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Material Interdependence

In Elite Perceptions of Poverty in Bangladesh (2005) I argued that poverty was not an urgent concern for the Bangladesh elite because—unlike the elites of now- developed countries at similar stages of economic development—they were insulated against its adverse impacts (Swaan etal. 2000). There were three reasons for this:

  • 1. urban crime was a concern, but not one closely associated with poverty;
  • 2. epidemic health threats were not a worry, because of modern medicine and the greater threat from non-communicable diseases;
  • 3. the quality of the population, a significant concern for early twentieth- century elites in industrialized countries, did not adversely affect the interests of the Bangladeshi elite: the main industries relied on cheap and plentiful rather than productive labour. Garments factory owners spoke of workers in tones of benevolent patronage, not as employers with stakes in their productivity (see also Kabeer 2002).

The first two points remain valid, but in respect of the third, the situation has changed. Export manufacturing and labour services were already vital for economic growth and foreign exchange when I was researching elite perceptions in the late 1990s, but the elite view of the masses did not then conceive of the relationship as one of self-interest (enlightened or otherwise) (Hossain 2005). It is now the case that the collective material interests of that group (and the country as whole) are directly affected by the behaviour and productivity of workers in labour-intensive sectors. Given that demand for the reserve army of Bangladeshi women export workers is growing, the 'man'power industry is insulated against pressure for welfare standards and skills in the short term. But in the RMG sector, industrialists have been facing acute pressures to raise wages and improve working conditions and standards because of periodic labour unrest since 2005. It is relevant that this unrest peaked in the period 2008-11, a period of global food and financial crises, highlighting again the exposure of the Bangladeshi economy and livelihoods to global volatilities. The chief impact of ongoing industrial unrest has been a trebling of the minimum wage rate in less than five years; by December 2013, it was BDT 5,300 (USD 68). Despite wage gains, Bangladeshi RMG workers are the lowest-paid in the world (Moazzem and Raz 2014).[1] Since the 2012 Tazreen factory fire in which 112 workers died and the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed 1,134 workers, worker safety and working conditions have been under the glare of the international media: the US withdrawal of trade privileges under the Generalised System of Preference (GSP) in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster highlights how directly workers are increasingly able to materially affect the interests of employers (USTR 2015; Kibria et al. 2014).

This interdependence is not necessarily acknowledged. Basic labour rights abuses are recognized as a problem. But labour unrest is viewed with suspicion, as either criminal extortion or as a conspiracy to sabotage the successful Bangladeshi industry (to persuade garments buyers to move to India, etc.). Workers' grievances are seen as stirred up by outside troublemakers rather than as genuine problems, and the response is policing and blocking labour organizations through which they might negotiate. Alongside rises in the minimum wage and (since Rana Plaza and the withdrawal of the GSP) stronger emphasis on compliance with safety regulations, a key shift in industrial relations has been the Industrial Police force set up in 2010, whose mission is to 'ensure safety and security of industries. To uphold the rule of law for the owners & workers. To take necessary measures to prevent any labour unrest in the industrial area'.[2] Workers' rights are mentioned in this mission, but the central purpose is '[t]o increase the production as well as to develop our national economy for better future of Bangladesh'.

A sign of a functional interdependency between the classes would be recognition that upward pressure on wages entails the need for higher productivity, and that in turn requires investments in the quality of labour. The trade journal set up by the BGMEA, the owners' association, started just after Rana Plaza, indicates a focus on investing in training and upgrading, particularly with regard to safety, and on building 'brand Bangladesh', presumably to repair damage to the international image of the sector after Rana Plaza and the Tazreen fire. Research on the connections between the RMG sector and women's empowerment in Bangladesh is also showcased. There are stories about charitable and philanthropic efforts, including work with people with disabilities. But given the emphasis in the policy research on the need for higher productivity, it seems striking that the industry leadership does not appear to connect issues of worker productivity to broader public policies influencing worker wellbeing. Neither in the trade journal nor in other forums is there evidence that employers of millions of workers consider their housing, public health, education, safety, or social protection to be matters of common interest. When it comes to lobbying government on behalf of the sector, the emphasis remains on tax breaks and subsidies. Marking its second anniversary, the editorial notes that:

We have always been very quick to write about issues that nag the RMG industry. For example, Budget 2015-16 FY. Though the budget for 2015-16 FY does have a number of business-friendly steps, some proposals have raised concern in the RMG sector. Among them the proposal for increasing source tax to 1 percent from 0.3 percent was instantly written about in our magazine. We delineated the impacts of such decision on the RMG sector. The government later reduced the source tax to 0.6 percent. (BGMEA 2015, 6)[3]

The contemporary BGMEA discourse suggests that while the industrial elite has real reasons to be concerned about the wellbeing of workers and about public investment that might enhance the quality of the workforce, it remains loyal to an old model of benevolent patron-employers, and does not view itself as a business elite whose relationship with its workers is informed by enlightened self-interest.

  • [1] High inflation over the 2000s probably means RMG workers have not actually achieved realwage rises (Shibli 2014). Wages are still far below the BDT 8,200 calculated in 2014 as theappropriate level taking into account ILO minimum wage-setting principles (Moazzem and Raz2014). Workers' organizations are continuing the struggle.
  • [2] From the website of the Industrial Police, (accessed 8 October 2015).
  • [3] Examples here are from the second anniversary, July-August 2015 issue of the BGMEA'sEnglish language bimonthly trade journal, The Apparel Story. (accessed 8 October 2015).
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