The Lonely Battle
the wake of widespread
denationalisation and the eventual
phasing out of the Multi Fibre
Agreement, the rights of workers
are about to become even more
marginalised. Do responsible
trade unions stand a chance?
23, 2004. The Muktangan of Paltan still looks rain-drenched
from the heavy Baishakhi splash of the morning. At around
four in the afternoon, amidst the sporadic water puddles,
the people flock towards this place; representing different
labour organisations. Most have taken their seats. More
are joining the already present mass, which is slowly
growing in size. The hogla-mats that have been
spread out to cover the wet ground make up the turf
to sit on, the rest of the empty ground is gradually
being taken up by the joining mass who prefer to stand.
These are not the paid-for dummies that one sees in
those huge political rallies, these are labourers from
all sectors gathered to give voice to their own demands.
Their struggle is born out of the common predicament
of factory shut downs and job-losses, which they tackle
on their own terms.
Eight labour federations gather for
the first time to test their unity. For them, unity
is the most elusive word; it is also the most sought
after condition. Yet they could only forge a unity in
lieu of the closure of most of the industries, and the
recent lay-off declared in quite a few. In a desperate
bid to raise a voice in favour of their own interest,
eight streams had to collect in one common flow. This
coalition was named -- "Jatyo Shangram Shamannoi
Parishad", meaning the national alliance for co-ordinated
struggle. The leaders of the alliance crowd the small,
unassuming podium. The programme begins without much
These are desperate moments for thousands
of workers throughout the country. The conspicuously
written placards and festoons cry out "Overturn
the order for pay-off", "Withdraw the order
of lay-off/lay-off at Rangpur Suger Mill", "Restart
the Adamjee Jute Mill" and many more that reveals
a dire picture of the country's industrial landscape.
Later in his address, Shahidullah Chowdhury, the working
president of the Bangladesh Trade Union Centre, gave
a lucid account of the crumbling scenario of the industrial
number of mills in Bangladesh are diminishing at the
rate at which they are being denationalised," He
said. "There were 78 cotton mills, and now most
of them are closed. There are 18 government owned mills,
out of which 16 are still running. Although IMF, WTO
and many other international organisations are advocating
privatisation, in reality it is not working," Shahidullah
let the crowd know. His data depicts a bleak scenario
of the privatised spinning and cotton mills. Out of
54 privatised ones no one is running. Later in an interview
with SWM, he said, "78 mills were closed off, and
54 of them were denationalised and
had seen their demise while in private ownership".
alliance of eight federations is fighting against the
tide of the time. Denationalisation is the phrase-turned
'developmental motto' in the present economic matrix,
and the unionists have been orienting themselves against
it. Their resolve to fight this trend that hinges upon
the concept of globalisation is intense. To be able
to raise a voice against it is one thing, but to tackle
the most pressing issue of national interest is a virtual
war in the offing. And this ideological war the unionist
would have to fight alone. With the booming IT related
businesses in sight and the considerable success in
the garment sector, not many are willing to examine
what is happening in the industrial sectors dependent
on indigenous raw materials. While industries that draw
on the cotton, jute and sugarcane produced in our own
soil are being laid off, the impact is twofold, one
is the loss of jobs by the labourers and other, which
has a wider implication, is the impoverishment of the
farmers. Laying-off of industries have hit the producers
of raw materials the hardest. While the industries are
dying, both the producers of raw materials and the labourers
working in mills are finding themselves in between a
rock and a hard place. The former is being forced to
grow something less profitable and the latter are losing
their jobs due to lay-off that is more often a euphemism
for complete shut down. The union of the federations
wants to bring this into sharp focus, and is all set
to combat the trend of denationa-lisation.
attests to the futility of privatisation and he also
illustrates how the existing multi-organisational platform
SCOP (sramik karmachary aoikyo parishad) is failing
to deal with the real issues, "as the pro-government
labour organisation is always there to wave any action
that opposes the policies taken up by the government."
To be able to escape the noose of '<>dalbaji',
as Shahidullah dubs any pro-party action or inaction
that flouts the interest of the workers, is a humongous
task. The united eight, the forged alliance, is out
to deconstruct the norm of the party-in-power-oriented
unionism that considers workers as mere pawns in keeping
things under the tight grip of the people at the helm.
garment sector has an altogether different character.
