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Bangladeshi garment workers protest factory fire deaths

Published Dec 23, 2010 10:53 PM

From 2006 to 2009, 414 garment workers in Bangladesh died in 213 factory fires.

A fire on Dec. 14 at Ha-Meem Group’s That’s It Sports Wear factory in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhakar, Bangladesh’s capital, killed 29 workers. Many jumped, trying to avoid the flames. More than 100 were injured. The fire started on the ninth floor of the 11-story building where the company employs thousands of workers. Witnesses reported that at least two emergency exit doors and a stairway gate were locked.

Tragedy struck again on Dec. 18 when the factory reopened. The eighth floor collapsed, injuring more than 25 workers. Then factory workers, many still in shock from having seen co-workers leap to their deaths, staged a protest inside the building and barricaded the Dhakar-Tangail highway. (Daily Star Bangladesh)

It is reprehensible that the factory was reopened so soon, after the fire had compromised the integrity of several top floors. That the fire occurred because of an electrical short circuit makes it criminal.

Ha-Meem supplies clothing to transnational corporations, such as the Gap and JCPenney. The ready-made garment industry, which also supplies Wal-Mart, H&M and other major U.S. and European brands and department stores, is the largest industry in the country and the third largest clothing producer in the world. It brought in $12.7 billion in 2009, 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and it makes up 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports.

Bangladesh’s garment industry employs 3 million workers in more than 4,500 factories throughout the country. Seventy percent of the workers are women. (Workers World, Aug. 29)

The year 2010 has seen great unrest in this industry. In July tens of thousands of workers demonstrated. Police attacked the demonstrations and arrested 20 labor leaders.

On Dec. 12 protesters at large, militant demonstrations in Gazipur, outside of Dhaka, barricaded streets and rebelled. Police killed four workers.

The demonstrations have been over the struggle for a living wage. A government-appointed wage board approved a wage increase to only 3,000 taka ($43) per month, less than $2 per day. Workers were demanding 5,000 taka ($72) per month. Before the raise, there had not been an increase in garment workers’ wages since 2006.

The paltry increase to 3,000 taka comes at a time of rising food prices in Bangladesh and across the globe, especially in the Third World. In rural areas food inflation has been more than 9 percent, in a country where more than 40 percent of the people live on less than $1 per day and where most people spend 70 percent of their income on food.

Even though the government board approved the wage increase to 3,000 taka, many factories still pay the old wage of 1665 taka ($24) per month. The demonstrations in Gazipur were spurred not only by the demand for a higher wage but also by the factory owners’ refusal to submit to the new wage structure.

According to the Bangladesh Daily Star, not only have the garment manufacturers not heeded the new wage law, but they rarely pay workers within seven working days of the wage period, in violation of the Labor Act 2006. (Dec. 16) They also routinely ignore safety, security and other regulations.

It would be entirely too simple to blame the conditions of Bangladeshi workers solely on the country’s ruling class. This would be ignoring the reality of imperialist globalization. Companies and financial institutions in the imperialist world dictate working conditions in the Third World.

Wal-Mart, for instance, forces those in its global supply chain to cut costs and rewards those who can be the most cutthroat and give Wal-Mart the lowest price for merchandise. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer; its owners, the Walton family, have a combined wealth of more than $90 billion.

Notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart keeps its prices low because it pays its workers so little, not just the 2 million who work in its stores, but the tens of thousands who are super-exploited and work under brutal, unsafe conditions mostly in the Third World.