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The Politics of Flexible Labour

Analyses of the experiences of factories date back to the 1990s, when factories and women workers were novel. Since then several cohorts of women and girls have spent time working in a garments factory and it is just one of the work options available (although still the single biggest sector). Factory work has almost certainly lost its shine. Current generations of RMG workers came of age in an era when the downsides of globalization were inescapable: rock- bottom wages failed to meet skyrocketing basic costs of living; workers subsisted on potatoes, sleeping in shifts because slum rentals are so small that all renters cannot lie down at once.[1] They are at the mercy of their low level in the global value chain, and neither employers, nor garment buyers, nor the fast fashion-wearing Western consumer have an interest in raising wages. Employer resistance to organized labour has survived even the intense global and domestic pressure on the sector after Rana Plaza (Ganguly 2015; Brown

2015) and the loss of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade privileges with the US, despite a concerted effort at corporatism involving business, government, labour, and civil society (CPD 2014); also (ILO 2014b).

Workers were never 'heavily nurtured' like the factory owners, but nor was the state always actively aligned against them (Ahmed etal. 2014). So what claims can and does organized labour effectively make in globalizing times? A conclusive test of the idea that the Bangladesh state is grounded in responsibility to protect against subsistence crisis would be how it has responded to the globalized volatilities facing its essential industrial workforce. The two main parties, the Awami League and the BNP, broadly shared ideological principles and policy practice since the 1990s, aligning the elite consensus along pro-owner lines. That there is no important partisan difference on the issue of worker rights is clear from the responses to industrial action in the past decade. Starting in 2005, major clashes over workers' rights abuses—unpaid wages and benefits, sackings and factory closures, use of violence against workers—were staged in and around Dhaka and the industrial heartland of Ashulia (IGS 2006). Real wages declined in light of high inflation, in particular in the basic costs of living, rent and food being primary concerns. Food price spikes were matched by peaks in violent episodes in factories, and struggles over wages took on a moral economy cast, as workers loudly proclaimed that they could not eat on their wages (Hossain and Jahan 2014). None of this attracted significant party political attention, let alone competition.

But there are shades of party political difference regarding the incorporation of labour that date back to the independence struggle. The Awami League has historically been aligned with mass and popular movements, in contrast to the BNP's affinity to business, industry and the military; it has been the Awami League government from 2009 that has presided over raising minimum wage levels, however imperfectly, and moved its highly politicized criminal justice system to act after the global spectacle of Rana Plaza, signalling the end of impunity for industrial crimes. In the present period of rule since 2009, the Awami League is emerging as the more corporatist of the two parties, and gives clear indications of taking account of both owners' and workers' interests, as well as a view to the strategic nation importance of the sector as a whole.

  • [1] This is what I observed and was told by garments workers in Chittagong and Ashulia, justoutside Dhaka, in 2013. See Hossain and Jahan (2014) on the grievances of garments workersduring the global food, fuel, and financial crises of 2008-11.
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