Seized machines, hungry garments and bloodied strawberry

by Farooque Chowdhury
Many apparel factory workers of five Tuba Group factories on a hunger strike since July 28 at a unit of the group at Madhya Badda in Dhaka fall ill on the fourth consecutive day of their protests on Thursday. — New Age

Many apparel factory workers of five Tuba Group factories on a hunger strike since July 28 at a unit of the group at Madhya Badda in Dhaka fall ill on the fourth consecutive day of their protests on Thursday. — New Age

Hunger strike and seizure of machines by garments workers in and near Dhaka during the last part of July 2014 were part of Bangladesh labour action that is moving unabated through experiences of gains and failures. In distant Greece, labourers from Bangladesh witnessed a court verdict that further bloodied already bloody strawberries. The incidents once again confirmed the dominating reality: dominance of capital. The incidents, on the opposite, also showed an emerging reality: labourers’ increasing action.

Of seized machine
Eid, the Muslim’s festival after a month of fasting and practising restraints on aspects of life, was approaching. That was July. All salaried employees and wage labourers usually get festival allowance. It is the rule, practice and tradition. The allowance provides for a small opportunity to mend torn-down life of the hard-pressed labourers and low-salaried employees.
But alas! Workers in a garments factory were not going to have it. Their wages for the months of June were not paid. Uncertain was the festival allowance. The aggrieved workers had to resort to action: demonstration. And, then, they had to resort to strike. The owner and his management cadres fled away. A few accounts officials were gheraoed, kept seized, for five days that led to a ‘resolution’: payment of all unpaid wages and festival allowance by July 21, 2014. It was a written commitment from the factory management. The seizure was withdrawn.
The owner-committed time limit for payment of wages and allowance passed. Eid approached nearer. Darkness of uncertainty was coming closer to workers. They frantically tried to contact the owner. But, to no avail! He was beyond reach.
The desperate situation and the violation of commitment led workers to seize a part of machinery of the factory. They successfully found a buyer also. The machines were sold away. A sum of money came in. It was more than Tk 1.7 million ($1 equals more than Tk 78). The sale proceeds were distributed among the workers by the workers. The money distributed was treated as wage for the month of June. A police official confirmed the sale of machinery by the workers. A news agency on July 27, 2014 said: ‘Workers sell factory machinery to realise unpaid salary’ (the name of the factory: Trade Mark Fashion Limited; the place of occurrence: Gazipur, a few kilometres from Dhaka; the period of occurrence: the last week of July). It was a labour action without adventurism that gave no scope for high-handed interference. And, it was an exposure, and a lesson, and an experience.

Of hungry garments
About 1,500 workers of five garments factories in Dhaka resorted to protests and about three hundred of them went on a hunger strike to realise their unpaid wages for the months of May and June and the festival allowance. The hunger strike continued for days and it was during the Eid festival while millions of people were celebrating the festival and the entire country was in a festive mood. Scores of workers were sent to hospital as they collapsed from hunger strike. The workers returned to the factory, the place of the hunger strike, and joined their striking colleagues after being discharged from hospital. The Progressive Doctors’ Forum, an association of physicians connected to the Communist Party of Bangladesh, extended medical care to the striking workers.
The commitments for the payment of wages and the festival allowance were made three times on behalf of the owners. But all the commitments remained unfulfilled. As the festival neared, the workers began protest that later led them to resort to hunger strike. Initially, there was none to unknot the problem of non-payment. Later, the garments manufacturers’ association sought another week for a partial payment.
It was reported that the factories, owned by the Tuba Group, produced garments amounting to Tk. 260 million during the recently concluded World Cup Football.
It should be mentioned that in 2012, Tazreen Fashions, a factory owned by the same company, burned down that killed more than a hundred workers. The owner, Delwar Hossain, is now in jail for negligence causing deaths.
The workers’ series of protests for non-payment of wages had been going on for a long time. One leader of the garments manufacturers said: ‘We’re really sorry. They could not celebrate Eid and they’re on a hunger strike.’ One of the garments manufacturers ‘urged the government to take charge of paying [the workers’] wages  at any cost.’ One of the striking workers asked: We are fined for delay in work. But who shall be fined now for delay in payment of salaries? (As reported by a news agency in July 29–31, 2014)
Thus it appears: the manufacturers are ‘sympathetic’ to the workers as the workers had no Eid celebrations; but the manufacturers’ association could ‘not’ arrange money; the manufacturers now need government help; the government should take charge for paying wages, not for making profit.
It is a ‘story’ of trickery, and of indifference, and of cruelty, and of capitalising workers’ distress.
Entrepreneurs’ organisations lobby for formulating policies favourable to them, influence the national budget allocation, banking, financial, fiscal, export policies. But they cannot influence one entrepreneur in paying wages and allowance. Entrepreneurs make profit, take full of it. But they ask the government to take responsibility whenever they face problems they create. It is the public that bears government expenses. So, it stands: ‘I make profit; you, the public, bear the cost.’