Yet the lives of the workers in this precinct remain
as volatile as their brethren in others sectors. The
workers are job seekers from the poor hovels, who become
city-bound as resources in the rural areas are decimating
quickly. But, once in the cities, they become another
cog in the great wheel of an industry that so far has
based itself on minimum wage and the 'quota' rewarded
mostly by the USA.
The garment sector can be termed as an assemblage industry.
All materials come from abroad, and the strings of activities
like dying, cutting and sewing that lead to the manufactured
items are part of the process of assembling. And a whole
new workforce has developed along this line. The garment
sector is the epitome of what is termed a labour intensive
2005, after the withdrawal of the Multi Fibre Arrangement
(MFA), the quota system will be no more, and a country
like Bangladesh without its own fibre and fabric is
bound for a nosedive. Shahidullah fears that many garment
factories will meet with demise and a huge number of
workers will be out of jobs. "It is a social calamity
in the waiting," adds Shahidullah gravely.
is lamentable how the government could not come up with
any workable strategy to tackle the post MFA situation.
"A taskforce has been formed with government '<>amlas'
as its members, I don't know how it will tackle this
'emergency situation' within eight months. There are
no representatives of the labourers in the taskforce,"
Shahidullah explains how workers are even shunned when
it comes to coping with an imminent disaster that will
effect them the most. "In Sri Lanka they have been
preparing for this for the last two years, and have
developed a huge fund for the labourers," Shahidullah
was during the eighties that Bangladesh jumped into
the bandwagon of the garment manufacturer countries.
"Though the hi-tech boom fuelled it, it was mainly
to cope with the oil boycott by the Arab countries that
the garment sector was deemed redundant in the West.
The machinery of this labour intensive industry was
exported to least developed countries where labour was
cheap," says Shahidullah.
more than 15 years it has become a means of gaining
a huge remittance. Shahidullah thinks otherwise., "Only
one third of the total income remains in Bangladesh,
the rest is spent on fibres and clothes" he says.
"It is the 'mojury' -- the wage -- that
remains". He hastens to add, "The quota is
given only for products made with the cheapest labour.
Quota means the payment would be double for the products
and this made the boom possible in Bangladesh".
This is also the reason why a huge labour force remains
in the throes of a well-orchestrated monopoly. According
to experts, MFA itself violates the fundamental principal
of GATT (General Agreement of Trade and Tarrif). It
flouts Article 1 on non-discrimination and Article XI
on abolition of Non-Tariff Barriers. "The discrimination
was destined for developing countries," said Will
Martin at a seminar in the World Bank. According to
Martin, quota often hurts the other industries as "when
one commodity faces quota, resources are likely to be
shifted towards it". This is what happened in Bangladesh.
cheap labour is the only source of income in this sector,
workers have never been given the status that they deserved.
In the last 18 or so years no proper union have been
allowed to operate to raise awareness about workers'
rights. Today in 3,300 factories situated mainly in
Dhaka, Chittagong, Narayanganj, Savar, Tongi and Gazipur,
a total of 1,320,000 women and 280,000 men are subjected
to the will of the owners. In absence of the law regarding
the national minimum wage, workers stand to lose. There
is this provision for fixing the minimum wage in every
sector, which is to be revised in every three years,
but in reality it has never been implemented, says a
report by the National Garment Workers Federation who
also furnished the present figures of factories and
workers. It also highlights that "in 1994, the
minimum wage for the unskilled labourers was fixed at
Tk. 930 per month, and for the skilled at Tk. 2,300,
but this was not implemented in all sectors".
several fire incidents took hundreds of lives in last
fifteen years or so. Fire exits had been put up in recent
years, but not a single incident was subject to proper
investigation. Events of sexual abuse and all sorts
of mistreatment are rampant, and they often go unregistered.
The Narayanganj incident in November 3, at the BSCIC
City that exploded into a virtual battle between the
authorities and the workers is proof of how exploitation
till today, there is no fixed salary for the workers
who do the most crucial task of all, -- sewing. Md.
