Bangladeshi Labor Riots—Framing the Violence
On July 29th, the new minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh was increased from 1,662 taka a month to 3,000 taka a month (roughly 21 cents/hour). The minimum wage was nearly doubled, and yet, the day after the announcement, thousands of workers took to the streets. According the Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star, over 20,000 demonstrators “burned down six factories, two warehouses and several vehicles” within 24-hours of receiving notice of the pay hike. They also “vandalized over 200 business establishments.” The rioting continued for about four to five days in major cities all over the nation before eventually being quashed by the police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh’s “elite” anti-terrorism force. In response, the Bangladeshi media has made a valiant effort to diminish the violence as inarticulate, futile, and the work of outside agitators. Reports from several different English-medium newspapers in Bangladesh all fail to expose the root cause of the violence, while the actions of the garment workers beg us to do just that. By focusing attention on the explicit violence of the riots and overshadowing the underlying systemic violence of the non-living wages that provoked them, the media robbed the workers’ struggle of its legitimacy. In doing so, they perpetuate the system of oppression that dominates the Bangladeshi labor industry.
These late July riots were in conjunction with nearly a year of escalating uprisings (strikes, walk-outs, riots, widespread clashes between police and laborers, highway shutdowns by tens of thousands of protesting workers etc.) pushing for a 5,000 taka a month (35 cents/hr) minimum wage. This is a modest request, considering that according to the Bangladesh Institute for Labor Studies “for a garment worker to live just one step past misery, she would have to earn at least 37 cents an hour” (National Labor Committee). The uprisings were also a response to the fact that at the time, garment workers in Bangladesh were paid the least in the world (National Labor Committee). Clearly, the smashing of vehicles and burning of warehouses is not the only destructive force in the garment industry. For a better understanding of the many dimensions of violence in Bangladeshi society, I turn to Slavoj Zizek and his analysis of violence.
Zizek begins by asking us to “learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent” and recognize that it is simply “the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence” (Violence, 1). The two kinds of objective violence are “symbolic violence” (embodied in language) and “systemic violence,” which he defines as “violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence” (9). This systemic violence is what triggers the subjective violence. However, because the systemic violence is so normalized, the subjective violence is usually presented as a spontaneous disruption rather than a direct response.
Similarly, in Bangladesh, the labor riots of this year were described as an “eruption of militant demonstration and violence” (Sarkar, The Daily Star). The word “eruption” suggests that the violence is a sudden, isolated “perturbation of the ‘normal’ peaceful state of things” (SOS Violence, 2). In addition, according to The Daily Star, the garment workers “behaved like violent mobs as they lacked any leadership. Neither were they guided by any specific agenda.” The newspapers reported that the workers lacked an agenda, even though an ad launched in these very newspapers read clearly, “A new minimum wage of not one taka less than 5,000!” and “Bangladesh’s three in a half million garment workers, who are among the hardest workers in the world, deserve justice and to raise their families in dignity.” (The Daily Ittefag). These riots did not lack an agenda. Rather, their agenda was overshadowed by the “focus on subjective violence, of violence enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds” (Zizek, 10). They also had leaders, who were later imprisoned. However, the entire notion that acts of protest must have “leaders” and an “agenda” is problematic because it automatically dismisses organic uprisings that are sparked by intolerable oppression.
Another popular de-legitimizing tactic is the framing of these rebellions as the work of “outside agitators.” These reports of subversive agents were quickly produced by heads of police and government officials and then regurgitated by the media. One unnamed intelligence agency explained the unrest by saying “Some Islamic and militant organisations are regrouping to create an anarchic situation in the country ” (The Independent). Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) Commissioner AKM Shahidul Haque decried, “We will arrest the persons who are hatching conspiracies to destabilise the top foreign exchange earning sector. We will find out the troublemakers and take stern action against them” (The New Age). Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself declared, “No anarchy and sabotage in this sector will be tolerated” (The New Age). Ironically, as these officials obstinately repeated the mantra of external conspiracy, they simultaneously arrested Montu Ghosh, an adviser to Garment Sramik Trade Union Kendra; Babul Akhter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation; and Kalpona Akhter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity on charges of “instigating violence and rampage by the factory workers in the garment factories and other business centers” (Bajaj, The New York Times). This begs the question: if the riots were a conspiracy hatched by “outside agitators,” why are major labor leaders (the “insiders”) the ones getting arrested on charges of instigation?
