Workers’ cry in workers’ land

Bangladesh is a workers’ land. More than seven million people are working here as manufacturing workers, nearly nine million in hotels and tea shops, more than four million in transport, two million in construction and more than 20 million women and men are actively engaged in agriculture. With their unemployed dependents, they constitute more than 90 percent of the population, and yet they share less than 20 per cent of the GDP. With the rise in GDP and a good growth rate, the share of working people in GDP has declined.

At the time of independence, Bangladeshi society was dominated by small and middle-income groups: petty traders, low and middle-income professionals, small and medium farmers, small entrepreneurs. There were large farmers and jotedars in rural areas, but an elite class based on industry or in trade was almost non-existent. Therefore, the number of industrial/non-agricultural workers was also small. That social composition changed radically over the following decades. Multimillionaires with big properties have grown in thousands through the capital accumulation process, mostly primitive in nature. In the same process, both the size and proportion of illegal, underground, unreported and criminal economic activities have increased on an unprecedented scale. The size of this economy has grown with bribery, commissions to approve bad projects, leakages from different development projects, violent crimes, arms and drug trade, corruption, land grabbing, women, child, and manpower trafficking, sex trade, cheating and fraudulent activities, etc. These activities have affected the social fabric and uprooted a huge number of people. Expansion of the service sector has captured a major part of the economy, thereby increasing the informal sector and its number of workers. In the industrial sector, the rise of an export-oriented garments sector has also changed the scenario in many ways, such as higher number of factory workers with lower real wage and insecurity, in recent decades.  

As a newly independent country, Bangladesh inherited some big industrial enterprises in jute, textile, steel and sugar. Most of these were initially established by state patronage or with big subsidies from the state, and later transferred ownership to Pakistani big business houses. These were abandoned by them after independence in December 1971, and nationalised in early 1972. These enterprises formed the industrial mainstay of the newly independent country. These had strong trade unions mostly organised by leftist parties. Workers of these big enterprises, located mostly in Dhaka, Khulna and Chittagong, had been very organised and politically active since the early 1960s. They played a crucial role in the political movement against military rule led by General Ayub Khan, the mass uprising in 1969 and later, the war of independence in 1971.

After independence, all governments, civil and military, did all they could to capture these trade unions. They even resorted to violence and killing to gain control over industrial areas and to plant corrupt persons in the trade union leadership. Abuse of trade unions climbed to its extreme during the 1980s under the military rule  of General Ershad. It continued with later regimes. With the labour leaders co-opted into the ruling elite, corruption at the management level became a common phenomenon. This spread mistrust among workers towards their leaders, and weakened the unions’ power to assert the workers’ agenda. With the World Bank’s privatisation projects, top labour leaders were bribed in various ways, including with foreign trips to ensure the success of privatisation. Gradually, most of these trade unions became tools of the ruling party, thus separatedfrom the general workers. These practices have contributed to a loss of credibility and a decline in the strength of the trade unions.

During the 1980s, like many other neighbouring countries, Bangladesh’s ruling class/es also accepted its development path in accordance with the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP), the other face of the “Washington Consensus” prescription. There were many elements in the package, such as reordering of public expenditure priorities, competitive exchange rates, liberalised trade and foreign direct investment (FDI), privatisation and deregulation. In sum, the programmes aimed to bring everything within the reach of private business, turning every activity into profit-making schemes, and opening everything for corporate interests. These are collectively known as neo-liberal economic policies. Privatisation of state-owned enterprises, education, health care and other public services, downsizing industrial units, closing down ‘loss making’ enterprises and retrenchment of workers have been the high priority of successive governments. These ‘reforms’ resulted in erosion of public enterprises, and consequent widespread unemployment and alienation. The process was at its peak in 2002 with the closure of Adamjee Jute Mills, the largest jute industry of the world. The demise of the enterprise was arranged under the guise of ‘jute sector development’ with a USD 250 million loan from the World Bank.

In this model, privatisation of common property, grabbing of natural resources appear as progress, destruction of wetland, forest or cropland in favour of profitable business are seen as development, dismantling of public institutions are seen as economic reforms.

The neo-liberal reforms that shaped the government actions also had a strong ideological-political dimension. Dismantling old industries was prioritised not only to expand the rule of private capital, but also to break workers’ stronghold. Moreover, they were intended to create a large pool of labour–disorganised, scattered, unable to assert its rights, and forced to accept low wages.   

The evolution of the export-oriented RMG industry in Bangladesh coincided with these reforms, reaping benefits from the rising unemployment and new international division of labour. However, this new emerging sector enjoyed policy and material support from both the government and the international financial institutions. It also enjoyed other favourable factors including quotas under the multi-fibre agreement that ensured an international market. The new rising rich were looking for high-profit investment; they became new owners. A huge pool of unemployed young women from poor families, ready to work for rock bottom wages and longer working hours, made up the new workforce.

