From two far-apart areas of the globe, under widely differing conditions, the grossly underpaid factory workers in Bangladesh and the jobless farm-workers in Spain have taken bold steps to assert their rights and to demand economic and social justice.
Since March this year, Bangladeshi workers have been protesting at their factory sites and in the streets of Dhaka, the capital, demanding wage increases and job security. On the other hand, the Spanish farmworkers — rendered jobless by recession since 2008 — have resorted to occupying and cultivating idle state lands to feed their hungry families.
Remarkably, these incidents replicate both the hardships and injustices that our own factory workers and farm-workers suffered and the courageous actions they have taken to redress their plight.
The Bangladeshi workers’ initiative closely reprises the united actions taken several years back by Filipino factory workers at the export processing zones in Mariveles, Bataan and in Cavite province. Defying the “no-union” policy, they organized themselves, braving the severe restrictions and reprisals, to fight against starvation wages and cruel working conditions.
In like manner, the Spanish farm-workers’ recent mass actions somehow follow the line of “occupy-and-cultivate” idle farmlands that our landless farmers have adopted, with varying degrees of success, in Negros Occidental, Batangas, Cavite, Nueva Ecija, and at Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac.
In a back-to-back coverage, the International Herald Tribune recently provided an insight into these two manifestations of unrest and struggle. Here’s what happened in Bangladesh:
On March 25 the workers of two foreign-owned garment factories at the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone (in western Bangladesh) held a sit-down strike to protest their Chinese bosses’ arbitrary cutting of their wages, already abysmally low.
The minimum pay for garment workers, set by the government, is equivalent to $37, or P1,554 a month. It was raised to that level only last year by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, from about $20 (P840) that had prevailed until 2010. It is no wonder that over 50% of the population of Bangladesh live on less than $1.25 (P52.50) per day.
The protesting workers constituted but a small section of the three million workers — predominantly women — who produce 80% of the $18-billion worth of apparel that Bangladesh exports, mainly to the US and Europe. Products include leading brands, such as Nike, Puma, Adidas, Gap, Calvin Klein, H&M, and Tommy Hilfiger.
When the strikers refused to return to work, the police tried to disperse them with tear gas. The workers fought back by throwing stones. A bigger force was called in, the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion, which attacked the workers by firing guns using rubber bullets and pummeling them with cane poles.
The protesting workers, several of them badly hurt, were subdued. The police arrested and filed charges against those suspected as leaders of the protest action.
But the unrest spread. Three months after that incident, tens of thousands of workers protested for over a week near Dhaka demanding wage hikes. In July, alarmed over the labor unrest, representatives from 12 major brand producers and retailers pressed the government to act on the workers’ demands. Yet Prime Minister Wazed refused to raise the minimum wage.
This week workers belonging to the Garment Sramik Trade Union rallied anew in Dhaka. They have raised the ante: besides wage increases they are demanding job security.
On the other side of the globe, hundreds of farmworkers in Andalucia — Spain’s largest farming region where agrarian disputes in the 1930s sparked the Spanish Civil War — have begun occupying and planting crops in idle state agricultural lands. They even raided two supermarkets for food.
Hundreds of them have been marching through the villages since August, protesting that the recession has put them out of work while so much land has been left uncultivated.
Chancing upon a vacant luxurious estate owned by a duke living in Seville (Andalucia’s capital), the farmworkers broke in and occupied it symbolically for 24 hours. Their action, the group leader explained, was meant “to denounce a social class who leaves such places to waste.”
Since March a group has occupied and grown vegetables in a government-owned farm in Somonte. Last month another group occupied another farm, owned by the defense ministry, for 18 days. But the police drove them away before they could grow any crop.
Remarked a woman farmworker: “In only a few months, we’ve already shown that, if people are given the right to work the land, they will be able to forget poverty and joblessness and take pride instead in forming a self-sufficient community.”
The Somonte occupy-and-cultivate group action is similar to what retrenched hacienda farmworkers in Bago City (Negros Occidental) have been doing. Since December 2008, they have camped out on a wide uncultivated section of the hacienda and planted rice, vegetables and tubers to feed their families.
When hacienda security guards and armed goons attempted to evict them, they resisted and fought back. I personally visited them there to see how I could help. With support from fellow farmworkers, other people’s organizations, youth activists and church people, the farmworkers have prevailed. And their families are eating.