Becoming labour

While it is true that the series of industrial catastrophes in recent years have created a space for political action in the garment industry, it is equally true that without strong linkages among the various groups that form the working class in Bangladesh, the future looks bleak, writes Lamia Karim

Hey Girl!
Do you remember when you were born?
Have you seen the war of liberation?
Have you heard the stories of the war?
Then surely you have heard
That so many died
That the land became red.
Helpless children cried for food
Our women lost their virginity
And suffered the utmost humiliation
At the hands of the Pakistani army.
But you think you are free
Then why are you still in chains?
Why are you voiceless?
Everyday you sell your labour to the factory owner.
Have you received your worth?
You will not.
They will bathe in your sweat and buy whiskey with your blood
They are the rulers.
Do you want to resist oppression?
Do you want a solution?
Then fight back.
Lovely Yesmin
— Translated by Lamia Karim

sp1I begin this essay with a poem written by Lovely Yesmin, a former garment worker and the president of the Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Federation, to initiate a conversation about working-class solidarity.
Bangladeshi female workers have been a godsend for the global readymade garment industry. Yet to the state, western retail buyers and factory owners, the four million women workers are disembodied humans –– eyes, hands, and limbs that can make clothes fast and cheap. The right to a life with dignity for these young women has been ignored for the last 30 years as the global apparel industry penetrated into Bangladesh.
After China, Bangladesh is the second largest garment industry in the world. How did a society with a predominantly agrarian economy until the 1970s become the second largest readymade garment producer in the world today? In the 1970s, the US Multi-Fibre Agreement placed quota restrictions on East Asian countries, leading South Korean garment industry owners to relocate to quota-free countries like Bangladesh. In 1982, the Bangladeshi military dictator denationalised the existing textile factories, and brought them under private ownership that helped to further grow the industry. With a lack of government oversight, and an abundant supply of cheap labour, Bangladesh became a hot destination for the global readymade garment industry.
Between 1995 and 2005, the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Clothing and Textiles allowed the least developed countries to export to western markets with no quota restrictions. The industry grew in the 2000s as western garment buyers found in Bangladesh the cheapest labour available and a place where there was virtually no government oversight over factory and labour standards. By the end of 2005, the garment industry in Bangladesh had ballooned from a $3.5 billion to an almost $10 billion industry. By 2013, that figure had grown to $20 billion, comprising the largest source of foreign exchange revenue for the country. A majority of the factory owners is Bangladeshi with Korean, Chinese and Indian business partners.
sp2Although garment production expanded phenomenally during this time, wages were kept flat. When the first garment worker wage board was created in 1994, wages were set at $11 a month. The next wage increase came in 2006, when it was raised to $22, and then again in 2010 to $37, a worldwide low. After the Rana Plaza factory collapse, workers demanded $100 a month as fair wages. After multiple worker protests, the government finally set the new wages at $67 in 2013. But union leaders claimed that setting the basic pay at $67 had overall lowered workers’ take-home pay. Many factories cancelled overtime pay and instead workers had to meet a certain quota every day in order to get their wages.
In the aftermath of the industrial accident, it became clear that trade unions must be strengthened in the garment industry. With pressure from European governments and trade unions, the government lifted the 2006 Labour Act that prevented workers from unionising without prior permission from factory owners. In another move, western governments finally agreed to provide funds to upgrade factories to acceptable safety standards. Many European and US retailers signed onto two contracts called the Accord and Alliance respectively that sought to supervise factories for adherence to safety. But to what extent can external supervisors regulate the byzantine operations of apparel manufacturing in Bangladesh?
The global supply chain is a complex process that has multiple tiers of actors at every level. For example, a US company that is interested in getting clothes manufactured cheaply in Bangladesh will contact the Hong Kong-based outsourcing broker Le Fung. Le Fung in turn will locate a Bangladeshi factory that can handle the job for the US manufacturer. If needed, the Bangladeshi factory may turn to the shadowy secondary market to get its quota fulfilled on time. So, orders for clothes will move from the factory that signed the contract with the US retailer via Le Fung to a secondary market. This is a shadowy market where small operators take orders from a factory that cannot fulfil its shipment on time. These secondary factories are outside the radar of the factory regulators because they are small operations, and are often illegally run out of homes converted into makeshift factories. These small-scale operators help to keep costs of manufacturing down (no factory safety standards, no workers’ rights, non-payment of wages, etc.). Global retailers are well aware of this secondary outsourcing but they choose to ignore it because it helps to keep their profit margins high.
