Are we ready to pay attention to the workers?
As a species, years like 2016 notwithstanding, we have indeed come a long, long way. On January 21, the world witnessed the Women’s March — an awe-inspiring demonstration of women’s resistance and a testament to how far the feminist movement has come.
Even in our part of the world, despite substantial constraints and disadvantages, it is entirely possible (and expected, in fact) to write favourably about women’s rights and at least win the approval of liberal audiences.
Other topics are riskier — writing about religion or sexuality can get you killed, but you will certainly enjoy the support of the entire left-liberal intellectual/artist/academic consortium. You can even write about the very real plight of minority populations, including our indigenous communities. Within certain circles, at least, it seems that you can write and talk about anything.
One thing you cannot talk about, however, is class conflict. You cannot, for example, talk about how the combined might of the BGMEA, the government, and the police has been unleashed to suppress our garment workers’ demands for more reasonable wages, better working conditions, and better safety standards and precautions.
You cannot talk about how the state-industrial machinery has been busy stifling every attempt made by the garment workers to strengthen the paltry number of trade unions they have, and to form more.
To be sure, you can talk about poverty, even inequality. We are allowed to feel bad about the poor, give handouts and pat ourselves on the back for our sensitivity, our compassion.
You can talk about, for example, how many were killed, injured, or went missing in the Rana Plaza collapse. We are allowed to mourn them, and cry for them. We are even allowed to blame certain factories and owners (but never the industry), even certain government officials (but never the state).
We cannot, however, talk about power; about systemic exploitation. Bad apples? Sure. Bad tree? Treason!
Treason, for example, to talk about this.
Here we come to the essence of the problem — the workers are not asking for handouts. The revenues generated, from which their wages are paid, are generated through the labour of the workers themselves. In short, they are asking for their money back
Since December of the past year, Ashulia and Savar have been in an uproar. What started off with workers’ demands regarding how the factories are run evolved into demands for better pay, a more democratic workplace, labour law reform, an end to illegal sackings and random factory closings, and more. The response from the government and the BGMEA would undoubtedly have made Pinochet proud.
Trouble has been brewing for some time now. Since the wage restructuring of 2013, many factory owners have been attempting to compensate by sacking workers, increasing their hourly output targets, and other managerial magic.
And while wages for most people throughout the country, including government workers, have more than kept up with inflation and rising housing costs, garment workers’ wages have not.
In this context, the workers at one factory demanded that their yearly increments keep up with neighbouring factories. This was early December. The workers there were already frustrated with the owners — earlier that year, a worker at that factory fell sick at work and, once taken to the hospital, was declared dead; she had asked for sick leave, and had been denied.
After the administration refused to cooperate to their demands, the workers decided to abstain from working, demanding to talk to the owners directly — this went on for almost a week. Eventually, the owner and the local MP came to listen to the demands — restructuring and increasing wages, yearly earned leave (or compensation for leave not taken), and an end to the verbal and physical abuse that garment factory floors here are famous for. They were promised that these demands would be met — they have not been met to this day.
Meanwhile, the unrest had already spread to other factories. The workers’ demands (which, it must be stressed, they have a constitutional right to make) were met with threats and abuse. One garment owner hired local thugs (a recurrent feature) to mercilessly beat up the dissenting workers. By this time the protests had spread to the factories of at least 10 different companies, if not more.
On December 20, the police attacked protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring 10. From the next day, the garment factory owners colluded to temporarily but indefinitely shut down 55 factories.
The 15th platoon of the BGB joined the police in suppressing the ongoing protests. Four more factories shut down — all 59 factories remained closed until the 26th (four or five days of no work, hence no pay, may not mean much to some of us, but it is a devastating blow to garment workers earning a pittance).
A news conference to be held on the 22nd, to put forward the demands being made by the workers, got blocked by the police before it could start. Labour leader Moshrefa Mishu was arrested (she was subsequently released). And just in case the reader is wondering just how much the workers are demanding — no more than Tk16,000 a month (while the average monthly expenditure for the typical garment workers’ family appears to be well into the late 20,000s).
While the factories have since then reopened, mass arrests, baseless lawsuits, physical assault, and illegal sackings have continued. At least 27 people, among them activists and labour leaders, have been arrested. Some have been released.
We cannot postpone anti-racist legislation in the hopes that one day everyone will stop being racist. And we cannot stand in the way of the workers demanding what is theirs in the hopes that one day their owners will become ‘enlightened’
Lawsuits have been filed against over 1,500 workers on accusations that do not hold water. Overall, 1611 workers were sacked from several factories. Only some have been re-hired.
