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Concerns For Workers?

Today’s Mayday, Tomorrow’s Mayday

Farooque Chowdhury

A"rarest" hour "glorified" Bangladesh labor. One can also define the development as world labor's "rarest" hour as labor around the world carry the same shackle that capital craftily constructs to enslave and rob labor.

The "rarest" hour was mothered by the now world "renowned" Rana Plaza massacre (RPM) on an April day in 2013: An "amazing" multi-storied building housing garments factories made a "cagy" cave in and "produced" death of at least 1,100 workers and many missing during production (MDP), and many maimed, crippled, orphaned and widowed. A "great" act of murder at mass scale!

They joined more than 100 workers gutted in November 2012 in another garments factory named Tazreen something.

There are other cases of workers, hundreds in number, burned or crushed to death, killed, murdered during production and/or on way to workplace or to home. These were in and around Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital city and in other cities. These "piteous" buckos, obviously "insignificant" existences in an island of indulgence, are all fallen friends, and "tolerably unimportant". They were permanently "alienated" over the Bangladesh labor-years.

At those moments of permanent "alienation" a few related to labor raised the issues although these "essential functions" of related capital were ignored with a serious silence. The voices of concern and protest were brushed out as the capital involved is much powerful and it owns many hands, one can say tentacles, touching, controlling and manipulating every element required to brush out the questions.

But the RPM, the massacre, not revolution per minute (rpm), touched emotions of many powerful personalities. The unfortunate labor in Bangladesh found a great many sympathetic hearts. It's difficult to find so many great personalities standing, raising voices, penning down for the "inauspicious" labor.

Senators and knight and laureate and bankers and diplomats from powerful countries and globally leading buyers and retailers stood for the RPM victims. World famous media spared their costly spaces for labor. Famous brands got galvanized to improve safety standards at supplier-level. Beyonce, the world famous singer, came "under fire over H&M's Bangladesh sweatshop scandal where employees are forced to work for days on end, face sexual abuse and child labour is rife."

The "concerns" probably made Marx feel "ashamed" for his "failure" to articulate and analyze workers' plight as he probably has heard that there were voices telling after the RPM: "clothes that are stained with the blood of Bangladesh's workers". The wording sounds "revolutionary" although revolution is despised. Ruthless capital's world seemed full of "concern" and "solidarity" and "love" and "sympathy", and someone will say, hypocrisy and lies.

Talks and meetings and round table discussions and hearings in Dhaka and Geneva and in other very powerful capital cities and legislative assemblies were organized. Capital-friendly international trade union and committee and commission and think tank were there also. All were "concerned" with the Bangladesh garments labor.

They were from both sides of the Atlantic; a genuine trans-Atlantic "concern". There were Benetton, Bonmarche, Camaieu, El Corte Ingles, Karl Rieker, Kik, Loblaw, Mango, Mascot, Matalan, Store Twenty One, Wal-Mart, and some other famous names.

There was firm commitment on funding compensation and there was no commitment. There were proposals and concepts and ideas and principles on working directly with those affected by the RPM, investing in improving factory and worker safety, contributions for loss of earnings-medical and funeral costs-other expenses of victims and bereaved families, and some more and some less.

There were allegations with compensation to the RPM victims and counter-arguments to the allegations. In the history of labor, the "rarest" moment was thus produced!

The fact is: all "great" hearts, which all the time stay on far, far high spheres connected to capital, came down to the bunch of fella fallen down to dust and dirt. Isn't it a show of "kindheartedness"? How many times in how many countries have so many good and great souls "spontaneously" stood by the labor? Isn't it historic? And, isn't it rarest?

But capital is really difficult. A bit "childish" also. It does not "understand" special moments.

So in some other lands, not that far away from Bangladesh, capital behaved in a bit "childish" way. Almost over the same time it played with fire and accidents.

Cambodia and Pakistan experienced the mishaps.

In Karachi and Lahore, two cities in Pakistan, the 10th largest country in terms of available human workforce, almost 300 persons including many children turned dead in two factory-blazes on September 11,2012.

The Karachi workers, as The Dawn reported, earned $52-$104 a month. (September 12, 2012, "Karachi factory fire highlights risks for workers"). Isn't it a "lot" to make a life "flourishing"?

A high working pressure and overtime with unpaid additional work, according to the Pakistan Textile Workers' Union, were frequent at the Karachi factory. Isn't it an old story of high "productivity" and intensive exploitation?

According to other media reports including The New York Times (September 19, 2012) and The News International (September 12, 2012) the Pakistan factory having the blaze and sending its workers to death passed an internationally recognized safety test only a few weeks prior to the blaze although it was also suspected of using child labor and locked workplaces similar to prison cells. During the fire all the exit doors in the factory were locked and many of its windows covered with iron bars that made it impossible for workers to get away. It's also an old story of exploiting child labor, and of securing material required for production.

Do these sound 18th century stories of the labor? The Lahore labor had basically almost the same story from Karachi. The labor in garments factories in Cambodia gathered similar experience. Stories of "mercy" to the labor are abounding.

