Bangladesh: as workers fight back, bosses resort to desperate repression

As the second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc across the country, the plight of the working class in Bangladesh is worsening. The situation has not yet reached the proportions seen in India just yet, it could soon get to such levels as the ruling class hasn’t taken any measures to provide basic health facilities and vaccines to the millions of workers who live in poverty.

On top of this, attacks against the working class by the capitalists and their stooges in the security apparatus have reached new heights in the recent period. Attacks on wages, working conditions and many other basic necessities have led to many protests across the country in recent months, which were brutally crushed by the police.

Workers have been shot directly by rubber bullets, brutally beaten with sticks, and booked on fake charges and thrown into prison. Women workers have received the same treatment, including even pregnant women. The bosses, and the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina, think they can crush all dissent indefinitely with such brutality but they are gravely mistaken. All this will eventually blow up into a mass struggle of workers and youth, which will challenge the rule of capital in Bangladesh.

In the world’s bourgeois media, Bangladesh is portrayed as an emerging economy, and thus as a darling of the bankers, investors and capitalists. Despite this shining glory, the workers are living in a dark hell with unemployment reaching new heights amid the devastating pandemic, which is killing hundreds.

In the last 16 days, more than one thousand have died of COVID-19 according to the official figures, taking the tally to 12,000. But the situation on the ground is much worse and hundreds more deaths have gone unreported in the official figures. Despite a lockdown imposed by the government, which has led to unemployment and starvation for millions of workers, the pandemic is still not under control and thousands more could die due to the callous attitude of the ruling class.

COVID Dhakka Image PixabayAccording to the official figures, 12,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Bangladesh. The real figures are far higher and life is becoming increasingly hellish for the working masses / Image: Pixabay

When the Awami League (AL), the current ruling party, declared a full lockdown nationwide in April, they failed to ensure the basic needs of the working class and their families were met. Instead, they were left to starve and die in horrific conditions. After announcing the lockdown, the government failed to implement it properly, imposing it selectively at the whim of the local authorities. Even the Annual Bookfair 2021 wasn’t closed and remained partially open, with transportation simply being cut off.

This wave of the pandemic, along with the previous, speaks volumes about the failure of AL. Despite the virus, workers – especially from the garment industry – continue to work in the factories from 9 am to 5 pm plus overtime, all while fasting in the month of Ramadan. If the government had cared to put the lives and livelihoods of workers first, it would have instructed all the bosses to give full paid leave to these workers. Instead, the workers were forced to work in these barbaric conditions, their exploitation only increasing under the pretext of the economic crisis and the pandemic.

Banshkhali Power Plant (S Alam)

On 17 April, five workers were killed and at least 100 others injured when police opened fire on protesting workers at the S Alam Group’s coal-based power plant in Chittagong’s Banshkhali district. Workers who were killed include Mahmud Reza aka Mir Khan (18), Anwarul Islam, Mortuz Ali and Zakir Hossain. These workers were demanding payment of arrears, increment of pay, reduction in working hours on Fridays and allocation of appropriate time for Iftar, (breaking the fast in the evening) for workers.

When workers began their protest for these four demands they were attacked by the police. The security forces had set up check posts at various spots on the Banshkhali-Anwara road and the workers were forcibly taken to work after the five workers were murdered.

Two fake cases were also filed against the protesting workers while 3,562 workers in the area have been accused in these cases by the police. The police authorities have gone unchecked and no one of them, nor the management of the coal plant, has been accused in these cases. This clearly shows the brutal police regime prevailing in Bangladesh.

The owner of this coal plant, S Alam, is very close to Sheikh Hasina and as such his fortunes have risen exponentially in the last decade. His close relationship with the rulers has given him impunity and endless power to attack and kill workers and exploit them to the last drop of their blood. All his crimes go unchecked. His irregularities and corruption, tyranny and arbitrariness, including the killing of workers, the eviction of settlements, etc. paint a clear picture of how the capitalists maintain themselves in power.

Five local residents of the area were also killed in 2016 by the police when they were protesting against evictions from the land that was being acquired for this coal power plant in partnership with a Chinese company. No one has been punished yet for those killings and now the same business group has drenched its hands in the blood of five more workers.

Attack on workers in Khalishpur, Khulna

Khulna has been the site of many protests in recent months by workers following the privatisation of the jute mill by the government. Industrial Police (IP), deployed to control worker’s activities in industrial areas (which includes restricting activities of trade unions and worker’s gatherings), regularly arrest workers’ leaders, beat the workers using sticks, and use rubber bullets and tear gas against unarmed workers with impunity. This has been a regular feature of the last two months in which workers have been demanding payment before Eid. Even on 1 May, they have protested for the payment of full wages before Eid.

On 8 May, workers of Khalishpur, Khulna arranged an Iftar dinner to break their fast which turned into a protest for their immediate demands. They were demanding longer breaks for Iftar every day during Ramadan, but police, at the behest of the bosses, immediately attacked them to crush the protest. It ought to be mentioned that the workers included women, among whom some were pregnant. The IP (Industrial Police) didn’t hesitate to attack them either.

Due to the lack of militant leadership and organised trade unions supporting the protests, the police were able to get away with this brutality once more.

Attack on Tongi workers by Ha-Meem group

Garment workers in Tongi, Gazipur district were also attacked on 10 May by the Police during a protest. The workers were demanding the extension of holidays for Eid. During their protest they blocked the Dhaka-Mohanagar highway, making the protest even stronger and bolder. As soon as the protest reached a radical turn the police fired into them with rubber bullets. More than 20 workers were severely injured and taken to nearby hospitals.