To this day, local activists and labour leaders are under threat of arrest and constant surveillance. Many of them have not been able to return to their homes because of police presence.
While mass arrests are a common feature of the Labour Movement, the authorities have, on this occasion, relied on an ingenious scheme — they have refrained from arresting too many central leaders (fearing backlash and publicity), and have instead arrested or are attempting to arrest countless local leaders and workers, in an effort to demoralise them and shake their faith in the central leaders.
Meanwhile, every effort has been made to slander and tarnish the reputations of the labour leaders, accusing them of anything from fraud to treasonous conspiracy. The purpose, the motive, could not be more transparent — to cripple the Labour Movement completely.
And as all of this unfolded, the response from us, the apparent moral conscience of this country, has been a huge, deafening scream of silence.
The kind of silence that greets a police officer using his baton to scatter a group of beggars and street kids.
Why this silence?
There is, for example, the simple but crucial problem of relatability — we find it very hard to care about problems we cannot relate to, or people whose lives barely resemble ours.
The upper-middle-class working mother can relate to the struggle against sexual harassment in the workplace, or the fight for wage-equality, but not to the struggles of a mother working in a garment factory, trying to feed an entire family on the pittance that goes by the name of wages. Hers is a different world.
Popular culture has played a tremendous role in normalising homosexuality — we can now relate to the kind of gay men we see on Modern Family, but we are a far cry away from relating to a gay man living in one of our capital’s slums.
Culture helps in building bridges across religions (we may pray to different gods but we all love Rabindra Sangeet) — we are quick to defend our Pohela Boishakh celebrations in the name of all faiths, not so quick to stand by entire Hindu communities attacked because of an offensive Facebook post.
Class changes everything.
In a way, this ontological disjoint resembles the difficulty so many men had, and some still have, in recognising what their mothers, aunts, sisters, and wives did around the house as “work” (men can be exhausted after a long day of “work”; women have to be ready with offerings of tea/food/sex/anything).
It resembles the conceptual abyss separating the master of the house from the servants, the almost innocent indignation of a master in the face of a servant with the temerity to … not enjoy their work *gasp*; the almost helpless incredulity at the request for a few days’ leave, perhaps for Eid — “but how will the house run?”
These, however, are symptoms of a much deeper psychosis. The problem is that these garment workers are extras (at best) or villains (at worst) in a narrative, a narrative that has replaced gods and kings to become the central motif of our time. Some call it neo-liberalism. I call it “Growthism.”
At the heart of Growthism is not really neo-classical economics, but the Kids Menu – neo-classical econ lite. This framework has been so successfully ingrained into our collective psyche that its ideological nature has become invisible.
It doesn’t seem to matter that most of it is nonsense — that the “free” market is a lie. Any market-exchange based economy cannot survive without strong, central, government — without the legal establishment and defense of private property rights, and without a vast and intricate legal infrastructure in place to control exchange.
There is no governing body to watch over the moral character and decency of garment owners, and teach them if they ‘lose their way’
The “free-marketeers” will write-off government intervention as inefficient and illiberal, conveniently ignoring the entire system of already existing “intervention” on which the entire market system is based (this is not a diatribe against the market as an institution, but the “free” market as a rhetorical device used to preserve power by glossing over the fact that such freedoms are usually enjoyed by one group at the expense of others). The relevant question is never whether governments should intervene, but how?
Like any religion, Growthism could not have been this successful without some teleological promise of a better world — the “free” market will give us economic growth, and growth is everything.
The fact that economic growth and development is, by definition, a rise in standards of living, becomes completely lost when we argue that all of this “social” stuff can come later, once we have more wealth, more growth — “who cares about rights and freedoms when you don’t have food on your plate?”
Have you ever noticed that the people who use this line are almost invariably people who have plenty of food on their plate? Have you ever wondered whether it might not be the other way around — that it is precisely the rights, freedoms, and power that allows some to have food on their plate and not others?
It is an easy mistake to make. We look at the “developed” world, and think that rights and freedoms are luxury goods, things that countries can afford once they get rich enough.
But this is a profound mistake — the Labour Movement is as old as the Industrial Revolution. Social and economic progress not only go hand in hand, they must. They feed off each other, and are inseparably linked.
But, forgetting all of this, we are ready to sacrifice all on the altar of growth. For the new gods we have offered up our forests, and our workers.