Of strawberries
On the jade end of July, a Greek court in the western port city of Patras acquitted local farmers responsible for shooting 28 Bangladeshi strawberry-pickers. The magistrates, guardians of ‘justice,’ allowed two of the farmers including the owner of the farm who had also been accused of human trafficking, to walk free. Two others, accused of aggravated assault and of possessing illegal firearms, were handed prison sentences; 14 years and seven months to one, and eight years and seven months to the other. But both were also freed pending appeal.
The Bangladeshis were shot at in April 2013 at a Peloponnese farm as they demanded six months of unpaid salary. It was the workers’ ‘sin.’ Media investigations showed that the migrant workers work in subhuman conditions without access to proper hygiene or basic sanitation. However, the farmers engaged senior criminal lawyers to defend them in the drama named ‘justice in court.’
In disbelief, scores of migrants, many sobbing, protested at the verdict outside the court house. The verdict has sparked outrage in entire Greece. Politicians, unionists and anti-racist groups have condemned the verdict as a ‘black mark for justice’ in a case that brought the spotlight on the migrant workers’ appalling working and living condition in Greece.
Moisis Karabeyidis, the victim’s lawyer, said, after the ruling was delivered: ‘I feel shame as a Greek. This decision is an outrage and a disgrace. The court showed an appalling attitude toward the victims.’ Politicians standing for labour rights said that the verdict had set an unwelcome example for other employers to follow. ‘It sends the message that a foreign worker can die like a dog in the orchard,’ said Vassiliki Katrivanou, an MP with the main opposition radical-left Syriza party. ‘It leaves room for new victims by closing eyes to the brutal, inhuman and racist character of the exploitation suffered by workers on the land,’ she said, pointing out that the ruling had been made on the World Day against Trafficking in Persons.
Anti-racism organisations denounced the judgement as scandalous and said that it had raised questions about the impartiality of the Greek justice system. The organisations planned to step up protest action against the verdict. In a statement, Petros Constantinou, coordinator of the Movement against Racism and the Fascist Threat, said: ‘We call upon unions and human rights movements to react against this unprecedented racist scandal. The hundreds of millions of profit made in the strawberry industry cannot come about by shooting labourers in strawberry fields.’
It is an irony! The irony is of time. Greece, the country that organised the greatest game event on the planet, Olympic, with a lot of money a few years ago went down to the stage of the Third World poverty and desperation, experienced regime change without an armed intervention, bankers’ dictation that the Third World experiences almost everyday. Sometimes, it appeared, Bangladesh, once despised as simply a humanitarian case, was in a better position compared with the state of the poor in Greece. A part of the sick European economy has to rely on migrant labour to make profit. Then, it shoots and maims migrant labourers and fans far-right, Nazi forces. The economy is sick but its power to influence the judiciary and to assault labourers is not weak.

Of the stories
What do the ‘stories’ tell? It tells tales of capital’s character, and it tells tales of collaboration that capital crafts, and it tells tales of justice that capital delivers, and it tells tales of state that capital commands.
The Bangladeshi workers, still politically unorganised, are passing a particular phase. It will gradually evolve. A quote from Marx and Engels is worthy to refer here:
‘To begin with, the workers fight individually; then the workers in a single factory make common cause; then the workers at one trade combine throughout a whole locality against the particular bourgeois who exploits them. Their attacks are levelled not only against bourgeois conditions of production, but also against the actual instruments of production…
‘At this stage the workers form a disunited mass, scattered throughout the country, and severed into fragments by mutual competition.” (The Manifesto)
The Bangladeshi labourers will pass this phase where NGO-driven labour mobilisation, politicization of de-politicisation, plays a role.
Farooque Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance writer.



2 Comments

  1. Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed says:

    I am really thankful to the writer for such valuable and well analytic contribution. It gives some ugly scenario of modern time relation of capital and labour and the way all the organs of the capitalist system act together to continue the exploitation and oppression of workers.

    In reference to the last paragraph of the article, I would like to draw the attention of the contributor that another group which equally confuse and mislead the worker’s mobilisation, the BGMEA paid Trade Unions.

    Hope to get more contribution from the writer regularly.

    Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed ,
    Assistant Executive Director,
    Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies
    [email protected]

  2. Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed says:

    I am really thankful to the writer for such valuable and well
    analytic contribution. It gives some ugly scenario of modern time relation of
    capital and labour and the way all the organs of the capitalist system act
    together to continue the exploitation and oppression of workers.

    In reference to the last paragraph of the article, I would like
    to draw the attention of the contributor that another group which equally
    confuse and mislead the worker’s mobilisation, the BGMEA paid Trade Unions.

    Hope to get more contribution from the writer regularly.

    Syed
    Sultan Uddin Ahmmed ,

    Assistant Executive Director,

    Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies

    [email protected]

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