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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Exports for the North Mean Exploitation for the South

Bangladesh in the grip of globalised trade

In Bangladesh, globalisation encourages exports of clothes and shrimps for western markets. But for Bangladeshis the result is increasing poverty and human rights violations, not development. True representative democracy has broken down and while elections may bestow international legitimacy on the "elite", a growing number of Bangladeshis are turning to voluntary associations that are coming up with new forms of direct democracy and self-management.

Cedric Gouverneur • August 2005

The hamlet of Baro Ari in the Khulna region to the southwest of Bangladesh is lost in the endless reaches of the Ganges. It is difficult to find, and yet globalisation has already arrived here along with its unique market opportunity, the shrimp. In 2000 local bigwigs opened the dykes of the polders, flooding land belonging to poor farmers with salt water. They then transformed the flooded land into lucrative shrimp farms, with the connivance of a corrupt police force.

"We've got nothing left," says Suranjan Kumar, his face hollowed by undernourishment. The 20-odd men around him nod in agreement. "We sometimes get work as daily farm labourers for 50 takas a day ($0.78)." Conditions border on servitude. Farmers have to hand over as much as two-thirds of their harvest to the landowner. In any case, "The salt has destroyed everything," says Abu Sahid Gazhi, who spent 11 months in jail for objecting to the theft of his land.

Shrimp farming leads to a five-fold increase in saline levels in the soil. The ponds may be badly dyked on purpose, so as to contaminate the surrounding land, force the farmers to leave and free more land for shrimp farming. "Nothing grows here any more. Food prices have risen. The salt makes the cattle sick."

Since the 1980s Asia and South America have been farming shrimp on a massive scale to satisfy the huge demand of rich nations. Bangladesh is the world's fifth largest producer and has converted some 297 square miles of mangrove forest and fertile land to aquafarming. It exports 30,000 tons of shrimp per year, almost all of it to the northern hemisphere. According to the United Nations, 80% of Bangladesh's population of 143 million live on less than $2 a day. They certainly cannot afford $12 a kilo for shrimp. Yet because of these exports, Bangladesh has become caught up in globalisation, and in theory the revenue should benefit the whole population thanks to the magic trickle-down effect.

Have the shrimp farms created jobs in Baro Ari? "The workers in the ponds are mastaans, bully-boys from Khulna," sighs one of the farmers. "The only thing we can do for a living is send our children to collect shrimp fry to sell to the farms." But when shrimp fry is collected, quantities of fry and spawn of other species are left to die on the banks, ruining local biodiversity. Catches have fallen by 80% according to fishermen in the region. And as for the western consumers who eat the shrimp - at this point looks darken and fists are clenched: "They're drinking our blood," says Kumar. "How many Bangladeshis have to die to feed white people?". The idea of a possible shrimp boycott in Europe offers a frail hope.

Shrimp is to Bangladesh what the Nile perch is to Tanzania, a true "Darwin's nightmare". The shrimp farms are more than just a social and ecological disaster; they spread death and destruction. More than 150 Bangladeshis have been murdered since 1980 for opposing the shrimp farmers. The thousands of people killed in the 1991 tsunami in the southwest of the country may be added to this figure. According to a report by a British non-governmental organisation, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a tsunami on the same scale in 1960 left no victims. In the period between the two disasters aquaculture has destroyed the protective mangrove forests.

Nevertheless shrimp farms are encouraged by the World Bank, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Asian Development Bank. The US Agency for International Development even offers technical assistance to monitor the quality of the shrimps. By combating epizootic diseases, these "philanthropists" hope to develop the Bangladeshi shrimp market and achieve annual sales of $1.50bn within five years, compared with $351m currently.

Where does the money from these exports go and who benefits from it? Manik Chandra Saha, a young journalist from Khulna raised the question as early as 2000 when he saw how aquaculture was ruining the livelihood of thousands of his fellow-countrymen. In January 2004 he was murdered by an armed gang known to offer its services to the highest bidder. In Khulna alone, 13 of Chandra Saha's fellow journalists have been killed since 1990. This violence makes Bangladesh one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters, despite a theoretically free press.