In this narrative, the factory owners have become the selfless, unsung heroes, saviors of the economy.
“Don’t you realise that they serve the national interest? If they don’t invest, if they don’t make profits, the country won’t grow!” I wouldn’t blame you for almost believing that these owners are doing this for the greater good, for the people, for the country (a very profitable way to be patriotic, it seems).
“And, naturally, every story with a hero needs a villain.
“And here, especially in times like this, we have the selfish, lazy, greedy workers. “All they care about is their paycheck.” And when they go on strike, when they protest, when their factories get closed, when they get fired, “don’t they realise that they are actually hurting themselves? Isn’t it bad enough that they are selfish, they have to be stupid too? Don’t they realise how good they have it? Would they rather go back to the village?”
“It is as if because one meal a day is better than starving, they should be forever grateful for that one meal and never even imagine that it might be possible to have two.
Fools, indeed, for not being satisfied with the wages that their masters, in agreement with the state, have generously agreed to dole out. It is almost as if these workers are demanding a greater share of … the fruits of their own labour.
“Or are there factories I am unaware of where the owners themselves spin and weave? And here we come to the essence of the problem — the workers are not asking for handouts. The revenues generated, from which their wages are paid, are generated through the labour of the workers themselves. In short, they are asking for their money back.
“It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of workmen.
We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer.
A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchants, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired.
Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment … Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour.
We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things which nobody ever hears of … Such combinations, however, are frequently resisted by a contrary defensive combination of the workmen … But … their combinations … are always abundantly heard of … They are desperate, and act with the folly and extravagance of desperate men, who must either starve, or frighten their masters into immediate compliance with their demands.
“The masters upon these occasions are just as clamorous upon the other side, and never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combinations of servants, labourers, and journeymen. The … [workers’] combinations … generally end in nothing, but the punishment or ruin of the ring-leaders”
Those words were written in Britain, 1776 — a land in the throes of the Industrial Revolution — by the intellectual grandfather, founding figure, and guardian angel of all free-marketeers and Growthists — Adam Smith himself.
Observing the world convulsing around him, the exceptionally observant Smith, long before Karl Marx, realised that class conflict is inherent in industrial capitalism, that this conflict is by no measure a conflict between equals, and that governments in societies like ours are fundamentally designed to protect the interests of the masters. What he wrote in the 18th century, however, seems to me to be just as salient for us here and now. I bring this to your attention to establish a simple point — you do not need to have a portrait of Stalin in your bedroom. All you need to do is ask yourself if, like most of us (as I continue to believe), you think that a human being has the ultimate right to the fruits of their own labour.
If you believe that a market where one can stand to lose millions and still live well, while another is terrified of falling sick for even a day and losing a day’s worth of wages, can be called “free” in any sense of the word. If you truly believe that even a fraction of the owners’ children will ever be workers, or if the workers’ children will ever be owners.
I cannot stress enough that this is not a battle between workers and the garment industry — both owners and workers have an interest in keeping the industry alive and thriving. This is not an ode to some mythical “golden age” when things used to be better. This is an attempt to clarify that it is not just the workers who have a stake in higher wages and better conditions — this industry can certainly limp on for some time by brute force alone, but if it is to survive and grow into anything more than the world’s assembly line for cheap t-shirts, the workers’ demands must be heard.
Predictably, at this point, many can’t wait to start with the usual “but not all factory owners are like that!” That, of course, is true. But it is ultimately irrelevant. As much as we seem to be only capable of thinking in terms of good and evil, this isn’t a moral issue. It is a power issue.
There is no governing body to watch over the moral character and decency of garment owners, and teach them if they “lose their way.” The issue is not whether some garment owners want to exploit their workers, but if they can. Only a thriving Labour Movement and strong trade unions can ensure that.
We cannot postpone anti-racist legislation in the hopes that one day everyone will stop being racist. And we cannot stand in the way of the workers demanding what is theirs in the hopes that one day their owners will become “enlightened.”
On top of this. is the perverse fascination that the well-heeled intelligentsia has with how they protest.
And it is true that workers have often resorted to violence, to torching and looting and sabotage. But does the form of protest negate the legitimacy of the demand? If a victim of rape, in a land (say) where abortion is a crime, in despair and frustration decides to go on a destructive rampage, does her original demand become illegitimate? More to the point, if the workers do not scream, will we hear? Will we pay attention?
Are we paying attention now?
Shehzad M Arifeen is a Lecturer, Department of Economics and Social Sciences at BRAC University.