MADE IN BANGLADESH: Export Powerhouse Feels Pangs of Labor Strife (New York Times)
“Bangladesh’s manufacturing formula depends on its having the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month. During the past two years, as workers have seen their meager earnings eroded by double-digit inflation, protests and violent clashes with the police have become increasingly common.
“In response, Bangladeshi leaders have deployed the security tools of the state to keep factories humming. A high-level government committee monitors the garment sector and includes ranking officers from the military, the police and intelligence agencies. A new special police force patrols many industrial areas. Domestic intelligence agencies keep an eye on some labor organizers. One organizer who had been closely watched, Aminul Islam, was found tortured and killed in April in a case that is unsolved. [...]
“Bangladesh’s Home Ministry, in a written response to questions, said the government does not favor factory owners over workers but acts as a ‘referee/umpire’ while maintaining an ‘investment friendly’ environment for foreign and domestic investors.
Yet Ms. Hasina’s government has resisted expanding labor rights in a country where the owners of about 5,000 garment factories wield enormous influence. Factory owners are major political donors and have moved into news media, buying newspapers and television stations. In Parliament, roughly two-thirds of the members belong to the country’s three biggest business associations. At least 30 factory owners or their family members hold seats in Parliament, about 10 percent of the total. [...]
“At the Rosita factory, workers elected a 15-member association last December[...]. In January, a female employee complained that a Bangladeshi middle manager was pressuring her to have sex with one of the Chinese bosses. Enraged, workers demanded that the management address her complaint as well as the discrepancies over annual raises and earned leave. Six weeks of confrontation and chaos followed. In February, equipment in the Rosita factory was damaged during a rampage. Nearly 300 workers were accused of vandalism and fired, with their names posted on a blacklist at the gate of the Ishwardi zone. [...]
“[O]n March 20, workers discovered that managers had cut the piece rate, a type of production bonus, meaning a loss of wages. Another standoff ensued as managers closed the factories. But when workers returned March 25, the wage cut had not been fully restored.
“Hundreds of workers gathered outside the front door of the factory in an impromptu sit-down strike. Eight workers, interviewed in June, said all the managers had left the factories. A small contingent of police officers soon arrived and ordered everyone back to work. A seamstress said a police officer knocked her to the ground, beating her unconscious with a stick and shredding her clothes. ‘I kept asking them to stop,’ said the seamstress, who asked not to be identified, fearing reprisals. ‘But even after I fell to the ground, they kept beating me and pulled my hair.’
“Workers began throwing stones and chanting slogans against the police, who fled. Hours later, after officials in Dhaka were notified, officers from the Rapid Action Battalion as well as surrounding police stations arrived. Officer Hossein, the police supervisor, denied that the police were aggressors, saying officers were told that foreign managers were trapped inside the factories and that angry workers were vandalizing equipment. [...]
“Cellphone videos show police officers firing rubber bullets and pummeling workers with cane poles. ‘They treated workers as if they were not human beings,’ one worker said. [...]
“Many of the workers involved in the March 25 clash are back on the job, despite their anger over how they have been treated. The seamstress who was knocked unconscious, her clothes shredded, said she had little choice, since she was the family’s sole breadwinner. ‘I am helpless,’ she said. ‘We have to get food.’”