How are our workers? How well are they playing their role in the development of the country? Has the government really become labour-friendly? Has it allowed trade unions in the real sense of the term? Have our labour laws changed? Has our labour movement and its leadership been able to break away from the clutches of mainstream political parties? We discuss these issues on each May Day. Although 130 years have passed since the first observation of May Day in 1886, these questions are still relevant. The major slogan of May Day was: “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” In Chicago, USA, workers were shot dead by the police while protesting for their rights. As a result of their consistent movements, May 1 was recognised as Labour Day.
In order to give you a glimpse of the state of workers all around the world since the conception of May Day, I will introduce you to a group of young people. They were supposed to have been the rising stars of Bangladesh. At an age when they were supposed to graduate to college from school, they were introduced to needles and threads. Instead of getting entry to college or university, these large numbers of young people, who came to the city from villages, were introduced to rooms full of machines. They soon became familiar with various tags and country names. While sewing the tag of “Made in Bangladesh” on garments of huge international brand names such as Walmart, H&M and Primark, these young workers of Bangladesh's garment industry have also become a part of globalisation. Thus, instead of standing proud as citizens of Bangladesh or becoming the rising stars that they were supposed to be, they ended up as the cheap labourers of the world.
If anyone asks me what their condition is or how they are doing, I would say that to understand their condition one need not go far. There is no need to look back at the Rana Plaza disaster, in which thousands of workers died under the rubble of a collapsed building. I would rather request one to look at the faces of our garment workers. You will notice how their once lively young eyes turn blank after working in factories for only two to three years. The lifeless face of each of these workers is a silent testimony of their misfortune.
A large portion of the over 44 lakh workers of garments factories situated in Dhaka and other divisional cities belong to the poverty stricken northern areas of the country, which have experienced heavy river erosion over the years. Destitution and deprivation did not allow them to stay in their villages for long, and with the hope of a better life, they made a move towards industrial zones. While women comprise 80 percent of the labour population, most in this profession are below the age of 28. Their expectations don't run beyond a roof over their heads, coarse rice and threadbare clothes. They can't even dream of a house or a car; their only wish is that their children are not forced to enter this profession. But fate is such that the kids of many of these workers are compelled to follow their parents' footsteps. It's not only the workers who end up as 'cheap' commodities in this world market dominated by factory owners, the government and international buyer brands; even their lives, their dreams are considered cheap, expendable. The workers who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza collapse, the workers who were burnt to cinder in the Tazreen fire are testament to this statement.
The garment industry started its journey with only 30 factories in the 1980s. According to BGMEA statistics of 2012-13, the number now stands at 5,600. In these factories, our workers produce clothes for various international companies of the world including USA, UK, Canada, Spain and Germany. Bangladeshi workers produce clothes for Walmart, H&M, Zara, Tesco, Gap, Primark, Joe Fresh (Canada), JC Penney, Levis, etc. The products of these brands are marketed all across Asia, America and Europe.
The workers of this 20 billion dollar industry are responsible for 80 percent of our foreign reserves every year. With a meagre salary of Tk. 5,300 or US $67, (according to the new pay scale declared in 2013), our workers have ensured that the name of Bangladesh is recognised all over the world. It's the workers who attract customers and traders of the international market to Bangladesh; it's the clothes sewn by them that are worn by consumers in America and Europe; it's their labour that is recognised as cheap all over the world. And yet, despite 100 years after the founding of May Day, these workers are forced to work for up to 12 to 14 hours a day. They have to depend on overtime to sustain their livelihood. Most of the time, they do not even get to enjoy weekends or national holidays.
With the advent and development of this new industry, women workers have emerged as a new workforce. But their woes continue. Now they are being exploited both at home and outside. They do not have access to maternity leave and maternal care. These women workers often fall victim to sexual harassment. They also suffer from malnutrition and disease due to the unhealthy work conditions of most of the factories. They have to work in Rana Plazas and Tazreens, risking their lives.
Bangladeshi workers are the lowest paid in the world. They can hardly survive the spiraling living costs with this meagre wage. They cannot afford the minimum calorie intake to maintain their productivity and efficiency at work. In 1994, the minimum wage was only Tk. 930. After 17 years, the government raised it to Tk. 5,300 in 2013. However, it is still far below the minimum requirement for a dignified life. That's why the workers have been demanding a total wage of Tk. 16,000 with Tk. 10,000 as basic.
In a free-market economy, such as the one our state has been propagating, the main attraction is to make huge profit while exploiting cheap labour. To maintain the high profit margin, local owners and foreign buyers often neglect the integral relation between industrial productivity and well-being of the workers. In this hierarchy of profiteering, the top tier gets the largest pie of the profit, while at the bottom, the workers suffer inhumane exploitation. Unfortunately, the state is also part of this exploitative system and serves the interests of the owners and foreign investors.
Without any trade union rights, the workers cannot raise their voice against oppression. Although the government now boasts of having introduced trade union rights in the garments industry following the outcries after Tazreen and Rana Plaza, the reality is that the workers still cannot freely form a trade union. Local mastaans and influentials control the factories. There are also paid agents of the owners who try to create division among the workers. Thus the efforts of forming trade unions are often thwarted by various machinations of the owners. If the owner gets a hint that workers are planning to organise, in most cases they immediately sack the workers. There are several provisions in the Labour Act such as Article 23, 180 and 205 that also curb workers' right to form trade unions. The labour leaders are often threatened and tortured. We saw how the movement of workers of Toba Garments was brutally suppressed by the owners. We did not see any reform in the Compensation Act even after the disasters of Rana Plaza and Tazreen. In the not-so-high-profile cases, the workers will not get the same kind of support that the workers of Rana Plaza received from the foreign brand. These loopholes ultimately serve the interest of the owners and the government.
Workers constitute a large part of the population. Improvement of living conditions is closely linked with the question of democratic transformation of the country. But the government and the owners continue to ignore this issue. They always find “conspiracy” when workers' movements demand what's due to them and ignore the pressing issues at hand. It never occurs to the government that there's no other way to protect this industry except to safeguard the lives and working conditions of the thousands of young workers.
The writer is President, Bangladesh Garments Sramik Samhati and a photographer.
Translated by the editorial team