Besides pinning the destruction on these mysterious outsiders, the newspapers also responded with utter confusion. “Why, then, should the garment workers engage in such violence the very next day after the announcement? Were not the workers properly informed by the labour leaders about the minimum wage announcement?” asks The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English-medium newspaper. The paper then goes on to declare that “one can hardly justify why the workers’ agitation for higher pay or benefits should take such destructive form, especially when one sees that the workers are destroying the factories that provide them their bread.” By painting the workers as illogical and uninformed, the article leaves no room for the notion that perhaps the workers recognized the new minimum wage for what it is, a ploy to appease the masses, prevent revolt, and boost public image, without actually providing a living wage for those who form the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy. In addition, these factories provide the workers crumbs, not bread. As Zizek says, I believe the true response to the members of Parliament and bosses that ask, “Why did the workers destroy?” is simply, “You did this! This is the result of your politics!” (11). In other words, the destruction in late July was a manifestation of the violence already present in the system.
Other than systemic violence, there was also widespread state violence (what Zizek refers to as “mythic violence), in the form of police brutality. According to various news reports, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas shells, shot off water cannons, charged at protestors with “truncheons,” and beat them with batons. According to The New Age, at least 250 people were injured. Most of this state violence was depicted as necessary to “restore order,” with one newspaper even going as far as to say, “the police charged at them with truncheons to clear the road stretches to ease people’s sufferings (The New Age).” The suffering of those being charged at with the truncheons was not explored.
What can we make of these different levels of violence? Once again, I turn to Zizek, this time for his interpretation of Walter Benjamin’s concepts of mythic and divine violence. According to Zizek, “mythic violence is a means to establish the rule of Law (the legal social order), while divine violence serves no means… It is just the sign of the injustice of the world, of the world being ethically “out of joint” (200). Later, he says, “When those outside the structured social field strike ‘blindly,’ demanding and enacting immediate justice/vengeance, this is divine violence” (202). The violence of the police fits easily into this framework of mythic violence, as the violence of the mobs fits into the framework of divine violence. The marginalized garment workers struck “blindly” (in the sense that they had no guarantee that anything would come out of their actions), sending a message to the rest of the country that something about forcing workers to work from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm seven days a week while earning starvation wages is ethically “out of joint” (National Labor Committee). Perhaps its is because this type of divine violence “serves no means” and is expiatory only in abstract ways, it was predicable that high-ranking officials and the media would react with confusion. However, their confusion is no excuse for dismissing the legitimate struggle of the worker as the result of senseless mobs, inarticulate imbeciles, or outside agitators. I do not expect widespread justification of the riots, for just as “there are no ‘objective’ criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine” (200), there are no objective criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as just. However, I do think the actions of these garment workers necessitate a serious examination of the forces that cultivate these outbreaks, namely popular dismissal of struggles, lack of recognition for the people driving the economy’s “top foreign exchange earning sector,” and most importantly, the perpetuation of unjust and inhumane wages. Until these are addressed, the media will have to get creative in its de-legitimization tactics, because there will be many more outbreaks to come.
“Apparel workers on rampage in protest at new wage .” The New Age, 31 07 2010. Web. 20 Oct 2010.
“Bangladesh: Government Must Support Decent Minimum Wage, and Cease Harassment of Union Rights Supporters.” International Trade Union Confederation, n.d. Web. 20 Oct 2010.
“Minister alerts MPs, mayors against RMG workers’ stir.” The Independant, 29 07 2010. Web. 22 Oct 2010.
“RMG wage sparks violent protests.” The Daily Star, 31 07 2010. Web. 24 Oct 2010. <http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=148818>.
“Testimony of a Bangladeshi Garment Worker.” National Labor Committee, 15 06 2010. <http://www.nlcnet.org/alerts?id=0170>
Vikas, Bajaj. “Bangladesh Arrests 21 After Rallies.” New York Times 16 08 2010. Web. 18 Oct 2010.
“Who Represent Garment Workers?.” The Daily Star, 02 08 2010. Web. 24 Oct 2010. <http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=148989>.
“Why is Wal-Mart blocking 35 cents an hour for Bangladeshi workers?” National Labor Committee, 28 07 2010. Web. 19 Oct 2010.
“Workers’ Protests Spill Over.” The New Age, 01 08 2010. Web. 24 Oct 2010.
Zizek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador, Print.