National Sections of the L5I:

Bangladesh: oppression and misery in the delta

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On 3 May, in Savar, Bangladesh, garment workers and their supporters staged a peaceful protest against a sudden wage cut. The management of Ring Shine called in police, who attacked the 1500 strong gathering.

One knitting operator, Rafiqul Islam, and one supporter, Mosharaf, were shot dead and 200 injured. The outraged demonstrators ransacked the factory in revenge. Six people were arrested, and a further 80 face charges of damage to property.

This incident is one example of the volatile situation within the fortress-like compound of Savar`s Export Processing Zones (EPZ) which contains 33,700 workers.

Bangladesh began creating these EPZs in 1978 in order to attract foreign capital and earn export dollars. In 1993 the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) was set up and a blanket ban on trade union activity was imposed. This is obviously the most attractive feature for investors, on top of tax breaks and other incentives. In 1997, 15,000 Savar workers went on strike in defiance of the ban, demanding trade union rights and job security.

The EPZs, now employ 70,000 workers, mostly in the garment and shoe-making industries. While national labour laws do not apply in the EPZs, BEPZA has control over work conditions, wages and benefits.

However, the guaranteed minimum monthly wages of $US 70, 40 and 25 for skilled, unskilled and probationary workers respectively is a laughable fiction. So too is the entitlement of permanent workers to annual festival bonuses, medical coverage, and accommodation and transportation allowances.

This body has consistently refused to give out letters of employment and does not hire any workers on a permanent basis. In reality earnings come to about $20 per month, less than half the official rates and workers do forced overtime on threat of dismissal. The withholding of pay for up to months at a time, a practice common throughout the private sector, is also the norm.

The situation in the garment industry at large is even worse. The country’s top export earner employs 1.5 million workers under conditions of extreme super-exploitation. The majority are young women from rural areas who have migrated to the urban centres in search of work.

Working in sweatshops which are more like prisons than factories, with no fixed hours, no regular breaks or days off, workers earn between $7 and 10 a month, for an average of 13 hours a day, 27 days per month. This comes to an hourly rate of two or three cents. The industry currently owes $300,000 in back pay, a staggering amount considering the miserly wages.

Where unions are involved, they act more like extortionists, taking money from management to keep the workers in line while collecting dues from members with whom they have virtually no contact.

A week after the Savar incident the Bangladesh Garments Workers Unity Council (BGWUC), comprising eight such unions, secured an agreement. Under this Ring Shine agreed to foot the medical expenses of all injured workers, drop the charges filed against the demonstrators, pay back wages and follow the BEPZA rules regarding minimum wages, festival bonuses and maternity benefit, as well as compensation of about $4,000 to the families of the two men killed by police.

As part of the agreement the BGWUC, however revealed its true colours. It undertakes the responsibility to ensure the peaceful operation of the factory and to ensure that the workers will not create any further problems in future in the factory.

The EPZs are nothing more than a vehicle for the transfer of public money into private hands in the form of bargain- priced land and energy, tax breaks and subsidies. The government must be forced to open its books to inspection by democratically chosen representatives of the workers of these zones. Only thus will the full extent of their exploitation and the plunder of the country by the multinationals be exposed.