Bangladeshi female workers work at a garment factory in Gazipur on the outskirts of Dhaka on February 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mehedi Hasan/NurPhoto
Bangladeshi women work at a garment factory in Gazipur on the outskirts of Dhaka on February 17, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mehedi Hasan / NurPhoto

“When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right.”Victor Hugo (French author, 1802-1885)

Bangladesh is the second-largest apparel producer in the world, after China. The country is set to lose about US$6 billion in export revenues this fiscal year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is because more and more retailers and brands globally have been canceling orders. 

Factories have closed, many without any prior warning to their employees and many without paying them. This has erupted into protests by thousands of garment workers, ignoring social-distancing rules and national lockdowns in order to demand their wages during the crisis. 

Police have talked to some factory owners who have promised to make payments, but the chaotic and haphazard system, or lack of one, is what is striking. For an economy that is heavily dependent on its garment manufacturing and export industry, it is astonishing that the driving force of that industry, its workers, have barely any recourse in times of crisis, a fact we have regrettably witnessed time and time again. 

According to Textile Today, RMG (ready-made garments) exports for the 2019 fiscal year amounted to $34.13 billion, an 11.49% rise from the previous year. About a year ago, garment-factory workers had to protest, risking imprisonment or even death as law-enforcement officers resorted to violence.

The result was a government-mandated increase of the minimum monthly wage to 8,000 taka ($94). Surprisingly, Dhaka is one of the most expensive cities in South Asia, with an exponentially rising cost of living, thus rendering the salaries of garment workers barely livable. And that was before a pandemic hit the world. 

Last month, the government launched a $558 million stimulus package to help companies in the crucial garments sector to pay their staff during the pandemic, but manufacturers claim this amount was insufficient.

It is puzzling that the Bangladeshi government would launch a stimulus program putting money in the hands of the garment manufacturers and not directly in the workers’. Does it not seem obvious that in a system with no checks and balances over the corporate garment sector, with no system in place to know exactly how many workers there are in each factory, discrepancies could occur? 

Furthermore, knowing that more often than not, garment-factory owners and management do not prioritize the well-being of their workers, it is curious that the government would make such a decision. In fact, this stimulus seems to mirror that of the United States, where the government has rolled out a $2.2 trillion package prioritizing corporations much more than its citizens. 

Such ploys make governments look and feel good, while simultaneously keeping the corporate sector happy. Those who suffer are the 99%, who in Bangladesh’s case are the garment workers and who obviously would not be risking their lives to protest in spite of social-distancing rules and lockdowns had their survival not depended on their wages.

The vast majority of them survive hand to mouth, support several family members and do not have health insurance. Could decency and a code of ethics be expected from the owners and managers of the factories? In most cases, probably not.

Having said that, what hindered Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a woman, from rolling out direct-help stimulus plans for the survival of the one group of society, also mostly women, from which the Bangladeshi economy profits the most? This is an obvious rhetorical question for anyone who knows what an elitist autocracy Bangladesh has evolved into in the last 12 years since Sheikh Hasina latched on to power, unelected nonetheless.  

Wage protection and health care for garment-factory workers should be mandated by the state, but in such a system of corruption and anarchy, that is idealistic. 

The ruling Awami League enjoys free rein today as it has done for years now. But if Victor Hugo’s quote at the top of this article has any truth to it, this is certainly not the last protest we will be witnessing in Bangladesh. It’s a grave error for Bangladesh to bite the hand that feeds it. 

Sabria Chowdhury Balland

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the U.S. and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party overseas (Democrats Abroad). She is the Editor-in-Chief of Aequitas Review. She is also the Vice President & Treasurer of The Coalition for Human Rights & Democracy in Bangladesh based in the U.S.