This is a guest post by Navine Murshid The grief surrounding the collapse is unimaginable with more than 500 dead and hudrends still missing. It is clear that the accident was a culmination of the alignment of corruption, greed, inefficiency, and a bid to cut costs, at every level from acquiring lands through illegal means, using sub-standard materials for construction, and forcing workers to work despite life-threatening risks, to foreign buyers who show little regard for human life. It is clear too that the wealthy elite with political connections have capitalized on the textile industry by exploiting the poor; it reveals the evils of capitalism where the bid to minimize costs have led to the complete disregard for human lives, perpetuating the “race to the bottom.”
Thousands of RMG workers have gone on strike and taken to the streets to demand justice for what has happened and to demand changes in working conditions. Many have demonstrated in front of the BGMEA office. On the occasion of May Day, different groups came forward to support the working class’ struggle for a work environment that is safe and well-equipped for emergency situations and a justice system that actually does them justice. Indeed, such support and solidarity with workers can end these “murders.”
The relevance of Shahbag
Shahbag’s main contribution to the political culture in Bangladesh, arguably, has been to empower people, particularly urban youth, to speak up and realize that even ordinary people can make a difference when they unite; that they do not need political patronage to voice their demands and dissatisfaction. The outpouring of support in the wake of the Savar disaster can be attributed to the understanding of “taking back the nation” that Shahbag had instilled in people to encourage them to be active citizens instead of waiting for the state to take action.
The Savar disaster reveals some key points of convergence between the interests of Shahbag activists and the working classes.
By expressing solidarity with the workers Shahbag activists and bloggers, who mobilized around justice for war crimes in February, can build a strong and sustainable movement that gives power back to the people. In a co-authored piece in February, I talked about Shahbag’s progressive potential and the need to build solidarity among working classes in order to strengthen and sustain the movement to end the culture of impunity with which war criminals have been operating. Clearly, war criminals are not the only ones who have benefited from this culture of impunity, thanks to under-the-table deals with influential politicians and legislators. The basis for forging solidarity could not be stronger or clearer, given that the Shahbag bloggers and activists have already played (and continue to play) an important role in the rescue and rehabilitation efforts for Savar victims.
Blame and buck-passing
The blame-game for the Savar incident is primarily limited to the building owner and the four relevant factory owners–i.e. relevant actors in Bangladesh. In this coterie, Sohel Rana, the building owner, is being paraded as the “main culprit” by the media. As one headline read following his arrest, “Man behind 381 deaths captured.” It seems that, once again, factory owners will get away with minimal punishment and continue to operate with impunity. But they have at least been identified as culpable, and the court ordered their arrests.
The international media, CNN for example, choose to focus on the specifics of the incident rather than the system that forces cost-cutting, as does the Pope, who, has come forward to say, Bangladeshi workers are “slave labor.” In this context, he reportedly said that “focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit” was against God (BBC News). Why did he have nothing to say about the retailers–Walmart, Disney, GAP, H&M, Benetton, Mango and so on–that created the conditions for “slave labor” in the first place? While there are some critiques of global capitalism in the wake of this tragedy in NPR, Bloomberg News, Forbes, and some other left leaning news outlets and blogs, the general atmosphere is one where “foreign buyers” cannot be criticized.
In Bangladesh, the reluctance stems from the fear that any criticism would cause the retailers to pull-out, destroying the textile industry and causing unemployment of 4 million workers, mostly women. With Disney announcing that they will no longer import from Bangladesh, and Canada and the European Union (the primary market for Bangladeshi textiles) mulling over similar options, such fears seem justified. It is worth recognizing that the fear of capital flight used as a threat to thwart workers’ struggles is one of the ways that neoliberalism has asserted itself and gave rise to outsourcing in the first place. Not content with chasing low wages in labor-intensive economies like Bangladesh, neoliberal capital, by failing to provide adequate safety measures for example, drives production costs to below what the logic of comparative advantage might dictate.
In the Western world, the reluctance to blame the relevant corporations seems to stem from the ideological commitment to and belief in the capitalist system that “benefits all,” on the one hand, and the ease with which companies can scapegoat individual countries and move on to the next country that gives companies free reign, on the other.
Need for international solidarity
The capitalist desire to cut costs no matter the consequence can be stemmed by refusing to work unless safety standards are adhered to, not only in Bangladesh, but also in Vietnam and China and Cambodia and everywhere else in the world. Power is actually in the hands of workers; if they refuse to work, whole industries would come to a halt. Workers need to counterpose their international solidarity to the neoliberal “race to the bottom” where buyers shift suppliers to countries with lax labor and environmental standards. This is easier said than done, and perhaps sounds utopian, with the elite in every country trying to thwart such coordination, but it is what will eventually give workers the rights they deserve.
In the short run, however, workers need to mobilize in Bangladesh and get ready for the “worst:” buyers pulling out. If companies are “forced to shut down,” workers need to occupy the factories and take charge of their running, as workers did in Argentina in the 2000s. Bangladesh is the world’s second largest producer of textiles, and workers form the backbone of the $18 billion industry. They would probably know a thing or two about running their own workplaces. The doomsday scenario–Bangladesh would lose one of its largest contributors to foreign exchange, the currency would depreciate as capital flees, subsidiary industries would fail, the economy will collapse–is put forward by those who cannot envision a worker-run industry. If Bangladesh actually has the comparative advantage it claims to have, retailers will stay/return (as can be seen from the example of JC Penney, Sears, and Benetton–firms that will be implementing safety measures instead of pulling out). If people have learned anything from Shahbag, it is to take charge of their own destiny.
Navine Murshid is an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University and a visiting scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is also a member of Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI), a non-partisan research and advocacy group based in the United States.
BBC News. Bangladesh “slave labor condemned by Pope.” May 1, 2013. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22370487
BD News 24. Disney pulls out from Bangladesh. May 3, 2013. Available at: http://bdnews24.com/business/2013/05/03/disney-pulls-out-from-bangladesh
BD News 24. Savar death count crosses 500. May 3, 2013. http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2013/05/03/savar-death-count-crosses-500
BD News 24. Death hangs heavy as toll hits 261. April 25, 2013. Available at: http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2013/04/25/death-hangs-heavy-as-toll-hits-261
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