The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerable state of the working class as the rich kept getting richer through exploitative practices
On January 9, at least 20 workers were injured in a clash between RMG workers and police in Narayanganj. About 2000 workers of Kwun Tong Apparels Ltd. were demonstrating since morning demanding payment of their due wages for six months. Later, workers had blocked the Shimrail-Adamjee-Narayanganj road. Eventually, they clashed with police when asked to free the road.
RMG Workers' protesting for salary and other benefits has become a regular phenomenon. On top of that, workers from the government-run jute and sugar mills recently protested against the foreclosure of factories and unpaid benefits. We also saw protests of the tea garden workers demanding an increase in daily wage. Likewise, Uber and Pathao workers protested for compensation-related issues.
For every compensation related demand, workers have no other option but to take it onto the street which usually leads to clashes with the law enforcers. As such, the government generally ignores the workers' causes and apparently supports the capital owners by not taking direct action against the companies that do not pay workers' due wages and benefits.
On January 6, workers of A-One BD Limited – an Italian readymade garment factory – demonstrated demanding unpaid salaries and allowances. The factory is reportedly closed since April 18,l 2020 without paying salaries and arrears of 1100 workers.
The National Garment Workers' Federation (NGWF) claimed the workers did not receive any support from the Department of Factories and Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA) in receiving their compensation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed workers' miseries that otherwise do not come to the forefront. BGMEA estimated, due to the pandemic, 300 factories were closed and around 70,000 workers lost jobs. Although in October 2020 industries started to re-recruit workers but reportedly offered lower wages than before.
As many workers are desperately looking for work, factories could offer low compensation packages. Industrialists always claim, workers are free to decide and work; nobody forces them to work for a low salary. But these workers, not having alternative opportunities, must work even if they are offered much less salary. Industrialists' power generates from the fact that poor labourers hardly have any alternative income opportunities as reflected by the high youth unemployment rate that doubled in 2020 from 11.9 per cent in 2019.
Helplessness of the workers has previously led to tragic events. Amid the pandemic, the rush for keeping the market share of apparel products, led to the workers' treatment as "disposable bodies" – by starting production ignoring possible health hazards.
Here, we found an extraordinary similarity with the infamous Rana Plaza accident. Back in 2013, many factory managers forced workers to continue production in an unsafe building under threats of sacking and withholding salary.
One may argue, Covid-19 has been a major setback for all, but it is not as simple as it appears. While the pandemic has forced millions of people into poverty, it also increased assets of the richest few. Poverty is increasing but contrarily the rich are becoming richer.
Bangladesh is likely to have 16.4 million new poor in 2020 according to Bangladesh Institute of Development Institute. Moreover, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics revealed, between July 2019 and June 2020, the national poverty rate rose from 20.5 percent to 29.5 per cent.
Obstinately, data from the central bank exposed, during April to September, 4,865 new bank accounts had deposits of BDT 1 crore or USD 118 thousand or more. By the end of September 2020, the number of accounts with more than USD 118 thousand stood at 87,500 – with total deposits of USD 65.304 billion. These accounts hold up to 42 per cent of the total bank deposits of USD 155.944 billion in Bangladesh.
Going back to the issue: Why are workers so helpless in the capitalistic economic system?
We may point to the capitalist work process that has led the technological advancement and minute division of labour. For increasing the production rate, the work process has become so divided that individual workers must perform a small part of the entire process. This has two outcomes: firstly, workers' skill decreases as a worker does not need to know the whole production process rather continue to do the same tasks repeatedly.
Secondly, the minute division of labour lets capitalists hire and fire workers without much concern. The work process allows a new worker to perform the tasks without much training, making the workers vulnerable with the possibility of easy replaceability.
Overall, in our capitalistic world, two dimensions of workers' sufferings exist. At the one hand, workers are exploited under the threats of replacement and on the other hand, the ideology of meritocracy sustains the unjustified system.
Thomas Piketty in his 2019 book Capital and Ideology argued that every epoch has developed "ideologies" that legitimise the existing society. The mega-narratives that dominate today's world centre on property, entrepreneurship, and meritocracy. Modern poverty or inequality is perceived to be "just" because it supposedly results from a "freely chosen process."
The transformation of society that curtailed power of the nobility or feudal lords, emphasised the equality of humans but also generated an ideal: All people are equals – thus can progress by themselves. The ideology of meritocracy – has since been sanctioning the unequal distribution of wealth. The rich are believed to be the most enterprising while the poor are less inventive and lazy.
Governments across the world still believe and profess, as the rich become richer eventually the whole society will be benefited in a trickle-down process. But data suggests otherwise, while Bangladesh has achieved unprecedented averaged GDP growth of more than 6 percent over the last decade, we tend to forget the continuous rise of inequality over the last 50 years. Measure of income inequality shows, nationally Gini has risen from 0.36 in 1963 to 0.482 in 2016.
In establishing a free and equal society, we must first acknowledge that wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of the few who do not consider other's needs. Thus, freeing means of production and equal access to resources must primarily be ensured if we are to imagine an egalitarian future.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard