Why we picket Tesco

Author: 

Stuart Jordan

Since October last year, London No Sweat, has been holding regular pickets of Tesco stores in the East End, exposing the exploitation that lies at the root of Tesco’s bumper profits and focussing particularly on workers’ struggles in Bangladesh. At our meeting in March Sam Maher updated us on the situation in Bangladesh.

The garment industry is key to the Bangladeshi economy and to the global trade in textiles. Employing 2.2 million workers (90% of whom are women), the Bangladeshi textiles industry is enormous, compromising 75% of the country’s exports. Bangladesh’s outputs are one fifth of the total global trade in textiles. Much of the work is relatively unskilled, in the ready-made garments (RMG) and knitwear sectors, with workers sewing together ready-made pieces of material after only the briefest training.

The growth of this industry has created a large body of young women workers from rural backgrounds who have moved to and found employment in the vast Free Trade Zones of Dhaka. Commentators talk of a “silent revolution” taking place within Bangladesh, with hundreds of thousands of young single women living and working in the cities. However it has also meant super-exploitation of workers in terms of pay and working conditions. A recent War on Want report says factories in Bangladesh are paying as little as 5p an hour, and a working week of up to 96 hours a week’ poor health and safety regulations make the factories “potential death traps”. The worst paid workers get less than £8 a month for their work — a third of the living wage in Bangladesh.

A tragic incident at the Spectrum factory in 2005, which saw 64 workers killed and 80 injured after the whole factory collapsed, shows the reality of working conditions in Bangladesh. Bosses are willing to cut corners to make bumper profits and feed their stores in the West regardless of human life. The factory which was extended from a three storey to a seven storey building without any attempt to comply with building regulations. In the days running up to the building’s collapse, there were several reports by workers about cracks appearing in the walls. The workers were told to shut up and get back to work.

Bangladesh is also home to some of the most militant labour movement activity in the world today.  The latest wave of protests, strikes and riots began last September when more than 1,000 poverty-stricken clothes makers stormed the Dhaka headquarters of Nassa, a chain of 28 factories, whose clients include Tesco, H&M and Primark. Management had locked out workers after refusing to pay them their traditional bonuses for working during the Eid festival. This bonus is literally a couple of pence.

The workers went from factory to factory in the Tejgaon region of Dhaka trying to get other workers out. At the factory gates they were met by security and police and so took to attacking the factories buildings. Bangladeshi troops were sent in to repress the demonstrations and over 100 people were injured. Three workers were arrested under the Emergency Powers Act, giving them no right to bail, and the workers demands remain unmet.

Throughout October and November there were more demonstrations and riots as talks with sweatshop owners over conditions and setting the national minimum wage broke down. Many strikes and demonstrations have been spontaneous and in response to the arrest of fellow workers. Owners of garment factories have rolled out the usual arguments: workers’ demands are “unrealistic”, they would go out of business, etc.. The bosses have increasingly relied on the paramilitary; they want a permanent industrial police force in the Free Trade Zones.  

Bangladesh has a “caretaker” government policing a “state of emergency” — which will oversee national elections and a transfer of power. A caretaker government is supposed to administer for no more than 90 days, but as the opposition party was not happy with the outgoing government’s choice of “caretaker” the end of 2006 saw a violent demonstrations and industrial shut downs. The caretaker government has now postponed the elections until the end of the state of emergency, which has outlawed political and trade union activity. 18 months later they are still in power.

These draconian laws have been used against trade unionists and labour movement activists. Last January, Mehedi Hasan of the Washington DC based Workers Rights Consortium was arrested and imprisoned without bail. This arrest sparked an international campaign, which secured his swift release and brought to attention eight other labour movement activists still being detained.

In many ways, by arresting a high profile activist, this was a two finger salute to the international labour movement by the government. It might also reflect some paranoia by Bangladeshi bourgeoisie, feeling the pinch of a potential global recession and the threat posed by the growing RMG industries of Cambodia, Viet Nam and China. Indeed, part of the bosses’ propaganda blames the industrial unrest on an international conspiracy to undermine the industry.

On 30 January, two workers at World Dresses Ltd., Mirapur, Dhaka were attacked and beaten after being accused of conspiring to steal from the company. One of the workers Mohammed Khokton, died and the other was seriously injured. When news spread of this incident hundreds of workers demonstrated outside the factory on Friday morning and blocked the main road for two and a half hours. When police baton-charged the crowd they responded with stones and bricks. Ten workers were injured and the remaining demonstration dispersed when the para-military Rapid Action Battalion arrived in the area.

We need to do all we can to support this emerging workers’ movement. As things stand at the moment it is very difficult to get a picture of what is going on, not only because speaking out against the industry is a criminal offence but also because the movement seems to be entirely separate from the official trade unions.

In many cases, the actions appear entirely spontaneous, without any definite aims or demands. For the struggle to succeed the textile workers need to organise a movement that can forge collective demands. However, official trade unionism, which is marked by bureaucracy and misogyny. does not seem a likely vehicle and it is difficult to see a way to create something fresh given the oppressive political climate.

Nevertheless, London No Sweat will step up the pressure on Tesco and other high street stores. This year Tesco announced a 13% increase in profits amounting to around £2.5 billion, levels of profit they can only maintain by relying on brutal state violence abroad and bureaucratic, “sweetheart-deal” unions like USDAW at home. London No Sweat will do we can to bring solidarity to the Bangladeshi workers movement in its struggle against the bosses and the state.

We will campaign for the immediate release of the eight labour movement activists who are still being held by the Bangladeshi authorities and for the right to free association in Bangladesh. And we will welcome with open arms any attempt in the UK for shop workers to organise against these super-exploitative high street multi-nationals.

Solidarity with Bangladeshi Textile Workers! Solidarity with Tesco workers of the world! For the immediate release of labour movement activists in Bangladesh! For free independent trade unions!

• For more information contact Stuart on
stuartjordan32@hotmail.com or phone 07817595626

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