Bangladesh's high value-added exports benefit only a tiny minority. But western companies are free to shop in Bangladesh, considered a star pupil of the International Monetary Fund, without being shamed too much by human rights activists, which is not the case in neighbouring totalitarian Burma. The reason is that shrimp represents only 6% of national exports. Bangladesh's main attraction is its ready-to-wear clothing industry, which accounts for 75% of exports and generated $56bn in revenues in 2004 according to official statistics.

Conditions for the two million textile workers are Dickensian. Local manufacturers' constant fear that Western clients will relocate to an even more "competitive" country leads to an overriding obsession with the cheapest possible production. Young girls who have fled the poverty of the countryside and are totally unaware of their rights make up 85% of the labour force. They work 12 hours a day or more, often seven days a week, and earn between $15 and $36 a month. They are literally locked up in the workplace and body-searched when they leave it. They are not even allowed to talk among themselves. Union rights are purely theoretical: any "subversives" are fired on the spot so only one worker in a hundred is a card-carrying member of any union. Rapes by managerial staff have been reported and nearly 300 workers have died in fires since 1990. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) boasts the "elimination of child labour from the garment sector" on its website, no doubt expecting congratulations.

On the morning of 11 April 2005, a nine-storey factory in the export processing zone of Savar just a few miles outside Dhaka, collapsed. At least 100 workers died and an unknown number are still unaccounted for. The following day, riot police took up positions on the site ready to face the anger of the workers' families. For this was no accident. The plant had been built on a former pond and planning position granted for a four-storey building only. This had been overridden by the owners, who put orders from European customers first.

Sixteen hours before the building collapsed, workers had warned management about cracks in the walls but were ignored. The police, always quick on the draw when it comes to the summary execution of petty criminals or firing on strikers, was unable to find the plant mangers responsible for the accident. One of the managers happens to be the son-in-law of a member of the ruling party. On 22 April, Bangladesh's leading newspaper, the Daily Star, claimed that the owners were too influential to be interrogated. Class makes all the difference, allowing the privileged to avoid their responsibilities and the underprivileged to be exploited.

Back in Barcelona, the company's main client, Inditex (Zara), promised to help the victims. The group says that it manufactures 60% of its clothes in Europe and has been carrying out a "social audit" of its 900 Asian sub-contractors since October 2004. But it seems that the Savar workers slipped through the audit, since they were hired through an Indian company that never informed Inditex.

"Do you know these brands?" asks Nazma Akter, secretary general of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF), holding up the labels of the clothes that her union members are literally killing themselves to produce. They are all here: Gap, H & M, Old Navy, Tesco, Ladybird, The North Face, Lee, Wrangler, Cherokee, Burton. "How much do they sell these clothes for? Europeans should know that these companies pay us one euro apiece." According to Amirul Haque Amin, secretary general of the National Garments Workers Federation (NGWF), "European companies are responsible for the living conditions of Bangladeshi workers. They buy at the lowest price, which means that our bosses pay us the lowest wage, it's the law of the market." These clothes, which are produced in what amount to labour camps in Bangladesh, increase in value because of the marketing concept known as "fashion", and are sold in Europe with hefty margins to match.

For all that, are Bangladeshi workers calling on European consumers to boycott these clothes? "No," says Nazma Akter, "We'd just lose our jobs." She believes that factory work, however hellish, plays an important role in emancipating women. "Previously they had no work, they stayed in the countryside and put up with domestic violence." Still, "the European public must be told about our working conditions so that these companies are shamed and put pressure on our bosses," urges Amirul Haque Amin. Amin also wants to see the minimum wage doubled from BDT 930 to BDT 1,800 ($14 to $28). But the end of the Multifibre Agreement on 1 January, together with increased competition from the Chinese textile industry, do not augur well for Bangladeshi workers. Though they do have a considerable ally in the vast network of local NGOs that mobilise millions of ordinary people.

