New Age talks to labour leader Taslima Akhter, president, Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati. She is a freelance photographer, who also teaches at Pathshala. South Asian Media Institute. On behalf of New Age, the interview was conducted by Rahnuma Ahmed on April 12, 2017.
New Age: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which killed 146 garment workers in New York in 1911, mostly immigrant women, initiated a historic era of labour reforms in the United States. Workplace regulations were passed to make factories safer. But most importantly, it inspired a massive push for unionisation, because workers realised that tragedies were not enough, organised action was needed to bring about change. Has the Rana Plaza disaster led to gains in workers rights?
Taslima Akhter: The Rana Plaza building collapse was hardly something to be happy about, more than a thousand lives were lost. It was colossal. What did the loss of more than 1,175 lives (our research) give us? We got some space, it was possible to talk about worker’s rights without getting arrested. Earlier, whenever there was a movement, central labour leaders would be arrested. Leaders who protested against the repression of workers would be arrested, like Mishu apa [Moshrefa Misfu], Montu Ghosh, they were arrested. After the Rana Plaza disaster, garment factory owners were shaky, they probably felt cornered, for them it was an entirely new state of affairs, instead of being feted, the image they have of themselves and the image they would like to project of themselves was being called into question — they were asked about workplace safety, union rights, wages. I think it made them scared, they were unsure whether they’d receive further orders or these would be cancelled. So yes, we gained some space, which we should have a right to anyway, but you know what the reality is like.
But in less than 4 years, it’ll be 4 years to the disaster on April 24, things have already moved backwards. It became clear in December, that the government and factory owners are no longer embarrassed by Rana Plaza.
New Age: You mean, the strikes in Ashulia garment factories for higher wages, between December 11 and 19 last year. Can you give us the background to the strikes.
Taslima Akhter: The movement began in Windy Apparels Ltd., but thousands of garment workers, working in more than two dozen factories took part in it later. Windy’s workers had grievances about the money they were due for annual leave, their increment, why these were lower in comparison to other factories. Workers in other factories were unhappy about their tiffin bill, night bill etc. Workers at Windy were also very upset at the death of a workmate who had been denied sick leave, she too was named Taslima Akhter, she fainted on the factory floor, was taken to the hospital where they declared her dead. Discontentment spread from Windy to Setara to Ha-meem, the demands of the workers were factory-based, specific to their own factories. But discussions had also been ongoing about the demand for increase in house rent allowance, and this sort of automatically led to the demand for higher wages.
The combination of factory-specific demands with a general demand for increased wages, made the factory owners see red. We then had a situation where, instead of each factory management entering into addressing the grievances and demands of their workers, negotiating what they would be willing to concede, the owners ganged up against the workers in order to crush the movement. But threats and intimidation failed to work, on the contrary, it helped to spread the movement because the movement was no longer about smaller issues but about the larger one, it was now about wages.
New Age: Yes, the government response was draconian, it used the Special Powers Act ‘illegally’, tell us about the response of the government and the factory owners, and what makes you say they are no longer embarassed by Rana Plaza.
Taslima Akhter: To suppress the issue of wages, a series of meetings and discussions took place, the industrial police, local MP, thana, local labour leaders, all were drafted into playing their roles. Discussions even took place in the shipping minister Shahjahan Khan’s house. In the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) office. Labour leaders were driven over to the meeting place at night, they tried to get the labour leaders and workers to say that they would be able to stop the movement. The local MP visited factories, in a sense, labour leaders were forced to announce over the mike in their area, to tell workers to return to work, to say it in front of television cameras. All this pressure, helped to make things worse.
Many trade union leaders, activists and workers were arrested. Alongwith named arrestees, sixteen hundred ‘unknown’ people were implicated, this means that the police can threaten to arrest anyone. Fifteen hundred workers were fired, many were black-listed, making it difficult for them to find new jobs. Their names and photographs were hung up at factory gates. Criminal cases were fabricated. Eight factory-owners filed cases at the police station accusing workers of vandalism, looting and assault but no evidence was provided. Many among those arrested were blindfolded, interrogated, they along with others were threatened with ‘crossfire.’ Some were remanded. The Special Powers Act, 1974, which does not give the accused the right to due process, was applied for the first time against garment workers and leaders. By doing so, the police violated Supreme Court rulings, and while it is true that later, after a petition had been filed, the officer-in-charge of Ashulia thana had to apologise before the court, but by then, the damage had been done. Thugs, on the payroll of factory owners, and also, ruling party thugs, terrorised workers and their family members. The government and factory owners backed down after 7 leading fashion retailers threatened to boycott the Dhaka Apparel Summit, 2017. Those arrested were released on bail, the global brands immediately announced their participation.
What was most important was the blurring of lines between the government and the factory owners. They worked in tandem to repress the movement.
New Age: The wages of Bangladeshi garment workers are the lowest in the world. According to the Fair Labour Association, the purchasing power of factory workers in 2016 was below the World Bank poverty line.
Taslima Akhter: The monthly minimum wage of a garment factory worker is 5,300 takas ($67). The breakdown: 3,000 basic + 1,200 house rent + 250 medical allowance + 200 transport + food allowance 650 = 5,300. In 2013, the maximum wage was 3,000 taka; workers had demanded 8,000 taka basic, and net wages of 12,000 taka. The government rejected the demand and fixed 5,300 taka as the maximum wage.
The prices of everyday necessities have galloped, water, electricity, house rent. Workers buy ‘Miniket’ rice at 42 taka per kg, ‘Dhamrai’ rice at 42-45 taka per kg, `29’ rice at 42 taka per kg. Given current food prices, no worker can afford a 3000 calorie intake (self and family members) on this wage. It is impossible to rent even shabby living quarters in a working-class neighbourhood at 1,200 taka, it would be difficult to get a ‘pocket’ room or ‘veranda’ room for this rent. A veranda room is not less than 2,000 taka. Average room rent is 2,500 – 4,500 taka. Workers cannot afford health care, an MBBS doctor charges 500 taka for a single visit, and when a worker turns to paani pora, jhaarphuk, they are termed ‘superstitious,’ ‘illiterate.’ Many workers send their children to madrasas, that’s all the ‘day care’ they can afford.
Several labour organisations got together, they calculated the living expenses of Bangladeshi workers, they concluded that 28,620 taka is essential to cover minimum expenses. But because of the prevalent situation in the country, they agreed to settle for 16,000 taka (basic 10,000 + average room rent 4,000 + health care 570 + transport 30 x 26 = 780, tiffin allowance 650 = 16,000).
New Age: Given the extravagant lifestyles of factory owners, visible to all, how do they justify such low wages.
Taslima Akhter: I don’t know, I don’t hobnob with them. I can only offer an anecdote. I chanced across someone who is close to the BGMEA, he obviously supports them, he was raving about how workers are lazy, they don’t work properly, but keep expecting wage increases. I would like to see factory owners subsist on 5,300 taka for a month!
What inspires me is the courage of the workers, I sensed changes during the Ashulia movement, workers are much more aware nowadays, they are far more spirited.
New Age: Thank you. May Day greetings! Taslima Akhter: Thank you.
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