While old factories had been suffering from hostility from the policy makers, a long list of incentives became available for export-oriented industries. These incentives included duty free import of capital machinery for 100 percent export-oriented industries outside the export processing zones (EPZs), creation of an export promotion fund (EPF) for product development and market promotion of new items, exemption from payment of 50 percent of income tax on income derived from export, exemption from payment of import license fees by exporters who import raw materials exclusively for export production, and retention of up to 10 percent of earnings for general business purposes (soon to be raised to 20 percent). In later years, on many occasions, garment exporters could pull more benefits and favours from the governments. 

By the 1990s, it became clear that the old industries were dying, while export-oriented industries and construction materials showed strong and steady growth. In old factories, workers had trade unions, housing facilities, schools for their kids. In the new phase of industrialisation, instead of improving these facilities, the new generation of workers found themselves totally disorganised and unprotected. Almost no trade unions, no schools, no hospitals. Real wages also decreased. Permanent industrial jobs were replaced by a temporary, part-time outsourced unstable work system. Remittances sent by migrant workers appeared as the lifeline of the economy, but they got little support for their job security and life-safety. Big public enterprises were dismantled; the land of large mills was replaced by export processing zones, shopping malls and real estate.

During this phase, export-oriented garments factories became the mainstay of the manufacturing sector. Despite its high growth, incidents like that of Spectrum and Tazreen exposed the vulnerability of the sector. Even the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, the deadliest industrial horror in the world that killed more than 1100, could not change workers’ lives significantly. This sector, its global chain, remains a source of huge profit for owners, as well as buyers and brands, with the lowest wages in the world and great vulnerability for its workers.

Migration from agriculture to non-agriculture within rural areas and to semi-urban or urban areas has increased only to find temporary low wage jobs in the informal sector, small industries, transport and services. Desperate attempts by many unemployed youth to find jobs overseas have contributed to increase in human trafficking. It is evident that NGO microcredit programmes helped non-farm activities to grow in the rural areas, like small trade, small money lending, small scale handicrafts and rickshaw vans. But many studies have revealed the limits of microfinance as a tool of poverty reduction or stable job creation. Therefore, the supply of youths, including teens, from rural areas to urban areas looking for jobs remains steady. 

The main features of the workers in Bangladesh today may be summarised as follows: Average wage level remains much lower than living wage. Less than five percent of the workers are trade unionised. A significant number of the workers work in unregistered establishments without any protection.  The informal sector remains the biggest employer where low wage jobs with low security dominate. Government monitoring to protect workers is, in reality, absent; on the contrary, police and government institutions are highly biased towards big private owners. Gender composition of workers changed to include more women workers. Untimely death and injury of workers has become common in factories, transport and construction jobs because of unsafe working conditions. There is no protection from the government, compensation is like peanuts, and even that is not available for many.    

It is well publicised that Bangladesh can now show some good numbers regarding GDP growth, remittance, export, foreign exchange reserve etc. The main contributors behind these good numbers are mostly migrant workers, garments workers and agricultural workers. But all these macro statistics could not ensure good and stable job opportunities and other public rights for them. There is a constant tension over job search, and the flow of job seeking people has increased the size of the reserve army of labour, which gives more manipulating power to the employers. There is no security for job, no security even for life. Because of a weak organisational base of working people and declining power of their political support, the situation is getting worse. 

This has become, in fact, a global pattern in neoliberal models: no regular job, no trade union, no organised workers’ power. I agree with Leo Panitch et al (2012) that, “Added to the huge numbers of the unemployed is the ‘precariat’, the growing segment of the working population in jobs that are temporary, low-wage, and without benefits or protection. Conditions that were once associated with the informal sector in the developing world are now becoming truly global.“

In Bangladesh, democratic institutions and practices are far from real, workers’ agenda and politics have become insignificant in the power struggle, governance has become a zamindari system that overrules any institutional and legal process in the country. Therefore, the space for healthy growth of political and cultural activism in favour of workers is still a dream, and a matter of continuous struggle. Nevertheless, sparks of protest arise against overtly torturous acts by the state under every regime, and against anti-people policies from the state. That gives birth to new formation in every section of society. Among students, workers, and women, we find anger and new forms of alliances.

As a result, despite regimented control over labour, we have seen outbursts of non-trade unionised workers several times in the past decade. At one point, thousands of workers, women and men, demonstrated their strength to seize the capital city. We see the anger of deprived workers in and around Dhaka repeatedly. It has not, however, progressed yet to transform spontaneous angry workers into an organised political force. Therefore deprivation, torture, abuse and uncertainty contunue to haunt the workers in this workers’ land.
(Published in the daily star on 3rd May 2019)