Russel Raihan has been working as sewing operator for
last two years, and had never been employed on a retainer
basis. He says, "I was with the Dynasty Sweater
Ltd. which used to treat the workers better and now
I work for Panta Ltd, where if you become ill and apply
for a leave of seven days you would be lucky to get
permission for two. I receive 300 Taka for every batch
of 12 sweaters I sew".
women make up more then three fourths of the workforce
in this sector. Tanjila is a new recruit at ATS garment
in Kalyanpur. She gets a monthly salary of Tk. 930,
and a 'hajira' bonus of Tk. 100 per month if she shows
up every day. She is happy to make this much as there
are no other options.
there is a rule against letting women workers stay after
eight in the night, in most factories overtime has become
a norm. A worker with a salary of Tk. 1,500 states that
an hour of overtime translates into seven and a half
taka for her. "It depends on the salary you get,
many get even ten an hour," she adds.
gives us the international scenario, "In the USA,
an hour's income is 13$, in Bangladesh, a garment worker
doesn't even make that in one month".
for the scenario of workers and their right to have
unions, the garment sector remains a backwater. "Hundreds
of them have lost their jobs trying to work for a union.
We have resorted to the highest court of law but to
no avail. There are more than 3000 factories but you
would not find 50 unions," Shahidullah remarks.
He adds that they have been actively trying to form
unions for the last two years, and have not yet been
successful". "There are about 24 federations,
but they are not really representative of the workers,"
Shahidulla points out.
the National Garments Workers Federation (NGWF), in
their website mentions 22 federations and three alliances
that are registered and six unregistered federations.
Yet no one could really effect a change. Even the investigation
in the Narayanganj incident had never been completed.
NGWF's website catalogues a number of cases of fire
victims, on behalf of whom they negotiated and helped
get the families the compensation. Many labour organisations'
activities revolve around protest rallies and mourning
precessions. Sometimes they may press for greater issues
like duty and quota-free entry. They also take up the
issue of payment of festival bonus that often go unpaid.
There are also greater issues that no one has been able
to resolve. Campaigns and actions simply did not accrue
much. No one was ready to tackle the situation in 2001
when 1000 factories were closed down leaving 300,000
jobless according to an NGWF estimation. Amirul Haque
Amin, the general secretary of NGWF, held a press conference
at the Topkhana office, as more factories were speeding
towards the same fate, urging the US for quota-free
entry for Bangladeshi items.
all the effort from all these organisations the awareness
even to observe May 1st a holiday could not be created.
Even the day that is referred to as the 'garment workers
safety day' to mark the death of 29 workers in Saraka
Garment fire in Mirpur back in 1990, is not observed
as a holiday on a national level. "A list of the
49 garment factories who forced the workers to work
on May Day were submitted to the present government
last year, but the government did not take any measures,"
Amirul said in his address on April 23.
the pervasive corruption that ails unionism in other
sectors Shahidullah replies, "Three things stand
in our way, -- one and the most important of all is
'dalbaji', meaning partisan or pro-government party
politics, and the others are opportunism and duplicity,
all born out of the former." He believes that the
true spirit of unionism is based on responsibility.
"Trade unionism is not against the industry or
its profit, it is against maltreatment and inequity.
When the idea of participatory democracy is gaining
ground in the world, you must let labourers partake
on the decision-making mechanism and have a share of
the benefits," Shahidullah argues.
cope with the post MFA disaster, the unionist has come
up with a blanket plan. Shahidullah is full with resolve,
he says, "We have placed our suggestion to rejuvenate
the 18 government owned spinning and textile mills.
The infrastructure is there, every factory has the capacity
to accommodate three to four thousand workers. With
the machinery replaced, we can produce our own fabrics
that also has a huge local market. 1000 crore Taka can
change the industrial scene."
M Akash, a professor of economics at the Dhaka University,
brackets Bangladesh within the axis of "late Capitalist
Development", which puts a country in the whirlpool
of many forces. One of the strongest, he believes, is
the imperialist intervention. The telltale signs of
a late capitalist country, he detects manifests in the
unskilled labour force, undeveloped energy sources and
infrastructure. In his opinion, these countries are
replete with "labour intensive industries",
as in Bangladesh. But who would waste one's breath in
suggesting the government, which is eternally in debt
to IMF and the World Bank to take a detour from the
regular course set by the donors and restore the government
owned industries? The unionists would, as their life
is at stake.
