Bangladesh: 25,000 textile workers protest against poor wages

Textile workers are on the move again.

More than 25,000 textile workers defied a ban on protests in emergency-ruled Bangladesh to demand back pay and bonuses in one of the country’s biggest industrial zones. The workers walked off the job in Tejgoan industrial area in the capital Dhaka and held protests in the streets, forcing the shutdown of most factories in the area. Police used batons to break up the protests and arrested dozens of workers. 50 workers got injuries from police beatings. The authorities also used the notorious Rapid Action Battalion and army personnel to crush the demonstration. After the police action, angry workers smashed the windows and gates of nearly 16 garment factories in the area. The workers then went on to a one-day strike but later put it off after negotiations with authorities.

Slave wages and conditions

Anger is mounting again amongst the textile workers; they receive very low wages and suffer horrific working conditions. While garment exporters are earning billions of dollars every year, workers are getting slave wages. Bangladesh earned $9 billion last year from garment exports, which is 75% of the country’s total exports. Garment exports are booming and big business is making fortunes out of that, but the majority of textile and garment workers are living below the poverty line. Some are even living in absolute poverty without having the basic necessities of life.

The average wage of these workers is around 1500 tikkas ($16) per month. They work 12 to 14 hours a day but still they cannot meet their everyday needs. There are no proper housing, health and education facilities in the industrial areas. More than half of garment workers are women and there is a famous saying among these female workers: “If you are lucky, you will be a prostitute, but if you are unlucky, you will be a textile worker!”. Women workers not only face super-exploitation, horrific conditions, poverty and low wages but also suffer from sexual harassment.

These conditions and low wages forced the workers to come onto the streets last year. Thousands of workers were involved in strikes and violent protests in which eight workers were killed. The angry and desperate workers torched 16 factories and vandalised hundreds more throughout the country. These demonstrations and strikes were called off when government and employers announced a minimum monthly wage of $25.

Promise not kept

Workers waited almost one year for the implementation of the agreement between the government, employers and unions but the employers were not interested in implementing it. The trade unions issued several warnings to the government and employers to implement the agreement but the union leadership was reluctant to call protest action and strikes because the military-backed government has banned all kinds of protests and rallies under the emergency laws. The government said to the unions that it would not tolerate any unrest in the garment sector. But workers lost patience and decided to show their anger at the employers and government.

According to the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum: “We have conducted surveys in the country’s main industrial zones and found that only 20% of the country’s some 4,000 factories have implemented the minimum wage.” The unions say that the situation is very tense and is deteriorating every day. The recent increases in food and commodity prices have even made the minimum wage meaningless.

One leader, Mishu, who led last year’s protests and strikes, said: “We can no longer keep the workers calm. The factory owners are inviting trouble which will hurt them badly. The government is not taking the situation seriously. The anger is like a volcano which can erupt any time.”

This was the biggest protest since the imposition of emergency rule. According to the Dhaka police commissioner, “The matter is not over yet, tension is mounting and we expect more protests and violence in the coming days if the demands of the workers are not met. I have told the authorities that repression will not stop the demonstrations once they have started to take place. This demonstration was a warning and a serious one; this movement is building again. Employers should accept and implement the demands if they want to avoid an unwanted situation.”

Textile workers are on the move again and they are the most militant and important section of the working class. Their radicalisation and successful actions will encourage other sections to start a struggle. They have shown again and again in the last few years that they want to fight against the horrific conditions and want to improve their living conditions.

However, some trade union leaders are not willing to conduct a struggle. They have betrayed many courageous struggles of the workers before. Bangladeshi textile workers need a fighting leadership and democratic unions. The unions and leadership should be independent and free from the influence of any capitalist or pro-capitalist party. Trade unions must organise a general strike to force the government and employers to implement the agreement, which should involve all sections of the working class.

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October 2007