The entire situation is falsely represented in the bourgeois media, which acts as a stooge of the ruling class and the Awami League. The mass media has so little information that it becomes difficult for the general people to draw a favourable conclusion about the workers’ struggle. The demands of the workers for the payment of unpaid wages, extended holidays or evening breaks are portrayed as ‘asking too much’ by this anti-worker media.

The owner of the Ha-Meem group meanwhile is an influential individual who is often portrayed as a business icon in Bangladesh, in another humiliation for the workers.

The presence of a Marxist leadership with proper theoretical training is missing in all these struggles. The trade unions have been strangled, making it difficult for workers to fully participate as they are threatened daily by the bosses. It is not that the ruling class are undefeatable and that the destiny of the workers is always to remain under attack and in retreat. One of the main factors in the situation is the cowardice and betrayal of the trade union and leftist leaders in Bangladesh, who have departed from the road of revolution. The labour movement needs to be once more put on track on the basis of the correct ideas and understanding.

The situation in the trade unions

Trade unions in much of the world are in a precarious position. But in Bangladesh, the situation is dire as the exploitation of cheap labour by big business keeps the workers under enormous physical and mental pressure.

If the workers take the risk of joining union activity or struggling against the management, they face the continuous threat of being sacked without any legal recourse. Such workers also face threats from goons or through legal battles which are usually inevitably decided in favour of the bosses. Workers’ leaders are arrested and tortured by the police, and subjected to frame-up charges. If the struggle continues, the bosses can even have them murdered by hired goons. Police authorities and security forces are also deeply involved in these crimes, with the DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence), a military intelligence agency, allegedly involved in the murder of trade union leaders.

These are just a few of the means of intimidating workers in struggle. But all this oppression still can’t stop the protests and movements erupting regularly across the country.

The leftist parties that exist in Bangladesh don’t have a concrete programme to lead the workers however. Most trade union leaders have departed from the path of revolutionary socialism, and in fact, many unions are controlled by the agents of the ruling party, their main objective being to bargain with the management to fill their own pockets.

Rana Plaza Image rijans FlickrThe 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza still haunts Bangladesh. All these years later and there is still no justice. Indeed, none of the prosecution witnesses have been called in the case that followed the incident / Image: rijans, Flickr

This has led to a worsening of living conditions for workers who now face tragedy on a regular basis. The tragedy of Rana Plaza still haunts anyone with a heart. This eight-floor building at Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, crumbled on 24 April 2013, leaving at least 1,138 people dead, mostly garment workers, and over 2,000 others injured.

The case to punish the culprits for this tragedy lingers on in the courts. Testimony has not started to be taken. After five years, not a single prosecution witness out of 594 has been examined since charges were announced. The government has failed to ensure adequate compensation and protection for the workers. All this speaks volumes about the attitude of the government towards the working class and about the so-called opposition parties who share the same big business interests as Sheikh Hasina.

Expatriate workers

According to government data, about 3,760,000 expatriate workers returned to Bangladesh between 1 April and 16 December 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These workers and their families are all dependent on remittances. Returning migrant workers are frustrated with little or no income and are struggling to pay off their debts, to provide for their households, and are being forced to take loans due to the precarity caused by the pandemic.

A recent survey report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shows the extent to which migrant workers face the debt burden and the problems of reintegrating into society. According to a report titled ‘Rapid Assessment Round 2: Needs and Vulnerabilities of Internal and International Migrants in Bangladesh’, 69 percent of returning migrant workers and their families are in debt. 28 percent of these workers have more than Taka 200,000 in debt and more than 50 percent have more than Taka 100,000 in debt.

The survey was conducted in August and September last year in 12 districts with the highest number of returning migrant workers. The report also reveals that 84 percent of returning expatriate workers are currently unemployed. A depressing picture emerges of the families of returning migrant workers.

Capitalism in Bangladesh

The current ruling right-wing party, Awami League, is dominating the country by leveraging what they call “the spirit of the Liberation War of 1971”, and through the financial support of a few capitalist families. S Alam, KDS, and some other companies and clans, including the four Ahmed brothers, are their biggest financiers. In turn, they are the beneficiaries of this corrupt and brutal regime. The Ahmed brothers, the former street mafiosos, were exposed in Aljazeera’s undercover investigation, called, “All the Prime Ministers Men,” as pillars assisting the venomous ruling party and backing up its crimes.

The absence of a genuine opposition party and working-class leadership has allowed the Awami League government to continue its oppressive rule and to attack voices of dissent without hesitation. But the mood of the workers is changing now and big movements could erupt in the next period to challenge all these draconian attacks.

In this situation, the building of a revolutionary party on the basis of the ideas of genuine Marxism is an urgent task posed before the students and workers of Bangladesh. Emancipation of the working class and the abolition of capitalism through a socialist revolution are the ideas that must form the urgent weapons with which a true party of the left must arm itself. What is needed is Marxist philosophy and an internationalist perspective.

Under the flag of revolutionary socialism, the working-class movement will eventually overthrow the capitalist system and seize the means of production, ending the tyranny of the market economy. We know that COVID-19 isn’t the root of the problem. It is the capitalist system itself, the system that pushes the proletarians from the precipitous cliff into the abyss of extreme poverty and this death-dealing pandemic, while it lifts the capitalist class into the lap of luxury, giving them the financial and social status of royalty. But there is nothing royal about their blood. It is the same colour as ours.

Capitalism in Bangladesh has led to inequality and injustice, bigotry and brutality. The only way out of this misery, death and destitution is the socialist revolution.