A review of Labor Unions and Labor Movements in the Readymade Garment Industry in Bangladesh in the Era of Globalization (1980-2009), by Zia Rahman.
In May 2006, two different unregistered radical labor groups organized among garment factory workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The labor front of the Communist Party of Bangladesh organized workers in Savar around 11 demands that included one day off per week and fair overtime payments. Around the same time, in Gazipur, the Bangladesh Garment Workers Union Forum helped workers organize to demand their unpaid wages. As the Gazipur workers protested, police shot dead one of their ranks. The mass militancy that followed was spontaneous and far outstripped the initial organizing efforts of the two radical unions. It spread across Dhaka, in part, via cell phones and included extensive property damage such as damage to two million dollars worth of clothing and sixteen factories.
Petrified owners for the first time took to sit-ins and other street actions to protect their factories. But the strike’s successes were limited. The owners’ association and the oldest and most conservative alliance of garment worker unions ended the strike by agreeing to a new minimum wage of 1662 taka (~25 US dollars). This was the first increase since 1994 but significantly less than the 3000 taka (~45 US dollars) that the workers demanded. The two unregistered radical unions that initiated the protests refused to sign the resulting agreement.
Zia Rahman’s 2012 thesis places this troubling narrative of the recent past in the context of two hundred years of labor developments in Bangladesh. After two introductory chapters about research questions and methods, the third chapter of Rahman’s thesis outlines the history of labor in Bangladesh’s colonial, Pakistani, and independent periods. Rahman’s narrative emphasizes the politicization of unions as a long-term cause of the labor movement’s present weakness.
The fourth chapter traces in more detail the emergence of the garment industry in the early 1980s. Protectionist quotas in the United States and Europe drove European, American, and East Asian garment capital to new sites of production outside of East Asia that could offer similarly low wages. The first joint venture readymade garment factory in Bangladesh opened in 1979. Successive military regimes under Ziaur Rahman and H.M Ershad pursued policies of denationalization and export-oriented industrialization. They treated unions as political institutions.
Now the industry is the highest export earner in the country. A very large number of readymade garment firms, at least 70%, are subcontractors dependent on foreign buyers. The dependence of the economy on a single industry gives added strength to owners’ claims that the costs of improving working standards and wages will drive global capital to other countries.
Zia Rahman conducted close to fifty interviews with garment factory workers, managers, owners, and labor leaders during his 2007 fieldwork, described in his fifth chapter. Workers faced a litany of hardships: low wages, unsafe working conditions, forced overtime, and management sexual assault on the largely female workforce.
Notably, Rahman found that working conditions inside of special Export Processing Zones were relatively better. This was due to the more co-operative mindset of owners and managers and the greater resources allocated to enforcement. In the 2006 action, EPZ workers gained the right to organize, and compliance with the new minimum wage law has been much better than in non-EPZ factories. Only about 200,000 of Bangladesh’s 2.5 million garment factory workers work in these special zones, and they too face management sexual harassment and low wages.
Rahman also studied the practices and mindsets of factory managers, owners, and state officials. Most owners do not follow labor laws and show little interest in self-regulation. Some even openly admitted to Rahman that they did not comply. Factory owners believe that workers would earn even less in the informal sector than they do in the factories. Rahman identifies this belief as a key component of owners’ traditional attitudes toward workers’ rights.
Laws on the books are adequate but unenforced with criminal consequences. The Bangladeshi state has managed to provide only sixty-three inspectors and four vehicles for 22,000 factories, including the 4,000 garment factories that lie outside the special Export Processing Zones.
The penultimate chapter of Rahman’s dissertation could stand on its own as a significant policy document and historical narrative. The chapter consists of five parts. The first of these examines the development of labor actions among garment workers in the 1980s and dates the beginning of the organized labor movement to the Saraka Garments Fire in 1990. The second part describes the backgrounds and practices of labor leaders. The third part provides an extremely useful mapping of the organization of labor unions in the readymade garments industry. The fourth part is a detailed study of the May 2006 movement. In the final part, Rahman further assesses the “absence of resistance” among garment workers. There are both external and internal factors. Rahman sums up the external scenario this way: “… a complicated historical process … relegated progressive trade unionism to the margins of Bangladeshi society at the time that the RMG [readymade garment] industry was being established” (p. 228).
Internal reasons include the weak position of workers vis-à-vis owners especially workers’ limited resources, education, and low rights consciousness. Disunity among the various federations and alliances is compounded by competition for resources from local and international NGOs and Bangladeshi political parties. Unions dependent on external aid are less likely to take radical actions on behalf of their membership. Because they refuse such external support, the more radical unions have the will to act but lack the resources.
External institutional support and resources, especially “capacity training and awareness education” among workers, are critical to the labor movement’s prospects (p. 251). Rahman found that efforts like the AFL-CIO funded Solidarity Center have made substantial contributions to the movement by building the capacity of important leaders from the rank-and-file. But, their agendas are seen to be driven by the protectionist interests of US garment industry. The most effective civil society support will come from domestic NGOs or no strings attached international aid.
Bangladesh’s present has been shaped by colonialism, militarism, and neocolonialism. Rahman argues that understanding labor in this hybrid context requires multiple theoretical frameworks. The history of the labor movement is best explained by classical Marxism in which Rahman includes the works of Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci. According to Rahman, the utility of Marxism “should not be of any surprise since the social relations of garment manufacturing in Bangladesh between 1980 and 2009 are not that different from the social relations that were directly observed by the classical Marxist writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (pp. 247-248). World Systems Theory generally and Ronaldo Munck’s labor and globalization thesis in particular help explain hypermobility of capital, colonial histories, and new forms of work under neoliberal capital.
This is an important sociological study of the internal and external mechanisms of the workers’ movement in the garment industry in Bangladesh. It provides the preliminary outlines of a Bangladeshi labor history and it maps the present landscape of the labor movement in the garment industry at many levels. Furthermore, makes substantial interventions in sociological theory by placing Bangladesh at the heart of the history and present of neoliberal capital. It will interest historians, sociologists, policy researchers and all those interested in understanding the conditions of labor in Bangladesh.