Call to regain our power as workers
This year on May 1, Sammilito Garments Sramik Federation, along with other labour activists and union leaders, will hold a rally to mark the struggle that workers of our nation face, and the demands we have for living wages, for safe working conditions, for our internationally recognised and ratified labour rights, particularly the right to decent work, freedom of association, and the right to strike. We will not be heard by the elite class that pocket the profits from our labour, to whom Labour Day is another convenient public holiday that may ease the traffic in our densely populated capital city.
Since last May, we have learned some things that perhaps we already knew, but are affirmed again.
Some fraction of the world's richest families, who own globally recognised clothing brands, come directly at the cost of Bangladesh's female garments workers who make clothes for their brands at salaries of USD 68 a month. Those are fortunes built by taking advantage of an exploitative market, an oppressive system that relies on women's compliance and vulnerability.
Time and time again, the government, factory owners, editorial writers of our country argue that we need to keep garments prices down to keep them competitive, so that the demand does not disappear and shift to Cambodia or Myanmar or some other country where working class people are so poor and desperate that they will take any salary, even if it is not a salary that they can survive on with dignity. But when we look at the fortune of these global brands, can we really believe that it is not possible to pay our workers living wages?
Last December, worker protests in Ashulia led to the sacking of 1,600 workers, shutdown of trade union offices and arrest of union leaders (“1600 garment workers in Ashulia sacked over unrest”, The Daily Star, December 28, 2016). Our constitutional protections to open and run unions in local, zonal, and regional levels were all swept aside. Our right to freedom of association, freedom to organise, and the right to collectively bargain under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all denied. It took until February to reach an agreement with the government and employers, which we hope to see implemented. Responsibility is shared on all sides to realise solutions.
We learned that garments factory owners can be vindictive when faced with protests, and will cooperate to blacklist workers from finding jobs at other factories (“Bangladesh garment factories sack hundreds after pay protests, The Guardian, December 27, 2016). We learned that the anxiety to protect the profits is so great that police forces can be deployed, using teargas and rubber bullets against the very workers that keep the industry going. It is no exaggeration when the International Labour Organisation country director says there is 'widespread mistrust' (Workers' rights issues remain a challenge, The Daily Star, April 24, 2017) between unions and employers.
Last week, labour leaders held a candlelit vigil to mark the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster that killed 1,134 workers. Many survivors still have not received sufficient compensation, and the injured lack proper rehabilitation support. While many demand the resolution of the trial process, it is also important to recognise our workers' demands for living wages, the right to organise, and realisation of their freedom of assembly and association.
Having worked in a garments factory from the time I was 11, I along with so many other workers of Bangladesh's industries know what it means to go on strike, to demand our rights. We know that none of our gains were handed to us, but every raise and every right was fought for. None of it came without our sacrifices or struggle. It is because of this history and these memories that we know how necessary it is to protect the right to strike, especially when faced with threats, with accusations that what we are doing is wrong, unpatriotic, selfish, or driven by a desire to destroy the industry.
Time and time again, I have said that it is not our wish to shut down the sector, or to drive away jobs and national income. What we want is to share equally in the gains that we have worked so hard for. That is why I speak of a living wage, not a minimum wage.
This is why, two years ago at the People's General Assembly in New York, I called for global movements (Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, September 30, 2015) to regain our democracies, our economies, our planet for people, not profit, and to regain our power as workers. I repeat this call and stress that this is not just for garment workers or for Bangladeshi workers - this is for every community that has to live with the damages caused by a neoliberalist economy that exploits workers, indigenous people, migrants, domestic workers, and every marginalised group worldwide.
Without our voice, without our fight, nothing will change. Even a half day work abstention, where we all come together and refuse to give our labour across the world as part of this year's global campaign, will show the corporations, the governments, the wealthy, something they want us to forget: We are the powerful ones. They are not powerful.
The writer is President, Sammilito Garments Sramik Federation; Executive Director, Awaj Foundation; and Focal Person, Labour Programme, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).