Bangladesh: Sweatshop Workers Turn Up the Heat

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As I write, the streets of Dhaka, the capital city, are filled with protesters fighting the police. The air is thick with the acrid smell of tear gas and the city is paralysed by a general strike.

Bangladesh's "caretaker" government is due to conduct elections on 22 January but now the whole process looks shaky. The main opposition party, the Awami League (AL), has put together an alliance of many other parties, including those of the left, to boycott the election.

The suspicion of those who have joined the boycott is that the election will be manipulated by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the ruling centre-right party. The call to resist the one-sided election has the possibility of drawing on an increasingly combative working class.

Last year workers in Bangladesh's substantial garment sector started a wave of strikes that grew into a wider revolt against the bosses and the state. The eruption can be traced back to 3 November 2005 when a violent rising of garment workers took place at Narayanganj (a city south east of Dhaka). A number of factory owners refused to pay backdated wages and, despite their repeated assurances, they repeatedly cheated their employees.

The workers staged a sit-in at one of the factories and forced its owners to invite a workers' leader for discussions. When he arrived at the agreed venue, the police immediately arrested him. This arrest was the spark for a much wider revolt. About 50,000 garment workers and virtually the whole of Narayanganj joined the protests. The police tried to put down the rebellion, but the scale of the protests forced them to flee the streets. Eventually the factory owners had to pay the arrears.

The latest phase of the garment workers' revolt started in the Gazipur district (north of Dhaka) on 20 May last year. Workers at the FM sweater factory went on strike demanding to be paid three months of backdated wages, and the release of two colleagues detained by the police. As the strikers moved to occupy their factory, the bosses cut off the power and water. Enraged workers rushed out of the factory to find the main gates had been locked. Hundreds climbed the boundary wall while others struggled to pull the gates down. Together they moved into the street with the intention of starting a procession that would bring other workers out on strike.

As the workers formed a line, armed police came charging in from behind and drove the strikers back towards a nearby village. The police were surprised when the villagers joined with the strikers to resist them. Nevertheless, the police killed two protesters that day.

Show of strength

Meanwhile garment workers in the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) at Savar (northwest of Dhaka) were joining the protest movement. On 18 May factory owners responded to workers' protests by closing their workplaces and paying thugs to attack the strikers.

The strikers were not intimidated. In the next few days more than 500 of them laid siege to the police station where their colleagues were detained. The refusal of the police to release the prisoners infuriated workers across the EPZ, and many other factories joined the protest. Together they blocked the national highway and got the attention of the entire nation.

On 23 May workers in Gazipur, Mirpur, Uttara, Tejgaon and Siddhirganj marched in solidarity with their comrades at Savar - adding their own demands to the struggle.

About 500,000 workers joined a month-long protest that instilled a sense of fear among the factory owners and panicked the ruling class. At one point dozens of Dhaka University students chased the factory owners off the streets where they had been protesting against the "unfair" actions of the garment workers' union.

Yet despite the huge show of strength by the workers' movement, the strike wave was brought to an end by a compromise that was well short of the workers' original demands. The leadership of the unions, particularly those funded by NGOs and mainstream political parties, pushed for a deal with the government and factory owners. The parties of the radical left opposed the deal but they did not have the necessary influence to overpower the more moderate elements in the unions.

The two main political parties, the governing BNP and the AL, are essentially tied to the same neoliberal agenda. Unsurprisingly, most workers do not regard them as potential allies. Nevertheless, any attempt to undermine the democratic system in Bangladesh seems likely to meet stiff resistance.

Garment workers show that workers in Bangladesh are capable of sustained and militant protest. Today the task of the left in Bangladesh must be to build an organisation that is able to help them win the victories they so richly deserve.


Mushtuq Husain is the president of the Centre for Social Praxis in Dhaka, Bangladesh