Sunday, May 12, 2013

800 dead in Bangladesh: Fight global capitalism with international working class unity

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start this morning.  I need to control my anger after reading the introductory paragraph to this article in BloombergBusinessweek, a major journal of the US capitalist class.

“Bangladesh’s billion dollar garment industry provides opportunities for millions of poor, illiterate women.”, BW writes.  Indeed it does.  The death toll from last month’s catastrophe when a building housing several factories collapsed has topped 800. When opportunity knocks it knocks hard in Bangladesh. (see previous blogpost)
It also has its dangers the article confesses.  The nation is a "paradox" BW  argues. Is that what you call it?

Bangladesh has some 5000 garment factories that supply clothing to retailers like Wal Mart, Target and other western giants.  These exports tripled between 2005 and 2010 and are estimated to triple again by 2020. The preponderance of textile manufacturing in Bangladesh is due to one reason and one reason only----profits.  A human being’s labor power can be bought for about $50 a month in Bangladesh compared to $235 in Shenzhen China.  Even the use of a lowly Vietnamese worker’s Labor power is too costly for the heads of the retail giants coming in at $100 a month by comparison.  Yes indeed, Bangladesh has been a boon for the 1%. Steve Jobs, the Waltons, the heads of Nike, Puma and the tech giants and other characters that purchase $100 million yachts do so on the backs of workers like the Bangladeshi women that died in last month’s tragedy.

But what am I saying?  We should thank these people; laud the productive power of the capitalist mode of production for giving these poor illiterate women a chance to better themselves.  “If you look at industrial history, for better or worse, this is what an early industrial revolution looks like.”,  says Pietra Rivoli, an author and professor at Georgetown University. This is a profound statement if there ever was one.  In order for capitalism to develop in Bangladesh it must go through its Dickensian period. So much for progress. I wish I’d have gone to university it might have learned me something. Bangladesh is “…still a desperately poor country We shouldn’t minimize what a job with a steady paycheck means to a poor woman” says Rivoli.

They should think themselves lucky these Bangladeshi’s.

The mass murderer and war criminal Henry Kissinger who has found a safe haven on American soil, once referred to Cambodia, where 600,000 or so were slaughtered by US capitalism’s carpet bombing strategy he helped orchestrate, as a “Sideshow”* (when he compared it to Vietnam where three million were slaughtered).  He has a knack for using such colorful phrases to describe regions with rich and centuries old culture and his one for Bangladesh is that it’s a ” basket case”.  British colonialism’s role in the creation of the country and partition of the Indian sub continent and western capitalists support for repressive regimes are absent of course.

We will find the issue of real profits missing from all the post catastrophe analysis of the building collapse at Rana Plaza.  There is no such thing as democracy when it comes to these matters.  Business practices, profits, these are protected and the business of the owners of capital, not workers, but we can see it in the form of yachts and luxuries and the obscene living standards and’s figures on the coupon clippers’ net worth.

More so than the owners of that building, or of Ether Textiles that was housed in the building and that employed many of the dead; responsibility for the disaster falls at the feet of the western based coupon clippers, bankers, investors, hedge fund managers and private equity thugs whose riches are dependent on the Dickensian world of global manufacturing and who turn a blind eye to the horror.

Workers, mostly women and children, are bent over sewing machines for 14 or more hours a day making jeans and other apparel with fancy exotic sexy names. Women are preferred for these jobs as they are considered better sewers and more importantly, as Business Week points out, “more compliant”.

Another component of these working conditions, much akin to Dickens’ time in England,  is physical/sexual violence. In a recent survey of workers there done by Britain's War on Want, 70% of them interviewed said they had been verbally abused and 40% of them physically beaten. Sexual harassment, from inappropriate touching to rape is commonplace.  Then there is the punishment for not producing or meeting quotas.  These include being forced to stand on tables for hours on end and having to undress in front of your co-workers.  Regulations or workers rights were simply ignored with pregnant women being forced to work until the final days or weeks of pregnancy and often fired after birthing.

As of this writing the names of the customers, the retailers for whom the clothes at Ether Textiles were being produced have not been named.  It doesn’t amount to much if they are especially if they are US based as US corporations have personhood so no human is guilty.

The sheer numbers in this particular disaster does have the heads of western companies like the Gap, Wal-Mart and European concerns worried.  Not so much about the lives of Bangladeshi men women and children, but the loss of business and profits that could be brought about if pressure comes from US and European activist groups or social upheaval in the source country itself that could put and end to the profit taking.  The Bangladeshi government has now agreed to the UN’s International Labor Organization’s proposals that “include worker protections and the right to unions” says BW.  Good luck with that.

Capitalism cannot advance humanity.  It does not take rocket science to figure that out. Here in the US, US capitalism, the most powerful capitalist economy of all and headed by the same folks that get rich from our Bangladeshi brothers and sisters and are responsible for their conditions and this catastrophe, are driving US workers down to third world conditions.  I pointed this out recently with regard to the shutting down of the Caterpillar factory in London Ontario and transplanting it to LaGrange Illinois where wages are 50% lower   The US “has become much more efficient, making it more attractive for global manufacturers.” , the Wall Street Journal reported  Things are looking good for the US capitalist class back at home as far as productivity is concerned. US bosses get almost 25% more goods and services out of us than they did in 1999 with the same number of workers and as wages have declined.  “It’s as if $2.5 trillion worth of stuff---the equivalent of the entire U.S. economy circa 1958—materialized out of thin air” Business Week wrote in January. An “attractive” workforce is always a cheaper and more compliant workforce.

