Striking garment workers in Bangladesh are continuing their struggle for a decent minimum wage, despite government pleas for them to accept a poor deal from employers.
Paramilitary police fought pitched battles with workers in the capital, Dhaka, after bosses agreed to increase minimum wages from £18 to just £28 a month.
This is far short of the £46 that workers’ organisations were demanding, and will not take effect until November.
Most estimates say that a family of five can only survive in Dhaka if they have an income of £87 a month.
After months of struggle the government claimed that it supported the workers’ demands, describing the present level of wages as “inhuman”.
Yet as soon as the employers made their derisory offer, ministers told workers that they should accept it.
The vast majority of workers ignored their pleas and instead burst into spontaneous protest.
Thousands are taking part in sit-in strikes and mass stayaways. Others are blocking highways, burning tyres and battling police.
The centres of protests are the Tejgaon industrial area in the heart of Dhaka, and the Ashulia and Narayanganj areas on the city’s outskirts.
But the fight is now spreading to the port of Chittagong, Bangladesh's second city, and to many other industrial areas.
Police and thugs hired by the bosses have attacked the strikers with batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and mass arrests—but resistance continues.
They have arrested a number of important trade union leaders and clandestine members of leftist parties that have taken an active part in violent protest in Tejgaon.
Intelligence agencies arrested six women activists from a left trade union on Tuesday of this week.
This has infuriated many strikers who are now planning action to defend their leaders.
Detainees have been handed over to the Rapid Action Battalion—an “elite” police force infamous for illegitimate killings.
In the past, the government and the employers successfully used divide and rule tactics to put a stop to such struggles.
This was true of the deal that ended the strikes of 2006, when the minimum wage was increased to its current farcical level.
But this time, though bosses were able to divide some workers’ organisations, they could not divide the workers themselves.
Instead, the workers have not allowed individual factories to be played-off against each other.
The government and employers consider the workers’ movement here a conspiracy by China and India to destroy the garment sector in Bangladesh.
But despite the stream of threats we can already see some significant developments as this wave of struggle continues—most importantly, the emergence of a new rank and file leadership among workers.
Until recently, garment workers’ struggles were largely spontaneous and organised by clandestine leaders. These methods are fast being replaced by a more coordinated struggle and leadership.
The left, by engaging in long-term work and solidarity, has been able to play an important role in this process.
Some of the most downtrodden and oppressed workers in the world are discovering that they have enough power to threaten the local bosses, their government and multinational firms.
Now let them use it!
Mushtuq Husain is the president of the Centre for Social Praxis, Bangladesh