The front page of the website of Bangladesh's Daily Star right now reads "RMG Workers Go Berserk," RMG being local shorthand for the Ready-Made Garment business. This reads funny to a Western ear, but in all likelihood "berserk" isn't a totally inaccurate description of the state of the workers whose protests demanding a raise in the local minimum wage have now shuttered more than 400 factories in and around Dhaka, the capital. The protests are being covered by international media to an extent that had never been true for earlier, similar minimum wage riots – the events of the last several years, including the arrest and murder of labour leaders, the giant fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Ashulia, outside Dhaka and the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex, which killed more than 1,100 workers, have made the poor labour protections, low wages and dangerous conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories an international story that – unike many of the workers there who suffer as a result of awful labour standards – simply will not die.
As many as 200,000 people seem to be participating in the current strikes, protests and riots, according to local police officials. They are demanding a minimum wage of 8,000 Bangladeshi Taka, roughly equivalent to $100 per month – a huge increase from the $37 per month minimum wage that currently prevails in the country. Workers have attacked at least one police station – seizing assault rifles – burned cars, and damaged at least ten factories. Western media have essentially reported events as they've appeared on the ground: as a possibly regrettable but reasonable and worker-led rebellion against low wages and abuses.
This is probably only partly true, though. Worker unrest in Bangladesh is only occasionally started by the workers themselves. Reporting in VICE has already shown that earlier minimum wage protests and riots at factories under the umbrella of the Nassa group, a large Bangladeshi supplier to companies like Walmart, were probably instigated and were certainly condoned by the local National Security and Intelligence service. "Men," one activist told me on a trip to Bangladesh earlier this year, "would come into the factories and start smashing the machines, and then the workers said 'oh, it's a rebellion!' But they had no idea what any of it was about!"
Bangladesh has a special history and culture of mob violence, one that politicians, security officials and industry leaders occasionally use to cover high-level political and economic plays. "You can send two thugs from your political party," one analyst told us, "and say one takes a stick and smashes a car. Then all of a sudden 20 people are doing it. You do it in ten neighbourhoods and you have a riot! Then you remove the local police chief because he can't control the area." In the case of the last major minimum wage unrest, the protests and violence were used as cover for the arrest of several prominent labour activists – one of those activists was later murdered, and the charges against the others are still pending.
It's hard to say now who or what instigated the current protests, but it's surprising to hear Western media, at this late date, declining to even speculate. Bangladeshis seem to have no doubt at all that there's a high-level game behind the latest unrest. The understanding for the moment seems to be a truly bizarre (to an outsider) machination by Shajahan Khan, the government's Shipping Minister, a blustery mustachioed pol accused of playing a violent game to build support in upcoming elections. Shajahan has described getting involved in worker grievances, which he said he had to do because the Labour Minister, whose brief actually includes worker grievances, was out of the country. Then it turned out that the Labour Minister had only been out of the country since yesterday, and even then he was in Kolkata, which would make it like saying that someone had to take over as Secretary of State because John Kerry was in Winnipeg.
Some labour leaders – themselves of dubious credibility – accuse Shajahan of organising a rally that sparked the riots, timed in advance of a meeting between the board of trade executives, government officials and labour activists that sets the minimum wage to decide on an increase. “There was no need to hold a rally while an independent wage board was working to set the workers’ salary. The rally was called on the minister’s advice,” one labour leader told the Daily Star. It will take some time to sort out. It always does, when you're dealing with the Bangladeshi RMG business. The protests look organic. It's hard to believe this is the case – it seems unlikely that grassroots activists or authentic labour leaders would have thought it was possible the minimum wage board would raise payments all the way to 8,000 Taka. It would be fair if wages climbed that high, but we're a long way from fair in the global economy, and even sympathetic observers would have to wonder if the Bangladeshi economy would face a pullout of RMG buyers and eventual total collapse if wages jumped so far so fast. But maybe they will, at that. This business has remained such a huge story for such a long time by almost never making sense.
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