03 May 2013

On This May Day In Bangladesh: Deaths Teach, Deaths Challenge

With red flags held high and grief stricken hearts thousands of workers in Bangladesh cities and towns and industrial areas march today, May Day.

Only days ago they came across deaths of hundreds of fellow garments workers in Savar, a Dhaka suburb. Their hearts weep. They recollect the fallen workers, known to many of them.

On May Day they raise demands, justified by rationality, but disapproved by irrationality, approved by conventions and laws, but disregarded in practice. They vow to continue their just struggle, a struggle for a decent, dignified life.

Only days ago, in Savar, they again saw the face of death. They saw irrational, abnormal deaths. Actually, they saw an act of human slaughter at mass scale. They saw their fragile life. They saw crying mothers and just-turned-widows and just-turned-orphan children.

They found them as fodder to a machine that just sucks them, squeezes them, wrenches them, makes them shapeless and lifeless. They felt anguished, angered, raged, ramped.

Some of them ventilated anger, sporadic and spontaneous. Some of them sat in silence. Some of them continued work in silence. Some of them continued carrying loads in silence. Some of them continued pushing loads in silence. Some of them continued obeying to machines in silence.

All of them are bereaved. All of them returned to their dust strewn shacks. All of them returned to mud covered slum-yards. All of them returned to windowless, dark, dingy rooms, if those are rooms. All of them returned to uncertainties. All of them returned with unanswered questions a brute reality produces.

They know the reality. It’s a reality of muscle straining 10-12-14-16 work-hours, 7-days-a-week and 30-days-a-month drudgery, low wages, inhuman working condition, absent safety measures, nil healthcare, ramshackle housing, near-null education, aught environmental and worker rights standards. It’s a reality of harassment and fear imposed with a force of perpetual uncertainty. It’s a reality shaped by market. It’s a reality of constant kicks by market’s cruel legs. It’s a reality of unawareness. It’s a reality of low trade union participation rate. It’s a reality of restraining labor rights. It’s a reality of corruption. It’s a reality of clientele and rent-seeking psychology. It’s a reality of lie-stuffed corrupt political connection.

Not only garments workers face the reality. Workers in construction sites, brick kilns, chemical plants, metal, foundry and glass works, cold storages, transport, processing, cement, leather, ship breaking industries also face the reality. Labor in agriculture faces the reality. All the poor face the reality. Middle class faces the reality.

For workers in informal sector, the reality is harder. For children, the reality is crueler; in cases, it’s similar to the early days of capitalism. For women, the reality is more than crueler with extra burden of ideas propagated to secure existing property relations.

Inferno in factories and caved in factory buildings bring deaths to garments workers. In their deaths, now-a-days they get sympathy from urban, educated middle class. Journalists, lawyers, housewives, teachers and many from other social strata and professions extended support to the Savar victims, the dead and the wounded. It was unprecedented. It’s a positive development in social-psychology.

At the same time, the victim workers found brave class-friends. Semi-literate mechanic forgoing his day’s earning joined rescue work for days. Day laborer joined the rescue operation. They brushed aside their day’s earning and concern for family’s meal. Students and youth donated blood for the Savar-victims. Students in batches worked as rescue workers. Fire brigade staff worked relentlessly. Tailor-petty shop owner-fruit vendor-labor from other trades-lower middle class individuals-youth, the people, heroically and selflessly carried on rescue work for long hours and for days in Savar although there was a lone pen that denounced the young generation at that time. And, there were a number of readers to praise the pen.

None was found to defend the social segment killing garments workers. Even those responsible for the incident could not defend them. They temporarily turned meek and effacing and docile. None dared to hurt people’s sentiment.

It was a temporary result of temporary mobilization of people. It was people’s conscience and love and unity and initiative. It’s well-known that within days “things” will go back to square one. But people experienced their collective power. What shall happen if this people turn politically aware and organized and develop leadership? Unknown future knows the answer.

The Savar-deaths have brought to notice the condition of garments workers. What about the child labor that also is compelled to move, sometimes all through their work-hour, and sometimes slowly and silently, along a path to graveyard? They move along that path not in a huge number at a time. But in total the toll the child labor pays is not insignificant.