On January 21, 1960, a rock fell in a section of a South African mine that trapped 437 miners, and 417 of the 437 trapped souls succumbed to methane poisoning. The owners had not procured a drill that could make a hole large enough for the men to escape, and that would have decreased profit. A number of miners, at the first falling of rock, had fled to the entrance, but were forced back into the mine by supervisors obedient to their owners. And, to play with color, the owners doled out more money to white miners' widows than the Bantu widows. It was one of the deadliest disasters in the mining history of South Africa.

Isn't it a "human" face of barbaric capital?

In Greece, Spain, Indonesia, Croatia, Chile, Guatemala, South Africa, Vietnam and elsewhere the labor experiences the same—harsh exploitation, permanent uncertainty, brutal repression, humiliation, if not getting gutted with fire, and the same stories of brutalities are authored.

It's not only the labor in the garments factories; the labor in mines, manufacturing plants, ship breaking and building industry, assembly plants, iron and glass works, foundries, construction sites, retail chains, and all areas of economy that require labor also always experience the brute force of capital. Most of these 21st century stories sound 18th century tales.

Explosions in the 18th century UK collieries "helped" labor learn the cost for living in capital's world.

The UK colliery-explosions—explosions in coalmines/pits/collieries—took hundreds of lives. Many of the "contributions to coal power" were boys, and many of the boys worked in the mines for at least 14 hours, from 2 a.m. to a little after 4 p.m., and the boys' earning was about 2s. 2d. per day. Isn't it a "fabulous" amount of money to "sacrifice" life to make the rich richer?

On a colliery-explosion at Gateshead on October 3 or 4, 1705 that took more than 30 "fortunate" lives The Newcastle Daily Chronicle of 1880 quoted the Burial Register at St. Mary's' Church. Of the dead it was written: "These were slain in a coal-pitt..." (UK Mining Disasters 1707)

But the coal mine owners' world was "not" devoid of mercy. In 1767, The Newcastle Journal called to attention of coal mine owners the plight of "the distressed widows and fatherless children occasioned by these mines, as the catastrophe from foul air becomes more common than ever yet..." (ibid.)

Safety measures were not taken as those would have cut down profits.

Sometimes bodies of the dead miners were never recovered.

A hushed up "transparency"!

What happens today in Africa and Asia? Even, in parts of east and central Europe? A few reports from east Europe describe the reality. And, what's the reality in the dreamful US?

An AP report by Mike Schneider in early-April, 2014 headlined "In Disney's shadow, homeless families struggle" tells: In the shadow of Disney, homeless families struggle, turn to mom-and-pop hotels as shelter.

The report refers to Theresa Muller sharing her motel room with her boyfriend, father and three children in Kissimmee, Fla Muller and her family have been. Their combined salaries were not enough to rent an apartment, so their option was hopping among cheap motel rooms along US 192.

The report adds:
'"What's hard for us isn't paying the bills', Candice Johnson, 24, said. 'It's just trying to get our feet in the door' with the combined expense of application fees, security deposits and first month's rent needed for a place of their own.
"The Johnsons are among a growing number of families living in hotels in this Florida tourist corridor because they can't afford anything else and because their county has no shelters for the estimated 1,216 homeless households with children."

This is not a single description of dreams propagated and then deceived. A visit to Bangladesh slums or study reports on the issue or the People's Report on Bangladesh Environment describes the stories. Reports on Bihar or Mumbai slums or from areas housing the working people in Thailand capital city are the same.

The economies have "everything": dreams, opportunities, freedom, dreams to dream, opportunities to pursue, freedom to access, houses and cars to buy, healthcare to purchase, an "absolute" freedom to procure, but the money required to buy/purchase/procure these.

Maureen Anderson's book describes:
"Historical records, gravestones and memorials show us the appalling number of deaths of young children in the pits. There are records of parents begging officials to employ their children, sometimes even adding a year or two to their correct age. These children, sometimes as young as four or five, would sit or crouch in almost complete darkness for anything up to sixteen hours a day opening and shutting the trap doors that controlled the ventilation. This resulted in lasting deformities such as crooked backs or bendy legs. Often they would be carried to the pits still asleep on the backs of their fathers and taken home again in the same manner. The coal-mine owners preferred to employ children as they were cheaper. ... Little wonder that there are instances of children falling asleep at their posts and neglecting their door causing a build up of gas and ultimately an explosion."

Marx has similar stories citing reports by/to surgeons/commissioners; stories from Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and other places; stories of labor aged 18, under-10, 8 and 5 years; stories that say: "Last year six out of nineteen girls were away from ill-health at one time from over-work. I have to howl at them to keep them awake.", "I have seen when children could none of them keep their eyes open for the work;", "I used to cry with sore feet every night last winter.", "That boy of mine ... when he was 7 years old I used to carry him on my back to and fro through the snow, and he used to have 16 hours a day ... I have often knelt down to feed him as he stood by the machine, for he could not leave it or stop.", "We ... work on, with no stoppage for meals,". The story is much longer.

And, the story has not turned old in parts of the globe.

