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Bangladesh Unions Urge Government to Act as Garment Workers Lose Jobs
“When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right.”
~Victor Hugo (French author, 1802-1885)
by Sabria Chowdhury Balland 26 April 2020
Bangladesh is the second largest apparel producer in the world, after China. The country is set to lose approximately $6billion of export revenues this fiscal year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is due to the fact that more and more retailers and brands globally have cancelled orders.
Factories have closed, many without any prior warning to its employees and many without paying them. This has erupted into thousands of garment workers’ protests, ignoring social distancing rules and national lockdowns in order to demand wages during the crisis.
The police have talked to some factory owners who have promised to make payments but the chaotic and haphazard system or lack of is what is striking here. For an economy which is heavily dependent on its garments manufacturing and export industry, it is astonishing that the driving force of that industry, its workers, have barely any recourse in times of crisis, a fact we have regrettably witnessed time and time again.
According to Textile Today, the RMG (Ready Made Garments) exports for the fiscal year 2019 amounted to $34.13 billion, an 11.49% rise from the previous year. About a year ago, garment factory workers had to protest risking imprisonment and death, as law enforcement officers resorted to violence. The result was a government mandated increase of the minimum monthly wage to 8,000 BDT ($96). Surprisingly, Dhaka is one of the most expensive cities in South Asia, with an exponentially rising cost of living, thus rendering the salaries of garment workers barely liveable. That also was before a pandemic hit the world.
In March 2020, the government of Bangladesh launched a $558 million stimulus package to help companies in the crucial garments sector to pay their staff during the pandemic, but manufacturers claim this amount was insufficient.
It is puzzling that the Bangladesh government would launch a stimulus program putting money in the hands of the garments manufacturers and not directly to the workers. Does it not seem obvious that in a system with no checks and balances over the corporate garments sector, with no system put in place to know exactly how many workers there are in each factory, discrepancies could occur?
Furthermore, knowing that more often than not, garment factory owners and management do not prioritize the well-being of their workers, it is curious that the government would take such a decision. In fact, this stimulus package seems to mirror those of the United States, in which the government has rolled out a $2.2 trillion dollar stimulus package prioritizing corporations much more than its citizens.
These ploys make the governments look and feel good, while simultaneously keeping the corporate sector happy. The sufferers are the 99%, who in this case are the garment workers and who obviously would not be risking their lives to protest in spite of social distancing rules and lockdowns had their survival not depended on their wages.
The vast majority of them survive hand to mouth, support several members of their families and do not have health insurance. Could decency and a code of ethics be expected from the owners and managers of the factories? In most cases, probably not. Having said that, what hindered Sheikh Hasina, a woman, from rolling out direct help stimulus plans for the survival of the one group of society, also mostly women, from which the Bangladesh economy profits the most? This is an obvious rhetorical question for anyone who knows what an elitist autocracy Bangladesh has evolved into in the last 12 years since Sheikh Hasina has latched on to power, unelected nonetheless.
Wage protection and healthcare for garment factory workers should be mandated by the state but in such a system of corruption and anarchy, it is idealistic.
The ruling Awami League enjoys free rein today as it has done for years now. But, if Victor Hugo’s quote has any truth to it, this is certainly not the last protest we will be witnessing in Bangladesh. It’s a grave error for Bangladesh to bite the hand which feeds it.