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Bangladesh: Failure of the Trade Unions To Defend Workers Rights

by Zia Rahman, 3 May 2009

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New Age

Stagnation of labour movements in the era of globalisation

The readymade garment industry has emerged as the main manufacturing sector in Bangladesh since the 1980s when the World Bank and other international agencies in cooperation with the local elites ushered in an export-oriented development policy in the third world. The sector has also attracted a large number of unskilled rural women. Major issues ranging from low wages, worsening working and physical conditions of the factories, lack of welfare facilities such as healthcare, day-care, housing, education for the workers’ children, physical and sexual harassments, etc have yet to be addressed in a telling manner, either by the state or by the owners. Although there is no bar, the workers in the RMG sector seldom address the labour issues using labour unions. In a broad sense, the labour unions in Bangladesh in the era of globalisation have completely failed to address labour rights although the workers in this sector are ‘absolutely exploited’ by the owners as some social scientists, such as Ronaldo Munck, think. Thus, it is very important to identify the major constraints of labour movements in Bangladesh in the RMG sector in the era of globalisation.

Firstly, labour movement in Bangladesh, in modern sense, is very weak although some Bangladeshi writers (mostly activists) see a glorious past of labour movements in Bangladesh. Even if we accept those movements as partially successful ones, those movements, in a broad sense, are the offshoots of various political movements developed against various repressive regimes such as colonial and military ones. Hence, many historical peasant and worker movements, integrally related to the broad political movements, lacked independent working class character. Some notable political movements that merged labour movements are Fakir-Sannyasi movements, Faraizi movements, Swadeshi movements and Khilafat-non-cooperation movements against the British colonial regime, six-point demand movements during the 1960s and the anti-autocratic movements during the 1980s. Hence, broadly speaking, modern labour movements in Bangladesh developed in the 1905s, 1920s, 1930s, 1960s and 1980s in various sectors were parts of the ongoing political movements launched for the national liberation and or the restoration of democracy, far from the sole agendas of the working class.

Secondly, unlike Revisionism philosophy in Germany, Syndicalism in France, Fabianism in England, or Class Collaborationism in America labour unions in Bangladesh could not develop any unique labour ideology or philosophy. This limitation was even identified 50 years ago by some social scientists when they studied the constraints of labour movements in the British colonial rule. The possible ideologies that could have developed in this region were the radical and leftist kind of labour movements, developed during the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s in the jute and cotton mills, and the tea gardens in Bombay and Bengal and the Sattagrah ideology, i.e. non-militant, peaceful and democratic movements, introduced by Gandhi in the cotton textile mills in India in the 1920s. The possibility of emergence of a radical-militant kind of labour movement was foiled partially by the influence of the Cold War politics, by the hegemonic influence of the US, by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and partially by the existence of the traditional social formation (largely based on feudal and peasant relations) that has yet to be transformed into a modern form. Also, lack of union culture is a remarkable historical feature in the labour unions in Bangladesh. Contributions toward the union in the form of membership fees, internal union democracy and transparency, regular meeting and agenda settings, development of new leadership through votes, having permanent union offices and officials, institutional mechanism for developing working class solidarity, the prerequisites for modern unionism, are all absent in the labour union politics in Bangladesh.

Thirdly, like the development of the major social and political institutions, development of the labour unions and labour movements were immensely influenced by the 200 years of British colonialism. Hence, similar to the forms of political protests developed by the political parties during the colonial regime, labour unions in Bangladesh developed various forms of protest movements such as street protest, occupation or gherao of a manager’s office or a factory, spontaneous and sporadic outburst, vandalism, assault and militancy largely representing spontaneous, unorganised and unplanned forms of protest movements in the twenty-first century. In fact, absence of formal channels and absence of social justice in the colonial regime (since colonial regime was essentially an exploitative regime in the history) rendered these primitive forms of protest movements in Bangladesh. Absence of the formal-modern channels of easing workers grievances are still absent and hence the primitive kinds of movements still continue as the colonial nature of the state and colonial attitudes of the elites dominate in the society opposing workers’ unions right.

