused on their companies, without altering the conventions of the industry. The owners delusional enough to proclaim themselves activists plead the pressure put on them by brands and buyers threatening to take their business elsewhere, instead of standing up for the workers. There is truth to the disproportionality and abuse of power in the buyer-owner dynamic, but if the comparative powerlessness of owners is accepted as an incontrovertible truth, then it is equally indisputable that workers dare not even aspire to being powerless.
The majority of workers make the minimum wage. This was raised to Tk 1,672.5 in 2006, and to Tk 3,000 in 2010. On both occasions, labour protests demanding a tripling of the minimum wage preceded the reluctant increase that less than doubled it. The most recent raise, to the current Tk 5,300, came in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s denials in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in the aftermath notwithstanding, Towhid Jung Murad, an Awami League member of Parliament, manufactured the authorisation for Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza and an Awami League cadre, to illegally build the eight-storeyed structure on land of questionable provenance. The commercial property was not purpose-built for factories, yet housed a few separate ones. This is not uncommon. They made clothes for several well-known high street brands from the United Stated and the United Kingdom, yet were not directly contracted to undertake the production by the said brands. Nor is this uncommon.
Big brands unconcerned
Therein lies the dirty little secret of the global apparel market: brands do not concern themselves with how or where their clothes are made, so long as they are made cheaply and delivered on time. When something goes wrong, as it catastrophically did at Rana Plaza, they plead ignorance and innocence, as they have done in continuing to neglect their commitments towards compensating the victims and survivors. The disaster did not ebb the strong growth of the industry in Bangladesh, despite the glaring administrative failures that led to it.
Bangladesh has over 5,000 factories that employ over five million people, and a history of deplorable practices, including oppression and appalling wages. This year will mark the fifth anniversary of the Tazreen factory fire that killed at least 117 and injured over 200, a precursor of the Rana Plaza disaster. Both were instances of corporate manslaughter on a large scale, whose culprits were not only specific locals and foreigners, but an entire obscurantist, exploitative industry.
The victims and survivors still await justice and compensation. Their fellow workers await dignity, and the right to unite and be heard in the land of the deaf. The success of the readymade garments export industry is the tale of a capitalist dystopia. That brands, buyers and factory owners celebrate this as axiomatic, but the rest of the country and, as an active participant in the global rag trade, the world should be outraged. Instead, they choose to be complicit.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune and author of the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera. His Twitter handle is @ikhtisad.