The New Year heralded good news for industrialists with expanded tax benefits, but for the workers it brought the bullet ridden corpse of Suman.
Big neighbour India might well be envious of Bangladesh’s GDP which stands at 7.86 per. Even America, which over the past five years has had the world’s top-ranking wealthy persons, is shamed at such a growth rate.
But what audacity of the readymade garment sector workers! They are casting a shadow on all these achievements by demonstrating and agitating just for some a few hundred taka in wages.
Every time the workers take to the streets, the owners accuse them of destabilising the country at the behest of vested quarters. But the fact of the matter is that, they are deprived, and deprivation instigates them to protest.
On 25 November, the government declared Tk 8000 as the minimum wage. The workers were to receive these wages as per the new pay structure from this month, but even that looks iffy now. And therein lies the conspiracy.
According to a gazette published in 2013, the basic wage was to increase by 5 per cent every year. A worker, who is supposed to receive Tk 5200 in wages now as per the new scale, is in fact getting Tk 5160. Someone who was due to receive Tk 8932 is now getting Tk 8520. That is Tk 412 less than what they should be receiving. Besides, workers of grades 3, 4 and 5 are now receiving almost the same wage as they used to receive previously, meaning their wages have hardly increased at all. And how many of the factories actually follow the rules when it comes to wages? And who is responsible for the failure in the negotiations?
What lies behind provoking the workers, pressuring them with higher target and repressing them? BGMEA has said that already around 1200 factories have been shut down due to losses. The workers are not to blame, so why are they now jobless? How come there are such huge losses even after L/C facilities and tax benefits? Is there actually money laundering, default loans and the excessive profits involved? After all, we haven’t forgotten the capital flight being used to set up home and hearth in Singapore, Canada, the US and Malaysia.
A study carried out by Bangladesh Garment Sramik Sanghati on how workers survive, said that about 61 per cent of the workers feel they their expenditure exceeds their income. They are compelled to take loans and so spend less on food and lodging. On an average, a worker who works eight hours a day, does 60 hours overtime every month. They are deprived of sufficient sleep and rest. Paying the workers a monthly Tk 16,000 wage would be no big deal at all, if the international brands and the local owners deigned to cut down just a bit on their fat profits.
The exemptions that the government is providing the industry owners are being taken from public funds. Just a fraction of this would have made a world of a difference to thousands of workers and their families. Even if we buy the argument that factories may shut down due to increased wages, why should the workers bear the brunt of weak bargaining and negotiations in the international market? And these are the workers whose nutrition intake in 2016 decreased from 2011. In our development, buildings are growing taller and taller, while the malnutrition stunts the growth of the workers. As they stream to and from work every morning and evening, you will see they hardly exceed an inch above 5 ft. And the girls are even shorter. Driven by poverty in the villages, they come to the cities for work. They have leapt from the frying pan of poverty, only to fall into the fire of the Tazrin factory or to be crushed under the bricks and mortar of Rana Plaza.
All said and done, export earnings have increased. According to the Export Promotion Bureau, the first quarter of this fiscal (2018-2019) recorded a 19 per cent increase in exports, bringing home $13.65 billion. And it will go further up, predicts former BKMEA president Nazrul Huq.
The record of growing richer has been overshadowed by the record disparity. The record export revenue mocks the hard labour that goes into these achievements. In this country of middle income, mega development, the world’s costliest flyovers and highways, and the rich getting rapidly richer, the businessmen make up 62 per cent of the parliament. And all that the workers receive are bullets?
Every year the taka is devalued and the price of essentials shoot up. The meagre wages become more pitiful. In a city where living costs are on par with the middle class of New York, all that the workers want is minimum wages.
According to David Ricardo, one of the fathers of modern economics, a worker’s wages should be enough for him to survive and to be able to sell his labour. ‘Enough to survive’ is the key here, but that does not constitute fair wages. A fair wage is more than just enough to survive. It allows the worker and his family to live a decent life. The wages that Bangladesh’s garments workers receive does not allow a decent or dignified living.
Ironically, it is the readymade garments industry workers who are at the root of all the government’s achievements. The government preens in its development which has been earned by the sweat of the workers’ brows. And media also fails to ‘explain’ this ‘development’ to the workers or to convince the owners. So who is to blame?
The cabinet and the parliament are replete with businessmen. The state and the profit mongers are almost one. Economist MM Akash has shown that the industry owners in this country make the highest profits in the world.
The readymade garment industry is one of the pillars of Bangladesh's economy. It is also a result of relentless struggle by certain entrepreneurs. This is our national competence. If this sector survives, so will we. It is not out or any humanitarian motive or kindness that we need to stabilise this sector. It is simply in our own interests. There are many industrialists in the sector who want to give their workers a fair deal.
Also, if the wages of the workers are increased, this money is not siphoned off abroad. They will spend their money here, buy products here, pay their utility bills and VAT, which will in fact contribute to the state coffers. A well-paid worker will have a healthy and educated family, a work force that contributes to the country's productivity.
The US abolished slavery as they realised this was a burden and thus they have advanced. Rather than just selling our labour in foreign lands, if we can use our skilled labour to enhance our industrial economy, then only can our vision of independence materialise. And this will be so much more dignified and peaceful than managing slave labour. The failure to do so is the structural weakness of our garment industry. And the workers are not to blame.
The year began touting the country’s impending middle income status, but that been stained with a worker’s blood. That does not bode well.
* This piece appeared in Bangla in Prothom Alo print and online and has been rewritten here in English by Quamrul Hassan.