Opinion: Corona is only as cruel as capitalism’s weakest link

People, many of them garment workers, huddle on a ferry in Mawa ignoring a government directive to maintain physical distance, as they travel to Dhaka, on April 4, 2020. Photo: Star

That capitalism is cruel should come as no surprise to those who understand either the meaning of cruelty or the logic of capitalism. And yet, nothing quite prepares even the harshest critic of capitalism for the tragic sight of tens of thousands of workers trekking for hundreds of kilometres during an unofficial lockdown, forsaking all considerations of "social distancing", because they are afraid they would lose their jobs. Many used the last of their measly savings to hitchhike to the industrial belts, hoping that they would at least be paid the next day. But to add to sore limbs and empty pockets, when they finally arrived at the factory gates, they were told to go away and come back to collect their payment when the factory reopened on April 11—or at any rate, when the lockdown ended.

The accounts of the workers are every bit as heartbreaking as the photos, although they seem to have done little to melt the hearts of the garment owners, some of whom ask, incredulously: "Who asked these workers to leave the industrial belts in the first place?" It's difficult, I am sure, for an owner whose causal shirts or sarees costs more than a worker's monthly salary, to understand the motivations of those who live hand to mouth. Let me try to be an interlocutor between the masters and masses, then. Workers had not been paid for March when the factories closed, and many thought the villages were a safer option than the crammed and unhygienic quarters they share with countless others. More importantly, the villages were a more affordable option, given the rising cost of goods and difficulty in getting credit from stores under the circumstances. March has already come and gone, and rent of the month must be paid, whether or not factories pay wages. And then there's also the more emotional reason—a desire to be with loved ones during a break which, to workers starved of paid or unpaid leave, is a boon, no matter the situation.

Social media was rife with criticism as soon as the news of the workers' long trek broke, and thankfully public outrage resulted in the decision to keep [most] factories closed. The damage, however, was already done. When numbers of those affected by and dying from coronavirus are rising exponentially in the region, the failure of the state and owners to reach a collective decision on time has created a public health disaster and pushed an already vulnerable population beyond the margins. Who will take responsibility if, and when, workers start showcasing symptoms and the virus spreads like wildfire, given their living conditions (which, let's remember, are also of your own making)?

The BGMEA would have us believe that it was beyond its power, that it could simply "request" its members but not ask them to shut down factories. I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to imagine the BGMEA as a helpless arbiter in the negotiation tables, whose "requests", given the sensitivity of the matter both locally and internationally, can be so easily and shamelessly flouted. And even if the BGMEA's by-laws don't allow the association to shut down factories, one would at least expect a more strongly worded appeal from its president to its members—one, at any rate, as passionate and heartfelt as her plea to international buyers'—with clear directives on repercussions should factories fail to ensure safety of workers. Additionally, as the owners' association, the BGMEA should have already put in place a comprehensive safety protocol for factories and 4.1 million workers, as well as a concrete plan on paying workers on time, taking whatever steps necessary to assist struggling factories to hold up their end of the bargain. The BGMEA cannot simply shirk its responsibilities at this crucial hour, when errant owners need to be guided and also held accountable.   

In a talk show on April 3, the BGMEA president argued that factory owners should not compete with each other in a race to the bottom to meet unfair demands from buyers, and that BGMEA should be left to negotiate collectively on behalf of all owners. For once, we agree. If the owners' reason for wanting to keep factories open was undue pressure from buyers, I, for one, would have seen more value in collectively naming and shaming these particular brands for jeopardising workers' lives and negotiating with donor/consumer countries to bear the costs of cancelled orders, than in engaging in practices which expose to the world our own hypocrisies. I wonder how much moral high ground we'll have any more as we make pleas to buyers to save our workers when we seem to care so little about them ourselves.

The BGMEA insists that the decision to shut down factories should have come from the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE). On that, too, we can agree. Ideally, the government should be the one protecting the interests, not just of its owning class but that of its most vulnerable and valuable class—its workers. However, it has proved, time and time again, that while the sector and its earnings are important to the state, its workers are not.

It is obvious that to both the government and owners, workers are valuable in so far as they are disposable and easily replaceable, given the abundant supply of cheap labour. So, what if a few thousand workers were to die from coronavirus? It's a few less mouths to feed in the coming months and a few less workers to pay termination/layoff benefits to, anyway!

Multiple reports quote RMG insiders as suggesting that the owners were waiting for the government to shut down factories so that they could ask for more money, disappointed as they were that the Tk 5000 crore stimulus package the Prime Minister announced was a soft loan, and not a handout, as they had initially hoped. While I remain sympathetic to the industry's vulnerability in the global supply chain—in which they too are exploited—particularly at a time when brands are cancelling orders and refusing to receive or pay for goods they have already ordered, there can be no excuse for RMG owners using their workers as pawns in negotiations. On the other hand, most workers have not yet been paid for March, even though they worked all but four days of the month—where's the humanity in that? Many have already been laid off, and some factories have closed down indefinitely, without paying workers their dues. In this economy, where are they supposed to go now? It goes without saying that the meagre income these workers earn—still among the lowest in the world—is barely enough for them to sustain themselves for a month, much less during a pandemic. One factory has set already an example by giving workers a two-month paid leave; and top-tier factories should follow suit without delay, making use of mobile banking options to avoid large-scale worker gatherings.

With workers more vulnerable than ever, where are our labour unions anyway? Except for a handful of unions, most seem too busy appeasing the owners and the government to take a meaningful stance. On March 22, the State Minister of Labour held a meeting with 21 labour unions, in which only nine voted to keep the factories closed and 11 voted to keep them open. As the saying goes, who even needs enemies when you've got unions doing the enemies' bidding? If nothing else, these unions who voted to keep the factories open should now publicly apologise to workers for failing them when they should have collectively insisted on, among other things, paid leave for workers, job security in this time of uncertainty and crisis, and rations for workers in the industrial belts to ensure that they can make do as living costs spiral out of their means.

And that brings us to… us, the (neo)liberal elites. Thank you for taking the time to feel dismayed and shocked at the cruelty with which our state and garment owners treat RMG workers. I must say, I didn't think we had it in us to look upon these workers as people worthy of our concern. After all, how many amongst us expressed solidarity with workers when they took to the streets demanding higher wages in 2016 and 2018? How many even know the repercussions of the last two wage movements, in which trade unions were silent and/or were silenced, and tens of thousands of workers were fired without due process, and cases were filed against thousands of named and unnamed workers to teach them a lesson for daring to be more than docile, disposable bodies? How many of us really stop to think about the overworked, underpaid, malnourished workers on 12-hour shifts because they don't have the luxury of refusing overtime, or those routinely denied sick leave because production quotas trump health concerns? How many of us have celebrated instead the great fearless leader of the garment owners as the harbinger of feminist progress, ignoring or refusing to understand that this industry is contingent upon the constant exploitation of workers—that there is no profit without exploitation—and that only a person who truly exemplifies all that is wrong with capitalism can ever really hold power and preside over it?

The conditions the workers are in now are of our own making. We have let this go on for too long. We have turned a blind eye towards the treatment of workers, justifying to ourselves that without work, they will starve to death. We've made it okay for workers to choose between unemployment and exploitation, between starvation and everyday violences, refusing to believe in a different and just world. So now when garment owners are asking them to choose between corona and unemployment, why are we so outraged?  


Sushmita S Preetha is a journalist and researcher.


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