Lost in Unionism
was 83, Ershad's regime. A Trade Union, based in Fulbaria
bus stand was on strike. Suddenly talks of calling off
the strike were in circulation. Not because the government
had accepted their demands, but because of a deal between
the Union leader and the assigned government officials.
The bargain was that the government would release the
Union leader's brother who was facing a charge of bank
robbery, in exchange of withdrawal of the strike. The
story told by Manzurul Ahsan, President of the Communist
Party of Bangladesh, aptly illustrates the essential
characteristic of the current trade union culture of
Few would contest that saving a few
exceptions trade unions in general have been a great
failure. Trade unions that are meant to be upholding
the rights of the common workers and fighting for their
cause, have long been turned into an instrument to realise
personal or group interest and in some cases a launching
ground to materialise one's political ambition. There
is a plethora of factors that are responsible for the
failure of trade unions in our country.
The greatest blow for the trade union
came from politics. We are a strange nation, divided
everywhere in the line of political identity. Every
organisation or association, whether they are political
or apolitical in nature is divided into AL and BNP camps.
Associations of university teachers or journalists or
lawyers, which are apolitical in nature and should have
their own agenda, are now acting like front organisations
for different political parties. The same virus infects
trade unions; their names, especially the surnames like
Dal and League, not only suggest their literal association
with the political parties but by means of their activities
show their parasitic existence.
in most cases, trade unions, particularly the ones associated
with BNP and AL, do not represent the workers community
in the true sense, claims Dewan Muhammad Ali, President
of Bangladesh Rail Sramik Union and Vice President of
Bangladesh Trade Union Kendro (TUC). Union leaders,
who are supposed to be elected by worker-members of
the union through votes, are often chosen by the party
high ups of the political party they are associated
with. "If a leader is not elected by workers why
should he bother about the workers' welfare as long
as he is in the good
book of his mentors?" Ali explains.
workers, on their part, have gradually learnt not to
expect anything from trade unions. In many cases, especially
in the government-owned industries, the dominant feeling
about trade union is that of 'fear' more than anything
else. "In many places trade unions become the second
oppressor, considering that the first position is owned
by the owner/management. General workers there fear
the union leaders more than the Managing Director, because
if the MD does any injustice to them they can go to
the union, but if the union turns against him no one
can save him," Ali says.
trade unionism that has been directly and indirectly
encouraged by both military and so-called democratic
governments has done the greatest harm to trade unionism,
believes Idris Ali, President of Bangladesh Garments
Workers Trade Union. A section of people who preach
this political-party-based trade unionism argue that
if a union leadership has direct relationship with the
government they are better able to work for the cause
of the workers. "No" comes the quick reply
from Idris. "Could the BNP-backed trade union stop
the closure of Adamjee Jute mill and save about 30 thousand
workers' job along with a few lakhs who were indirectly
dependent on the biggest jute mill of the region?"
practice of handpicking union leaders instead of letting
them be elected by popular votes also serves the real
interest of the owners very well. "The owner or
management can then choose someone who they can easily
influence and exploit to their advantage," Ahsan
is a very popular misconception about trade unions among
general people, who are accustomed to seeing it as an
obstacle to smooth functioning of an institution. "When
we talk to general workers about the importance of trade
union and try to organise them they often hesitate to
respond. They would often refer to it as a jhamela (trouble)
where they don't want to get into. They, of course,
cannot be blamed as what they have seen in the name
of trade union is really nothing but jhamela,"
Idris says. General workers need to be made conscious
about it, suggests Idris, but hastens to add that it
is an extremely difficult task. " As far as garments
workers are concerned, about 80% of them are illiterate
and aged between 16 to 25. The reason may be either
illiteracy or immaturity it is often hard to make them
aware of their rights and deprivation, and the fact
that the only solution to this is trade union,"
he says. Another problem with organising garments workers
is, Idris adds, they tend to change their workplace
frequently. "The convention has been to mobilise
workers taking the factory as the primary base, but,
we perhaps need to start approaching in terms of area,"
present bad state of the trade unions is not exactly
unexpected. It was, in a sense, inevitable. We live
in a society whose every fabric is polluted with corruption,
higher moral values are giving way to materialism, politicisation
is all pervasive. "How do you expect to see trade
unions clean when everything else is in bad shape?"
Manzurul poses his final question. It is a difficult
question, no doubt.