Fourthly, labour unions in Bangladesh could not develop independently because of their overwhelming dependency on the political parties and leaders amalgamated during the colonial regime. It is interesting to mention here that, unlike in the west, a large number of political leaders in this subcontinent holding the powerful positions of presidents, prime ministers and ministers were the main executives of the All India Trade Union Congress and other labour unions. Similarly, using state power various political parties in power started politicising labour unions beginning during the 1930s. Two such notable examples are the Bengal National Chamber of Labour, and the Indian National Trade Union Congress developed by the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress respectively when the parties were in power in Bengal and other provinces in India. Both the labour organisations were developed opposing the hegemony of the communist leaders dominating in the All India Trade Union Congress, the umbrella organisation of the workers during the colonial regime. Later, the successive regimes in Pakistan and Bangladesh, especially the military rulers, politicised labour unions and thereby undermined the interests of the working class. Thus, politicisation of labour unions and inter-union rivalry became one of the main barriers for strong labour movements in Bangladesh. It is very interesting that unlike the domination in the public sector unionism, political parties in Bangladesh have yet to develop any intimate relationships with the labour unions in the RMG industries. Hence, labour unions in the RMG sector do not get strong supports from the major political parties in Bangladesh. One possible cause might be that that many political leaders belonging to the mainstream political parties became the owners of many readymade garment industries since RMG business has been a very profitable one.

Fifthly, backward, docile and timid nature of the migrant rural women workers are the major constraints forming labour unions and launching labour movements in the RMG sector. Because of overwhelming majority of the rural migrants women, who did not have any past experience, who uphold feudal allegiance toward their owners and other management officials, and who have been socialised with traditional purdah system and patriarchal values, the owners exploit these meek and docile workers absolutely. Hence, because of feudal, religious and traditional gender relations, women workers do not even think about raising questions against any management decisions and their exploitations, let alone organising unions or launching protest movements. Also, paternalism that has guided political-social relationships for a long time in a feudal and or semi capitalist country like Bangladesh also works in the contemporary industrial relations. In fact, this paternalistic attitude obstructing the development of formal industrial relationship still exists both among the workers and the owners of the RMG industries. Most of the RMG workers are illiterate and hence they don’t have any knowledge about workers’ rights and labour laws.

Finally, ‘overdeveloped’ and ‘soft’ nature of the state, gelatinous and premature nature of civil society, absolute profit-seeking motives of the owners, role of military rules in spreading neo-liberal and unregulated market forces, the irresistibility of capital in terms of power of the multinational corporations and the supranational organisation such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation all have undermined the labour movements in Bangladesh in the era of globalisation. As we see, in the most postcolonial states the military, civil bureaucracy, politicians and business elites are the main beneficiaries enjoying enormous power. Intervened by military rules, many third world countries, such as Chile, Brazil, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc, produced the prototypical structural features in terms of labour-capital relations. In a very common fashion, these military dictators implemented the neo-liberal agendas by introducing structural adjustment policy, patronised the powerful business elites while repressed and suppressed the workers’ rights either by banning the activities of labour unions or by introducing the ‘politics of cooption’.

In Bangladesh, the two successive military regimes restrained labour protests by buying many radical and left labour leaders and by providing them lucrative state posts such as ministers and advisors. The other two major apparatuses such as civil bureaucracy and political parties have immersed into corruption, nepotism and lootings, whose members seldom think about the welfare of the poor workers. The essence of ‘overdeveloped state’ is very similar to what Gunner Myrdal termed the third world states, i.e. the notion of ‘soft state’. According to Myrdal, all third world states are inefficient in terms of managing huge activities by various public wings, rather than by the civil society being common in the west. In reference to the labour rights of the poor workers, we see that the state does not provide enough supports to the poor workers since the poor workers are powerless and have no voices. Although Bangladesh ratified various ILO conventions and although labour rights are vividly conceded in the constitution and other labour policies and documents, violations of labour law and ILO ratification is a very common thing; very little evidence might be found where the state officials monitor the applications of labour laws and the ILO conventions.

In fact, no actions are taken against the owners even though concomitant violations of labour laws and ILO conventions have been a common phenomenon in all the private sectors including the RMG industries. Since the colonial regime, on many occasions, it has been found that the workers’ protest movements have been instigated by the repressions of the state and the private forces of the employers, i.e. by the state police and hired thugs. In fact, for both the premature development of the educated middle class and civil society, the poor workers do not get any moral supports, valuable resources and pressures that might be acted otherwise as a pressure to the powerful state apparatuses and the employers on behalf of the working class.

This article is a section of a paper presented at the United Association for Labour Educators Conference at the National Labour College in Maryland, US. Zia Rahman, an associate professor of sociology at Dhaka University, is presently a doctoral candidate and an instructor the University of Calgary, Canada.