Citing the 11th edition of the Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, an annual report by the US department of labor, Financial Express, a Dhaka daily, said: 81.5 percent of the total working children in Bangladesh are engaged in the worst form of child labor including agriculture and domestic services. About 16.2 percent children are engaged in manufacturing sectors, most of which are hazardous. (Nov. 10, 2012, “81.5pc engaged in worst form of child labor in Bangladesh”)

According to the report, the child labor is engaged for dismantling ships although they lack required physical strength. They are pushed in the production of salt, bricks, soap, matches, footwear, glass, cigarettes, steel furniture, leather and jute products. They are pressed into welding, carpentry, rickshaw pulling, automobile repair, poultry farming, drying fish, shrimp processing.

The report said: While producing these goods, often in small workshops or homes, they face dangers including working with hazardous chemicals and sharp objects in cramped conditions with low lighting for long hours. Under hot sun, child labor’s working condition in industries and farms exposes them to toxic chemicals, heavy loads, abuse, violation of honor, dangerous machines that can cut off their fingers, and lead to back injuries, repetitive strain, muscle inflammation, diarrhea and infections.

In the dry fish industry, a hard reality emerges. A pilot survey on working children in dry fish industry in Bangladesh in 2010 found: Average daily work-hour of the surveyed children was 9.8 and average weekly work-days was 6.3, 21.8 percent of the surveyed children were forced to carry or lift heavy loads, about 10.3 percent of the children were recruited in deceptive manner, nearly 23.6 percent of the children worked as their parents took loans from owner/employer, 5.9 percent of the children could not contact their family members during working season. Other key findings of the pilot survey were: 51.6 percent of the children could not go out of their work place, 58.1 percent of the children in the age group 5-14 years were forced labor while it was 41.9 percent in the age group 15-17 years. (BBS, ILO, March 12, 2012)

What about the labor shackled in ship breaking yards on the beaches of the Bay of Bengal?

The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights from Pittsburgh provide a brief “picture” (“Bangladeshi Shipbreakers”):

“Shipbreakers, some just teenaged children, toil 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, paid just 30 to 45 cents an hour to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world in which it is common for workers to be maimed or killed. The shipbreakers live in crowded, primitive hovels, sleeping on the concrete floor. They are day laborers, with no contract and no rights. Any workers trying to organize a union to protect their legal rights are immediately fired and blacklisted.” (ibid.)

In November 2012, an Institute team came to Bangladesh. “Just weeks before, a slight, 15-year-old boy, Khorshed, was crushed to death when a huge metal slab fell on him. It took 30 workers to lift the slab. Khorshed worked the night shift, from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. They paid him 30 cents an hour.” The team met shipbreakers “who were paralyzed, unable to move or sit up due to spinal cord injuries from accidents that should and could easily have been prevented.” In a village, the team met “scores of young former shipbreakers who were missing hands, feet, legs, fingers and toes.”

A few headlines of news related to shipbreaking labor say a bit more: “16-Year-Old Boy Crushed to Death at Shipbreaking Yard in Bangladesh”, “Another Shipbreaker Killed in Bangladesh”, (May 4, 2012), “Eight More Workers Burned to Death in Bangladesh Shipbreaking Yard”, “Shipbreakers Face Death for 36 Cents an Hour”.

Is it difficult to have hard hats, goggles, welders’ vests and gloves for all of them? Are not these very cheap? Are not these dirt-cheap compared to the amount of profit being made? And, car show rooms in a few cities are full of vehicles with price tags unimaginable to the labor working on the beaches. Even many of them had no opportunity to know or to see cars in these show rooms. They can’t imagine the facilities and amenities available inside these cars. They even can’t compare their wages and price of these vehicles and the number of person-years required, if they “wish”, to buy a single such vehicle with their wages.

Many like to forget this reality. A single May Day shall not change the reality. But with each May Day and with following days labor moves towards changing the reality despite efforts to overwhelm labor with anarchism, vandalism, auctioned leadership, unawareness and demobilization.

The Savar-deaths signify a “piece” of another reality. In Savar, none called upon labor to unite, to stand with selfless service, to stand with courage, to show the stamina of untold tolerance. But labor showed its unity, selfless service, courage and endurance. This May Day re-announces this fact boldly.

Source: Countercurrents.org. By Farooque Chowdhury. 01 May 2013

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