Workers Fight Back

Of Garments and Strawberry

Farooque Chowdhury

Hunger strike and seizure of machines by garments workers in and near Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, during the last phase of July 2014 were part of Bangladesh labor action that is moving unabated through experiences of gains and failures. In distant Greece, labor from Bangladesh witnessed a court verdict that further bloodied already bloody strawberries. The incidents once again confirmed the dominating reality: dominance of capital. The incidents, on the opposite, also showed an emerging reality: labor's increasing aggressive action.

Eid, Moslems' holy festival after a month of fasting and practicing restrains on aspects of life, was approaching. That was July. All salaried employees and wage laborers usually get festival bonus. It's the rule, practice and tradition. The bonus provides a small opportunity to mend torn down life of the hard-pressed labor and low-salaried employees though bonus is yet to be recognized as a deferred wage in labor-capital conflict.

But alas! Workers in a garments factory were not going to have it. Their salaries for the months of June were not paid. Uncertain was the festival bonus. The aggrieved workers had to resort to action: demonstration. And, then, they had to resort to strike. The owner and his management cadres fled away. A few accounts officials were gheraoed, kept seized, for five days that led to a "resolution": payment of all unpaid salaries and festival bonus by July 21, 2014. It was a written commitment from the factory management. The seizure was witndrawn.

The owner-committed time limit for payment of salary and bonus passed. Eid approached nearer. Darkness of uncertainty was coming closer to the workers. They frantically tried to contact the owner. But, to no avail! He was beyond reach.

The desperate situation and violation of commitment led workers to seize a part of machineries of the factory. They successfully found a buyer also. The machines were sold away. A sum of money came in. It was more than Taka, the Bangladesh currency, 1.7 million. [$l=Tk. more than 78] The sale proceed was distributed among the workers by the workers. The money distributed was treated as salary for the month of June. A police official confirmed the sale of machineries by the workers. [bdnews24. com (Baanglaa version), July 27, 2014, "Workers sale factory machinery to realize unpaid salaries"; name of the factory: Trade Mark Fashion Limited; place of occurrence: Gazipur, a few kilometers from Dhaka; period of occurrence: Last week of July] It was a labor action without adventurism that gave no scope for highhanded interference. And, it was an exposure, and a lesson, and an experience.

About 1,500 workers of five garments factories in Dhaka resorted to protests and about three hundred of them went on a hunger strike to realize their unpaid salaries for the months of May and June and festival bonus. The hunger strike continued for days, and it was during the Eid festival while millions of citizens were celebrating the festival and the entire country was in a festive mood. Scores of the workers were sent to hospital as they collapsed from hunger strike. The workers returned to the factory, place of the hunger strike, and joined their striking colleagues after recovering from hospital. Progressive Doctors' Forum, an association of physicians connected to the Communist Party of Bangladesh, extended medical care to the striking workers.

Commitments for the payment of salaries and bonus were made thrice on behalf of the owners. But all the commitments remained unfulfilled. As the festival neared the workers began protest that later led them to resort to hunger strike. Initially, there was none to unknot the problem of non-payment. Later, the garments manufacturers' association sought another week for a partial payment.

It was reported that the factories, owned by Tuba Group, produced garments amounting to Tk. 260 million during the recently concluded World Cup Football.

It should be mentioned that in 2012, Tazreen Fashions, a factory owned by the same company, burned down that killed hundreds of workers. The owner, Delwar Hossain, is now in jail for negligence causing deaths.

The workers' series of protests for non-paymert of salaries was going on for a long time. One leader of the garments manufacturers said: "We're really sorry. They could not celebrate Eid and they're on a hunger strike." One of the garments manufacturers "urged the government to take charge of paying [the workers'] salaries at any cost." One of the striking workers asked: We are fined for delay in work. But, who shall be fined now for delay in payment of salaries? [, July 29, 30 and 31, 2014]

Thus it appears: The manufacturers are "sympathetic" to the workers as the workers had no Eid celebration but the manufacturers' association could "not" arrange money; the manufacturers now need government help; government should take charge for paying salary, not for making profit.