A visit to Dhaka's cottage industry, fondly termed "small enterprise" at Dayaganj, Dhoopkhola, Lal Mohan Saha Street, Tipu Sultan Road, Begumganj, Hazaribag, Islambag, Keraniganj recreates the same show of children working for hours and hours in small rooms. Their work position is sitting on floor by bending legs. Ventilation in the room they work is virtually absent. A few work spaces are 5ft-7ft by 3ft-4ft. They prepare industrial goods, work with tools with sharp edges, handle heavier material, heavier than their total body weight. What about the children working as assistant to the three-wheeler drivers in Dhaka? For how many hours they work? What hazards and risks they encounter every working-moment?

This is the story of almost all mines and places of work and living of the labor, of almost all labor and child labor in Africa, in South America, in Asia, and in other lands of so-called dream and plenty. This is the story of all places, where labor is exploited. This is the story of brutality for profit, of exploitation for profit. This is the story of Asian and African ghettos of the black and, of the black, brown and white neo-sahibs, belonging, broadly, to the same class: exploiters.

But, the gutted Karachi and Lahore labor, the Cambodia garments and the South Africa mine labor, the 18th century English colliery labor are not that "fortunate" like the labor in Bangladesh. They didn't find any senator, any knight, any laureate, any valuable op-ed space in any famous newspaper, any hearing by any arrangement of any legislative assembly of any powerful economy coming together "for" the labor.

It's a "mystery". Or, it's not a "mystery". All related parties know the reality behind the "mystery" and the non-"mystery". It's safeguarding of profit, profitability, source of profit.

Sure, capital had and has no intention to kill labor, even if labor is dirt cheap as without labor, capital's enemy, it can't survive and expand.

But, anyway, with the "innocence" of a "child", it made a "minor mischief, and a number of poor toilers were pressed to death or turned to ash or maimed. Now, guardians of interests turn alert.
There is a simple "geography", a movement of crossing frontiers. The "geography" is driven by economy.
"The [garments] industry's centre of gravity", writes The Economist, "is moving south. Labour costs in China, once the preferred location for clothes production, are rising. This pushes low-skill manufacturing jobs into India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam and, in particular, Bangladesh, where clothes now make up 75% of exports." (Dec. 6, 2012, "A 'distinctly South Asian' tragedy")

A picture of reality is presented by The Economist : "It is a grimly familiar story : crowded production lines, an electrical short-circuit, flammable chemicals, faulty fire extinguishers, stairways blocked by piles of clothes, exits barred, workers—mostly female—trapped, asphyxiated, burned, or forced to jump to their deaths." (ibid.)
"China", as McKinsey and Company described the garments industry in its case study, Bangladesh's ready-made garments landscape : The challenge of growth (November, 2011), "is starting to lose its attractiveness in this realm". Bangladesh is the "next hot spot" as "the sourcing caravan is moving on to" this place. "[T]he light is starting to shine ever brighter on Bangladesh." (ibid.)

It's not a recent story. "For decades, European and US apparel buyers were benefiting from continually decreasing purchasing prices by moving their sourcing activities to low-cost countries in the Far East and by cutting out the 'middle man.'" (ibid.)

Profitability of buyers, the case study said, is "squeezing". There is "a decline in gross margins", and "a general environment of insecurity among buyers."

So, the spatial move as profitability can't be allowed to get squeezed.

A push to or a pull into lands of cheaper labor, a guarantee to maximize profit, creates "concern" for labor in Bangladesh. It's also an old story.

Bargaining and tool for increasing market share is part of the "concern". It's also related to profit.

"Concern" for Bangladesh labor thus enters the stage. But shall any "concerned-heart" make a comparison between garments advertisement expenses and planned labor compensation amount? Shall any "kind-heart" propose a plan to sharing of profit between bulk buyers, retail chains and labor? Shall any capital-friendly trade union leader go for making labor aware of the source of profit? Shall there be initiative to politicize labor so that they turn aware of the politics with labor and profit? Answers to all the questions are a single No.

Now it, the expressed concern for labor, is also a part of geopolitics and a tool for putting pressure, sending tough message, coercion and intervention.

Global capital likes to forget or bury some facts of life although it is concerned with the Bangladesh garments labor: Blood stained is the soil of Afghanistan, blood stained is the sands of Iraq, blood stained are the faces of Pakistan children felled by drone attacks, blood stained is Syria countering an armed intervention that has pushed thousands of Syrian refugee children to a harsh-uprooted-uncertain life, blood stained was Yugoslavia shattered by NATO bombings for more than two months, blood stained are at least a few diamonds, the blood diamonds from black Africa being bloodied by MNCs, despite "fair" mining initiative by an international financial organization, blood stained is the tea, and blood stained are many products that come out round the clock from innumerable sweatshops in many parts of the world—multi-billion dollar toy or electronic equipment or glue or sandpaper or automobile parts or some other smaller but essential product.

Burying the blood stained facts is profitable as the bleedings were made for a higher profit with eyes towards the future. And, it was made by global capital, which is "concerned" with Bangladesh garments labor. Both, bleeding a number of countries and standing for the dead and wounded in another country is also profitable for global capital.

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 47, Jun 1 - 7, 2014