Innocent until found protesting
In December 2018 and January 2019, workers from Bangladesh's ready-made garment (RMG) industry went on spontaneous mass protests and strikes around major industrial belts in Dhaka. They were agitating against what they deemed insufficient wage increases, announced by a government-appointed wage board in September 2018, that would go into effect three months later. Garment-factory owners and the Bangladesh government responded with a tried and tested strategy: repression and attack.
As a result, more than 11,000 workers have been terminated from their jobs – many without termination benefits – and thousands more have had criminal cases filed against them. So far, over 50 workers have been arrested and many more live in fear of imminent arrest. At least one worker has been killed, while several others have been assaulted, tear gassed, and shot with water cannons and rubber bullets – sometimes in their own homes.
Unlike past struggles by garment workers, these protests were not organised by the major trade union federations. The government's crackdown on labour activists in 2016, and its handling of the movements for quota reform and road safety ahead of the December 2018 general elections, had sent out a clear message to potential dissidents. Unions got the memo loud and clear. The workers could not, however, be so easily appeased.
With the RMG sector earning over 80 percent of Bangladesh's export revenue in 2017, the government has used rhetoric of external 'infiltration' and 'instigation' to dismiss the legitimate grievances of garment workers. Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi has claimed that, "A certain quarter infiltrated the garment workers' movement and instigated anarchy… to damage the RMG sector." Meanwhile, in the absence of strong trade unions and in the face of brutal repression, workers have had little choice but to take to the streets.
Bangladesh's garment workers are some of the worst paid among workers in major garment producing countries. Even with the pay increase in September 2018, to USD 95 per month, the country's garment-sector minimum wage lags behind those of its competitors China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, for all of whom the figure ranges between USD 120 and 170. According a 2018 report by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Dhaka-based think-tank, at least 17 percent of the country's garment workers sleep without a bed at night, 16 percent do not have ceiling fans in their homes, 86 percent have to share toilets with other families, and 45 percent are unable to save anything from their earnings. Another survey of 200 workers conducted in 2018 by Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati, a Dhaka-based labour-rights group, found that an average garment worker has the ability to spend BDT 1110 (USD 13) per person per month on food. However, the study found that a worker must spend at least BDT 3270 (USD 39) per month to meet the calorific needs, as determined by the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science at Dhaka University. This caloric requirement excludes food with higher nutritional value, like meat or fruits.
In light of these factors, garment workers and unions have been demanding a minimum monthly wage of BDT 16,000 (USD 190) for at least three years.
In December 2016, tens of thousands of workers in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia, an area near Dhaka, protested and went on strikes demanding a fair living wage. In the repression that ensued, at least 1500 workers were fired and 38 workers and union leaders were arrested. Nine factories – six of which were suppliers for the multinational clothing-retail company H&M – filed criminal charges against union leaders and unnamed workers.
The government, too, acted in the interests of the factory owners, filing cases against workers under the draconian Special Powers Act (1974) – which allows for detaining a person if the government simply 'suspects' them of carrying out an act deemed detrimental to the interest of the state. Thanks to coordinated international pressure from labour-rights groups, national federations and a global union, nearly all the factories agreed to withdraw their cases. However, the cases filed by the state under acts such as the Special Powers Act, which includes charges such as sabotage, which have provision for imprisonment up to 14 years, are yet to be dropped. This means that the accused have to appear in court every month, incurring expenses they cannot afford, and also live in fear of rearrest.
That these cases were filed to harass union activists after the 2016 strikes was obvious. The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a US-based labour-rights monitor, concluded that most of the complaints made by Ashulia factory managers were against unnamed people. Some of those arrested in connection with these incidents were not even working in Ashulia, where the strikes happened. Instead, they were detained in neighbouring Gazipur and Chittagong for incidents that occurred months, or even years, prior to the December 2016 protests. Members of unions and labour-rights groups were harassed, their offices were surveilled and, in some cases, forcibly shut down by security forces in Ashulia, Savar and Gazipur. For instance, the office of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, a labour-rights non-profit, was forcibly evacuated, and its doors locked, by the police on 29 December, 2016. On 20 January 2017, an International Labour Organisation-funded training programme in the Gazipur office of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation was halted so that law enforcement could question and photograph the participants.
New wage board
Following sustained pressure by the trade unions, in January 2018, the Bangladesh government finally appointed a wage board to decide new wages for the garment sector. The board consisted of representatives from the government, owners' associations and workers. To the frustration of activists and workers, the worker representative appointed, Shamsunahar Bhuiyan, was a member of the Jatiya Sramaki League, which is affiliated to the ruling Awami League. In an interview with the Daily Star, Bhuiyan said that as sympathetic as she might be to the workers' cause, she could not suggest a wage that "might harm the state economy and tarnish the party's political image."
After months of deliberation, in September 2018, the wage board announced that the monthly gross minimum wage for Grade 7 RMG workers – the lowest paid category of garment labourers – would increase by 51 percent, from BDT 5300 (USD 63) to BDT 8000 (USD 95). Workers and activists assumed that Grades 1 through 6 would receive wage increases of similar proportions. However, another announcement in November 2018 made it clear that the proportion of increase was lower for the higher grades.