The orchestrators of this savage attack on the living standards of American workers have a mantra for us when it suits them, “United We Stand”.  We have no say in the allocation of capital in society, whether it is used here or in Bangladesh.  We have no say in foreign policy and when their phony diplomacy is revealed to us by a heroic figure like Bradley Manning, the messenger faces life imprisonment. And who is in Guantanamo? We have no idea. When foreign victims of their policy resist, we are supposed to forget about what they are doing to us domestically and rally round the flag to protect not “our” but “their” freedom which amounts to freedom to accumulate wealth at the expense of others.

Capitalism will produce more disasters like the one in Bangladesh. More environmental catastrophe like the BP oil spill, more destruction like that which just occurred in West Texas.  These events will receive no serious analysis, no deep insight in to the system and why it allows such easily preventable disasters. The system must not come under scrutiny. 

The International Labor Organization is an arm of the United Nations which is simply a capitalist club.  Only a global movement, a united global working class movement can begin to reverse course, prevent environmental disaster which at some point will be irreversible or change the horrific conditions that exist in workplaces that lead to events like the catastrophe in Bangladesh. The increased regional warfare is also a product of the global struggle between nations for domination of the world market. The hunger and disease in Africa and elsewhere is not caused by lack of funds or technical/medical knowledge. It is the lack of social infrastructure and capital will not flow in to this arena if it doesn’t produce the right return on investment. We cannot solve our problems within the framework of the profit system.

It is not a moral issue in the sense that we can convince capitalists to be nice people, or change their ways.  They are driven to act the way they do by the laws of the market and it is these laws we have to challenge.

The production of human needs must be a collective venture.  The ownership and allocation of capital, a crucial aspect of production must be a collective process owned and managed not by individuals for profit but by those whose labor power produces that capital; capital is a collective product.

I anticipate the response from fellow workers. “That’s a nice idea but it’ll never work”. Who says that? Every ruling class teaches that their system of production is the only system of production, is the apex of human civilization. The dominant ideology in society is the ideology of the class that rules. The class that owns the means of production also owns the means of communication, the schools the universities the media.

It is not an easy process. But if we take the time to look at our own history as workers; not just as American workers but as world workers.  The revolutions and great strikes that have occurred, Spain, Chile, China, and the most important of all, the Russian revolution of 1917.  Not just for its initial success, but also why it degenerated with the rise of Stalinism.

Is it an accident that the Seattle general strike of 1919 is almost unknown to us?**   
Why is this kept from us?  It is kept from us because it is an example of how workers can govern society. It is an embrionic look at what a society might look like beyond capitalism and its brutal profit motive. Working people controlled Seattle for almost a week before being defeated. Workers formed a General Strike committee of 300 members with many sub committees.  In the course of the strike, these workers committees, or councils ran essential services that were exempted from the strikes, from garbage collection to milk deliveries and hospitals.  Here is a short excerpt from the minutes of this committee:

“King County commissioners ask for exemption of janitors to care for City-County building. Not granted.”

“F.A. Rust asks for janitors for Labor Temple. Not granted. (The committee was playing no favorites: it is worth noting, however, that a few days later, when the Co-operative Market asked for additional janitor help because of the large amounts of food handles for the strikers’ kitchens, their request was allowed.)

“Teamsters’ Union asks permission to carry oil for Swedish hospital during strike. Referred to transportation committee. Approved.”

“Port of Seattle asks to be allowed men to load a governmental vessel, pointing out that no private profits are involved and that an emergency exists. Granted.” (Note: This was on a later date.)

“Garbage Wagon Drivers ask for instructions. Referred to public welfare committee, which recommends that such garbage as tends to create an epidemic of disease be collected, but no ashes or papers. Garbage wagons were seen on the streets after this with the sign, ‘Exempt by Strike Committee.”

Drug Stores—Prescriptions Only

“The retail drug clerks sent in statement of the health needs of the city. Referred to public welfare committee, which recommends that prescription counters only be left open, and that in front of every drug store which is thus allowed to open a sign be placed with the words, ‘No goods sold during general strike, Orders for prescriptions only will be filled. Signed by general strike committee.’

“Communication from House of Good Shepherd. Permission granted by transportation committee to haul food and provisions only.”

I am only drifting in to this arena as I often raise the issue of workers’ ownership and control of society’s means of production, distribution and exchange of goods and have many times been told it is utopian, an impossibility.  But it is through studying our own history that we can see the general trend toward such a society when workers move in to struggle, and not just through a historical event like the Russian revolution, but here in America we have great examples and the Seattle General Strike is a great example which is why it is practically airbrushed from history. 

Society needs new managers.

* For more information read "Sideshow" by William Shawcross and The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens
** See "Strike" by Jeremy Brecher for more on Seattle 1919

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