It's a "story" of trickery, and of indifference, and of cruelty, and of capitalizing workers' distress.

Entrepreneurs' organizations lobby for formulating policies favorable to them, influence national budget allocation, banking, financial, fiscal, export policies. But they can't influence one entrepreneur in paying salaries and bonus. Entrepreneurs make profit, take full of it. But they ask government to take responsibility whenever they face problem they create. It's the public that bears government expenses. So, it stands : "I make profit, you, the public, bear the cost."

On the jade end of July a Greek court in the western port city of Patras acquitted local farmers responsible for shooting 28 Bangladeshi strawberry pickers. The magistrates, guardians of "justice", allowed two of the farmers including the owner of the farm who had also been accused of human trafficking, to walk free. Two others, accused of aggravated assault and for possessing illegal firearms, were handed prison sentences: 14 years and seven months to one, 8 and years and seven months to the other. But both were also freed pending appeal.

The Bangladeshis were shot at in April 2013 at a Peloponnese farm as they demanded six months of unpaid salary. It was the workers' "sin". Media investigations showed the migrant workers work in subhuman conditions without access to proper hygiene or basic sanitation. However, the farmers engaged senior criminal lawyers to defend them in the drama named Justice in Court.

In disbelief, scores of migrants, many sobbing, protested the verdict outside the court house. The verdict has sparked outrage in entire Greece. Politicians, unionists and anti-racist groups have condemned the verdict as a "black mark for justice" in a case that brought the spotlight on the migrant workers' appalling working and living conditions in Greece.

Moisis Karabeyidis, the victims’ lawyer, said after the ruling was delivered: "I feel shame as a Greek. This decision is an outrage and a disgrace. The court showed an appalling attitude toward the victims." Politicians standing for labor rights said the verdict set an unwelcome example for other employers to follow. "It sends the message that a foreign worker can die like a dog in the orchard," said Vassiliki Katrivanou, an MP with the main opposition radical-left Syriza party. "It leaves room for new victims by closing eyes to the brutal inhuman and racist character of the exploitation suffered by workers on the land," she said, pointing out that the ruling had been made on the World Day against Trafficking in Persons.

Anti-racism organizations denounced the judgment as scandalous, and said it raised questions about the impartiality of the Greek justice system. The organizations planned to step up protest action against the verdict. In a statement Petros Constantinou, coordinator of the Movement against Racism and the Fascist Threat, said: "We call upon unions and human rights movements to react against this unprecedented racist scandal. The hundreds of millions of profit made in the strawberry industry cannot come about by shooting laborers in strawberry fields."

It's an irony! The irony is of time. Greece, the country that organized the greatest game event on the planet, Olympic, with a lot of money a few years ago went down to the stage of the Third World poverty and desperation, experienced regime change without an armed intervention, bankers' dictation that the Third World experiences almost everyday. Sometimes, it appeared, Bangladesh, once despised as simply a humanitarian case, was in a better position compared to the state of the poor in Greece. A part of the sick European economy has to rely on migrant labor to make profit. Then, it shoots and maims migrant labor and fans far-right, Nazi forces. The economy is sick, but its power to influence judiciary and to assault labor is not weak.

The Bangladesh workers, still politically unorganized, are passing a particular phase. It will gradually evolve. A quote from Marx and Engels is worthy to refer here: "To begin with, the workers fight individually then the workers in a single factory make common cause; then the workers at one trade combine throughout a whole locality against the particular bourgeois who exploits them. Their attacks are leveled not only against bourgeois conditions of production, but also against the actual instruments of production...

At this stage the workers form a disunited mass, scattered throughout the country, and severed into fragments by mutual competition."
—The Manifesto

The Bangladesh labor will pass this phase, where NGO-driven labor mobilization, politicization of de-politicization, plays a role.

Vol. 47, No.9, Sep 7 - 13, 2014