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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Slave Labor, Wal-Mart and Wahhabism: Bangladesh in turbulence


The Bangladeshi elite are facing tough decisions in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory to curb the rampant abuse of the work force. Support for the government has been weakening and there has been a disturbing rise in radical Islam.

The streets of Dhaka have been awash with protests, violence, and killing in recent times as the Bangladeshi public expresses its resentment to the exploitation of garment workers in the aftermath of the country’s worst industrial disaster in its history, and the rising tide of Islamists demanding an end to the nation’s secular identity. The public relations departments of major retail transnationals like HnM, Gap, Wal-Mart, and Benetton have been in full defensive mode following the late-April collapse of Rana Plaza, a shoddily constructed building where sweatshop laborers toiled producing all the latest western fashions for export. The collapse took the lives of a shocking 1,127 workers, and still, Wal-Mart and Gap remain opposed to introducing broad agreements that would improve fire and safety regulations in factories, in fear of becoming entangled in legal liabilities; some corporations have refused to pay direct compensation to family members of the victims. Cost-benefit analysis yielded few benefits for the dead, unsurprisingly.

Tens of thousands of protesting Bangladeshi garment workers attempted to make their voices heard in the Ashulia industrial belt on the outskirts of the capital; worker demands for a fairer wage and safe working conditions were met with rubber bullets, stoking opposition and resentment against the ruling Awami League party, which is increasingly seen as a kleptocratic purveyor of the ‘Poverty Industrial Complex’ that promotes retail multinationals setting up shop in the dusty slums of Dhaka. Most garment workers make a miserable $38 per month, hourly wages between 17 and 26 cents. Anyone who has browsed the hangers of H&M or Benetton knows that a single piece of merchandise can pay the monthly wage of a Bangladeshi worker two or three times over. Behind the slick marketing campaigns of these retail giants, and the well-oiled cleavage and abdomens on their billboards, it is impoverished people that bear the burden of vapid consumerism and globalization.

Injustice is stitched into every fiber of the shirts on our backs, and the consumer looking to offset this abuse is faced with few choices. Three million workers are employed in Bangladesh’s garment industry, constituting about 80 percent of the country’s exports. In the face of massive boycotts or retail giants closing their operations, workers would lose their jobs; if they come to work, they are exploited as 21st century slave labor. For the Bangladeshi worker and the Third World man, it is a lose-lose situation. As multinationals rush to damage control after every disaster that interrupts their miserable production lines half-a-world away, it is the retail giants themselves that perpetuate extreme low-wage systems that brutally suppress the collective action of workers aiming to improve their conditions. Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein, Tesco, and their like operate by seeking out the cheapest possible means of production available, often with no safety standards or regulatory oversight, made possible through the politics-business nexus agreeable to the Bangladeshi ruling class.

The Bangladeshi elite found themselves in several ‘Let them eat cake’ moments following the Rana incident; Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith remarked that the disaster wasn’t “really serious”. Sohel Rana, the owner of the Rana Plaza illegally extended the five-storey building to a total of eight storeys without proper consent from the authorities concerned, an act ignored due to Rana’s alleged political connections to the ruling Awami League. The public is now calling for Rana’s execution as reports surface that he ignored the warnings of engineers who examined the building and concluded that it was unsafe.

Following the Rana Plaza incident, and the deadly fire at the Tazreen Fashions complex in November 2012, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can’t help but look severely out of touch, as she claims that Bangladesh has good conditions for investment. The conditions she is referring to are only ‘good’ for investors and shareholders, reflecting a development orthodoxy that incentivizes global retailers to take advantage of lax safety standards and other sweatshop conditions.

Rising tides of Islamism
The opposition coalition, the Bangladesh National Party, has tightened alliances with hardcore Islamist groups, Jamaat-e-Islami, and its radical offshoot, Hefajat-e-Islam, presenting a notable challenge to the ruling Awami League in elections expected to be held by Janurary 2014. When Bangladesh isn’t making international headlines over industrial disasters, it is attracting worldwide attention for its controversial war crimes tribunal, which has charged leading members of the Jamaat-e-Islami with committing atrocities during the 1971 war for independence, and subsequent civil war. Activists who support the Jamaat-e-Islami party hurled stones and handmade bombs at security forces after verdicts condemning top party leaders to death by hanging were announced.

Opposition supporters call this a politically motivated trial, and it’s easy to see why, several of the individuals charged on a list drafted by the Awami League were between 4 and 8 years old during the war in 1971, severely weakening the credibility of the charges against them. 

Although the opposition may have legitimate grievances, they represent a backwards program that would roll back the equal standing of women, make Islamic education mandatory, ban women from mixing with men, and essentially redress Bangladesh in the clothing of Wahhabism, a reactionary and medieval interpretation of Islam championed by Saudi Arabian missionaries throughout the developing world. In 2013, Jamaat demanded that the government pass a 13-point charter that would fundamentally dismantle the secular system promoted by the Awami League, met with pro-secular counter-protests calling the war crimes tribunal too lenient, and a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami party. The Awami League is facing political pressure from opposing directions in a politically fragmented country, as one group of protesters call for a clamping down on fundamentalist groups, and the other accuses the government of manipulating the tribunal to ensure convictions of prominent opposition leaders.

The Islamists no doubt enjoy notable public support, as tens of thousands take part in mass rallies in support of their causes, putting Dhaka in regular deadlock. Hifazat-e-Islam, considered even more radical, is headquartered in Chittagong, a port city home to hundreds of madrassas that promote the Wahhabi worldview espoused by many of the militants and foreign jihadists active in Syria. The group calls for the introduction of a new blasphemy law that will execute ‘atheist’ bloggers whom they accuse of having insulted the Prophet Mohammed. The Bangladesh National Party’s coalition also includes an Islamist party, the Islamiya Okiyya Jote, which allegedly has connections to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the current climate of deepening religious and political polarization, the ruling party is carefully attempting to put across its pro-Islam credentials, which has resulted in the arrests of four atheist bloggers, but their efforts are ultimately seen as cosmetic to those pro-sharia Islamists who parrot painfully unoriginal political programs better suited to 14th century Arabia. The Awami League’s crackdown on dissent has alienated both secularists and Islamists, especially in the impoverished working classes.

Bangladesh’s slow morphing into a Caliphate promises uncertainty for the Hindu minority, who have been victimized by radicals that have burned down temples and destroyed deities, as well as the non-Islamist segments of the population who advocate greater modernity. Unfortunately for Bangladesh, both the ruling and opposition political forces fail to offer platforms that would significantly contribute to the furtherance of progressive measures to protect workers’ rights and advance the nation’s economic standing. In the run-up to the general elections, louder and angrier protests are on the cards, especially if Jamaat-e-Islami leaders are executed. The hawks of global retail have shed their crocodile tears and paid lip service to safety standards and pledges to enact across-the-board improvements as they did after the Tazreen fires, only to witness Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster in the space of less than a year. Fortunately for global retailers, most people tend to forget these disasters in days, and little, if any, dent is made in their profit margins. It’s no surprise that garment workers continue their protests despite heavy-handed police suppression, they have nothing to lose but their chains.

First published in, May 26, 2013

Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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