Recent history explains why these movements flourish to such an extent. During the Liberation War against Pakistan in 1971, the progressive forces hoped that the struggle would also help bring about a social transformation. Faced with the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, the persecution of the left and failed attempts at guerrilla warfare, they transferred the struggle to the NGO movement. The government tolerated this since it relieved the state of its social responsibilities.

Ravaged by war, famine (in 1974) and then recurrent floods, Bangladesh saw an influx of donors pour in along with the means to finance projects. For the elite and the left-wing middle classes, working in an NGO is a way of putting ideas into practice. More prosaically, these organisations have opened up career opportunities outside the closed circuits dominated by the clannish networks of the two dominant parties (see box). Abuses have, of course, occurred. Some of these "social workers" consider that microcredit, invented by Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, is simply a marketing ploy, leading poor farmers to incur heavy debt. Now Grameen Phone, the Grameen Bank's mobile telephone network, symbolises a further development in this commercial drift.

Nigera Kori (NK), an organisation with thousands of members, actively discourages microcredit, believing that it reinforces the dependence of the poor. Instead, NK seeks to promote their emancipation, starting with economic emancipation through savings rather than debt. For example, a single handful of rice set aside by a housewife at each meal may then be resold and the money invested in a new source of revenue such as a fishing net or a few chicken. The profits are divided among the community. Next comes political emancipation, by making the poor aware of their repression and getting them to refuse it. Through direct democracy in decision-making processes, NK groups have taken on the prawn farms, one square mile at a time, fighting the mastaans, resisting the loan sharks and filing complaints in the courts with the help of the organisation's lawyers.

This newfound pride is also seen in the landless farmers' movement. Some 67% of Bangladeshis are landless today compared with 31% at independence in 1971. The concentration of agrarian land in the hands of the few is due to debt and corruption. Local bigwigs seize the khas -- public land set aside for the poor -- by bribing government officials. The farmers then have no choice but to work as agricultural day labourers or go and live in the city slums. And yet, according to Proshika, a powerful NGO, agrarian reforms that would cream off the highest revenues and guarantee a few acres for everyone would cost just $2.4bn or so.

"It seems that the World Bank has got better things to do than to listen to me," says Qazi Faruque Ahmed, the head of Proshika, who was imprisoned by the government in 2004 and has received threats from fundamentalists. "We identify, occupy and cultivate the despoiled land," sums up Alam, head of the Samata (equality) movement in the Pabna district. "It's not exactly risk-free," he adds, showing the machete scar across his scalp. Samata, Proshika, NK and many other NGOs have enabled thousands of poor farmers to win back their rights and their dignity.

Dignity is at the heart of the philosophy behind Ubinig, a movement that promotes organic farming and agricultural independence. In 1995 the government applied World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and suspended fertiliser subsidies. Consequently fertiliser prices hit the roof, riots broke out, and the police shot 17 farmers. Tired of this dependence on the market, concerned by the depletion of the soil and the loss of biodiversity as a result of chemical agriculture, several thousand farmers (130,000 according to the organisation) switched over to organic farming, sharing seeds and developing polyculture. They included whole villages, particularly in the Tangail district which has a population of 30,000.

Since the investment is so much lower, the farmers we met stressed that their revenues had increased. They are proud of having reduced their dependence on western companies. Farida Akhter, founder of Ubinig, is worried about offensives by supporters of genetically modified (GM) crops and their "humanitarian" arguments. "Consumer fears about GM crops in the Northern hemisphere are portrayed by the multinationals as a luxury in the face of hunger in the South. How demeaning! Are our lives worth less that those of westerners?" Farida stresses that in the face of market-driven individualism people in both North and South are interdependent. Consumption by the North is the production - and exploitation - of the South. After all, she says: "Lifestyle is political".


Translated by Krystyna Horko






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

15 September 2005

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