<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 153 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 7 , 2004

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The Lonely Battle

In 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?

Mustafa Zaman

April 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 formality.

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 sector.

"The 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".

The 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.

Shahidullah 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.

The 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 industry.

In 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.

It 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 adds.

It 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.

After 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.

As 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".

Meanwhile, 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 and maltreatment can backfire.

Yet 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".

Young 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.

Although 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.

Shahidullah 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".

As 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.

Meanwhile 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.

With 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.

About 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.

To 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 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


It 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 the country.

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.

Besides, 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.

General 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.

Political-party-based 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?" Ali elaborates.

This 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 says.

There 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," proposes Idris.

The 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.


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