To make matters worse, workers realised that their basic wage – the portion of their total wage which is used to calculate benefits such as overtime and a five-percent yearly increment, which was introduced in 2013 – had actually decreased as a proportion of their gross wage. For some workers, once the yearly increment was accounted for, the new basic wage was either an insignificant increase or an outright decrease. For example, workers in Grade 3, who were earning BDT 4075 per month as basic wage in 2013, would anyway be entitled to BDT 5204 in basic monthly wage by 2019, under the five-percent annual increment rule. But the new wage structure set the basic wage for Grade 3 at BDT 5160 per month, which is BDT 44 lower than it would have been without the change.
Even including the increased percentage of allowances (for food, housing, transport, etc) in the new gross wages, it is unclear on what basis these wages were calculated as they did not in any way reflect the spiralling cost of living in Bangladesh. The government's own Household Income and Expenditure Survey, conducted in 2016, stated that the average household expenditure per month was BDT 15,715 (USD 186). A 2018 CPD survey found that the average monthly expenditure for garment workers was BDT 22,435 (USD 270). It also showed that that the average monthly expenditure for a garment worker increased by a whopping 86 percent from 2013 to 2018, with inflation figures hovering around six percent over these years. These findings highlight that there is no way for a worker to support his or her family on the new minimum wage, unless another member of the household also holds a job with an equal or higher wage.
When protests began in December 2018 in response to the newly implemented wage structure, some factories retaliated with terminations, threats and violence. For instance, in Abanti Colour Tex, one of the first factories where workers demanded higher pay, the management reportedly fired 1043 workers. Workers claim that since they brought forth the demands for fairer wages to their management, they have been subjected to beatings, harassment and even threats of 'disappearances' by management and local goons, to say nothing of the disproportionate violence of the police, as evidenced from the use of rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and batons, on what began as peaceful protests. In other factories, the management reportedly appeased workers with the promise of reconsidering an increased pay in consultation with the government.
The factory owners argue that no 'innocent' worker needs to be afraid of retaliation. Yet, thousands of workers – who insist they did not partake in any violence but merely participated in strikes, and who urge the authorities to check CCTV footage before finding them guilty – have not only lost their jobs but are unlikely to find another one in this sector after being branded as 'troublemakers'. According to IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC), the national coordinating body of affiliates of IndustriALL Global Union, biometric data linked to employment records are now being used to identify workers involved in trade-union activities and deny them employment. Active union members and vocal workers in Worker Participation Committees – which mediate grievances between workers and employers – are also being targeted through cases. The police have the option of listing 'unnamed' perpetrators in their case files, allowing law enforcement to make arbitrary arrests. Unions claim that at least half of the workers picked up were not specifically mentioned in the case documents.
There are also multiple instances of workers from one factory being picked up in cases filed by another factory. In one case filed by A R Jeans Producer, for instance, union leaders of FGS Knitwear – which shares the same ownership as the former – have been charged, even though the two factories are separate entities and the case document does not cite the involvement of outsiders in the alleged vandalism that took place. Similarly, workers from Saybolt Textiles have been arbitrarily picked up in a case filed by Mahmud Fashion.
It is no secret that most factory owners dislike trade unions. The state, too, irrespective of which party is in power, has supported the owners, be it through laws such as the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 – which makes it difficult for unions to organise within factories and facilitates arbitrary denial of union registrations – or by ignoring management's violent retaliation against trade-union activists.
Weakening of the labour movement – partly due to the fragmentation of trade unions along party lines, and partly due to an unhealthy competition among the major federations – has made collective organising a dream of the past. It hasn't helped that more and more unions are embracing the 'NGO model', whereby they receive foreign funding for organising trainings, workshops and seminars. This in itself may not have been problematic if such programmes did not take precedence over radical collective action, such as the physical occupation of the streets or civil disobedience that Bangladesh witnessed in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In its pursuit of unsustainable economic growth and eagerness to facilitate capital, the state has created apparatus like the Industrial Police – whose self-described mission is to "ensure safety and security of industries" and "take necessary measures to prevent any labour unrest in the industrial area" – and continues to conflate workers with criminals and factory owners' profits with national interest. Every major workers' protest in the last decade has been met with violence, with many resulting in one or more deaths of workers. None of these deaths have ever been investigated properly.
In the aftermath of the 2018-19 strikes, a ten-member committee, with five representatives each from trade unions and factory owners, was formed on 8 January 2019 to review the wage structure. As the protests continued, less than a week later, the board decided that wages would go up by BDT 15 for workers in Grade 6, BDT 20 for those in Grade 5, BDT 102 in Grade 4, BDT 255 in Grade 3, and BDT 786 in Grade 2. Given how insufficient these increases are, it is hardly surprising that the state-business nexus has had to resort to bullying and violence to scare the workers into submission. But for how long can a disgruntled workforce be kept in check?
More readings on labour in Bangladesh:
Joseph Allchin on collective bargaining in Bangladesh.
Vijay Prashad reviews Jeremy Seabrook's Song of the Shirt.
Colin Long on international support for trade unionism in Bangladesh.