Bangladesh garment workers, students fight back

By Larry Hales, NYC FIST

In recent weeks, Bangladeshi garment workers have been waging a militant struggle. Police have arrested more than 20 of their labor leaders. The police claim the arrests are for “violent” clashes in July by garment workers who were rallying for a living wage.

When tens of thousands of garment workers demonstrated in July in the capital city of Dakar, it is reported that police shot rubber bullets at them, used tear gas and batons, and created an atmosphere of terror. Those arrested were reported to have been tortured into giving false confessions and making false accusations against key labor leaders for allegedly instigating violence.

The workers and their allies rebelled in response to the police terror and the horrible working conditions in the garment industry.

There are more than 3 million garment workers in Bangladesh; more than 70 percent are women. The Ready Made Garment (RMG) sector is the largest industrial sector in the country, and it is steadily growing. The low-paid garment workers, who were making 1,662 taka ($24) monthly, have been demanding a minimum wage increase to 5,000 taka ($72) per month.

A government-appointed wage board had raised the wages to only 3,000 taka ($43) per month, which won’t go into effect until November. The minimum wage of $24 per month, which had not been changed since 2006, was less than $1 a day; the slated increase is less than $2 a day.

The International Labor Rights Forum and the Clean Clothes Campaign said that the recent arrests “were part of a strategy by the government of Bangladesh to deal with recent riots among garment workers by scapegoating peaceful worker advocates rather than addressing the true underlying cause of such turmoil: the country’s abysmal working conditions.” Human Rights Watch stressed that the arrests are part of a campaign of intimidation.

The garment workers produce clothing for very large retail corporations, such as Wal-Mart, which sells items produced by the RMG. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer with more than 2 million global workers. Forbes Global 2000, which ranks the top 2,000 companies, reports that Wal-Mart is the largest public corporation. Its 2009 revenue was $405 billion.

Wal-Mart is known for both paying low wages and forcing down wages across entire industries. The company advertises itself as being “customer friendly” because it keeps its prices so low. Behind Wal-Mart’s commercials, showing elderly people brought out of retirement as store greeters, this viciously anti-union company forces workers to have open schedules. The corporation has closed stores where the workers voted in unions. It has been sued for discrimination and for violating the American with Disabilities Act and more. Corporate officials have denied workers overtime pay, health care benefits and full-time work hours.

Wal-Mart saves its customers money by brutally exploiting its workforce, preventing them from living better, while the corporation owners make record profits.

In addition to all the workers at Wal-Mart there are the millions who are not seen and are part of the global supply chain. There are 60,000 supplier companies in the U.S., China, Singapore, Bangladesh, Mexico and other countries. Wal-Mart forces the suppliers to cut costs and sets the prices of items that influence whole industries.

RMG also provides clothing for H&M, a Swedish clothing corporation that has 2,000 stores in 37 countries. It is the fourth largest exporter of apparel and the second largest exporter of cotton T-shirts to Europe. (Daily Star)

Students fight tuition hikes

Students have also been waging tremendous struggles in Dhaka, and in Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh.

On July 26, thousands of students in Dhaka protested a value-added tax of 4.5 percent on the tuition of private university students — who make up 23 percent of students there. (www.emancipating-education-for-all.org). When the police began to attack students, they rebelled and blocked streets. Their valiant action pushed back and defeated the tuition tax.

On the same day, hundreds of students at Chittagong University protested tuition increases. The students announced a strike for the following day. The movement grew to thousands of demonstrators from many student associations. The actions have rallied people throughout Chittagong and this has become a movement of “students against a hike in tuition fees.” Students blocked streets for days on end and the university has been shut down at least until September.

The state brutally moved to quell the student uprising with police wielding batons and shields, and using tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds of students were injured and arrested. However, by beating back the student movement, the police repression only emboldened the students, who have vowed to continue fighting.

The action of students in Bangladesh, much like the student movement in Puerto Rico, has drawn support from around the world and has energized the student movement globally. Students in the U.S. are planning for the next National Day of Action to Defend Public Education, and the international student movement is planning a Global Wave of Action for Education with protests set to take place from October through November. Students have set up a Facebook page at http://tinyurl.com/34c3zs2.

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