Low-paid workers in the Global South are often dismissed as powerless. But Bangladeshi garment workers are leading a fightback.
Smoke is rising from the highways that run to and from the export-processing zones that surround the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Thousands of the most downtrodden workers in the world are involved in a pitched battle with sweatshop owners and the government that stands behind them.
For the past three months garment workers have built barricades to block the roads, and bosses have called paramilitary police and hired thugs to round up leaders and break the movement. The fighting has been fierce, with thousands of officers in riot gear, armed with tear gas and rubber bullets, launching a vicious assault on the strikers. It's a tactic that has worked in the past, but not this time.
The workers, who make clothes for shops like H&M, Tesco and WalMart, are demanding a monthly minimum wage of £46 - the current level for a qualified worker is fixed by the government at just £18. After several weeks of a growing strike movement the ministers and bosses agreed to raise this to £28, but not until November.
Despite government pleading, and the acquiescence of some trade union leaders, workers rejected the new arrangement and instead started a new round of strikes. "We don't accept it," said Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers' Unity Forum, an association that says it represents more than 60,000 people. "We will go for protests."
More than 3 million Bangladeshis work in the garment industry, which accounts for a vast majority of the country's exports. From 2004 to 2009 the nation's exports of clothes nearly doubled. The government is terrified that a strike wave could easily spread from the relatively unorganised garment sector to workers in heavy industry and the public sector, which have a longer tradition of militancy.
The struggles in Bangladesh found an echo in Cambodia, where in July hundreds of riot police battled thousands of women garment workers who were protesting at the arrest of one of their leaders. The government had just been forced to raise the minimum wage after a series of bitter strikes.
That sweatshop workers from some the poorest countries in the world are fighting back should give pause for thought to all those who accept the idea that capitalists can fend off demands for better wages with threats to relocate production.
Many of the most radical contemporary anti-capitalists believe that workers in precarious and low-skilled industries, such as clothing manufacturing, have been rendered powerless by globalisation. The developing workers' movement in the Global South challenges these ideas.
In both Bangladesh and Cambodia it is those who were once written off as "unorganisable" who have been at the forefront of the struggle, using militant methods that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the birth of the "new unions" that characterised Britain in the 1880s. Back then it was the match girls in east London who headed up the battle. Young, Irish and female, most trade unionists at the time regarded these unskilled workers as a bulwark to be used by bosses to undermine conditions won by organised workers.
But, as their battle for decent pay, conditions and union rights spread, hundreds of thousands of workers struck and joined unions - dockers, gas workers, picklers and bottlers, laundry workers and tailoresses came together to form the basis of what are today the GMB and Unite unions. Rather than driving wages down, newly unionised workers helped improve conditions for everyone. Delegations of match girls marched from factory to factory, collecting solidarity donations and calling upon other workers to join them. Their radicalism was infectious and their experiences chimed with others.
The same tactics are being used today by strikers in Dhaka and are helping to forge a new leadership in the workers' movement. In the past, strikes in Bangladesh's garment sector have been characterised by two tendencies. On the one hand there are unions run by "professional leaders", whose background and position in society set them quite apart from those they are supposed to represent, but who bosses have largely excluded from their factories. On the other hand, in recent years there have been several waves of spontaneous strikes in sweatshops over issues like the non-payment of wages, or injuries at work. In these the leadership has generally been clandestine or sporadic.
Despite the fact that struggles have often spread rapidly from one firm to another, the lack of stable leadership has meant that battles have often ended prematurely, with employers being able to use divide and rule tactics in order to hold out. This was the case with the massive battles in the garment sector in 2006 that led to the establishment of a government-enforced minimum wage.
According to Mushtuq Husain, head of the Centre for Social Praxis in Dhaka, the most recent strikes have changed the situation by creating a new rank and file leadership in the factories that understands the need to coordinate their action.
The struggles in Bangladesh are proof that workers there are not the competitors of workers in the West, so poor that they are willing to work for next to nothing, and so help drive wages down across the world. Rather they are our brothers and sisters.
They are using the same techniques to mount resistance to ruthless employers that our forebears did, and their defiance in the face of brutal repression should be an inspiration to all those who are fighting back.