The western consumer is very disconnected from the source of production. Recently, I was talking to a group of students on this topic. When I asked the students to look at the labels on their clothes to see where they were manufactured, not a single piece of clothing was manufactured in the US. The labels read Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Mexico and Guatemala. Not one of them had ever thought of looking at the label to see where the piece of clothing was manufactured. When asked how they purchased clothes, their response was fashion and price. Interestingly, none of them made the connection between their commodity fetishism and the exploitation of workers. The rapid pace of changes in the fashion industry is made possible by the supply of cheap labour in countries like Bangladesh. Fashion moves from standard jeans to stretchy jeans to skinny jeans all in the wink of an eye. The demand for fashion and the supply of fashion are interconnected processes. If we did not have this created hunger for ever-changing fashion, then perhaps the pressure on local manufacturers would be less onerous, but by no means would that improve the work environment of the workers.
Who can then be the ally of the workers since the state has sided with the private sector and the factory owners?
In Bangladesh, NGOs tend to dominate discussions over rights through their endless roundtables sponsored by their western donors. The ideal of this discourse is the autonomous human subject (read: western) who, through the democratic process, learns how to exercise her rights to gain greater social and economic empowerment. It is equally interesting to note how these discussions about worker exploitation is spoken of as ‘human rights’ in development/NGO discourses, and not as the rights of the working-class, which has a far more revolutionary potential. We should not be surprised since the objective of development programmes is in mainstreaming, and not radicalising, poor Muslim women into the workforce, and to mobilise women as foot soldiers against Islamic patriarchy.
Trade unions are most closely connected with the women in the garment sector. Several trade union leaders in the garment sector are women who came up through the ranks of garment labour, and they maintain an organic link with the workers. Trade union politics is collective bargaining, and trade union leaders negotiate for workers with factory owners and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association. Trade unions have their own zones of influence in factories that they work in and they do not come into another union leader’s area. This has resulted in factions within the trade union movement. Each trade union leader that I met boasted her negotiating skills in ensuring workers’ rights. As a result, what was missing from the conversation was a national movement for workers’ rights in the industry.
Feminists are the natural allies of gender oppression and are at the forefront of fighting for women’s rights. But the garment workers I met did not identify with the NGO-ized middle-class feminist movement. In fact, one female trade union leader said, ‘We do not need the feminists. We are the feminists. We walk Dhaka city at night. How many middle-class women would have the courage to do that?’ The harshness of their existential reality has forced them to occupy a far more radical position than the middle-class feminists who often speak donor language to ‘liberate’ poor women. This is not to suggest that feminists do not have a role to play in ensuring garment workers’ rights but the class solidarity between garment workers and middle-class feminists require a lot more work.
The left has an equally important role to play. For the left, trade union politics do not represent the best interests of the working class. Yet, the left fails to mobilise workers because they view them as one-dimensional subjects through a narrow optic of Marxism, and not as human subjects with multiple motivations. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas has created new forms of aspirations. The garment workers do not want to remain working class. They want to move up the economic ladder, and they want their children to become middle class. Thus, the workers’ desires are vertically organised whereas the left views workers’ as horizontal subjects.
Thus, while it is true that the series of industrial catastrophes in recent years have created a space for political action in the garment industry, it is equally true that without strong linkages among the various groups that form the working class in Bangladesh, the future looks bleak.
Dr Lamia Karim teaches anthropology at Oregon State University

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