October 2000


‘...Just as in the great epic of Globalisation, workers are destined to remain locked in their countries of origin as a pool ... of cheap labour, so within those countries, they must also be incarcerated, as an instrument of industrial discipline so that the delivery of merchandise shall not be delayed,’ says the following article, commenting on a factory fire in Dhaka that took the lives of 12 young men and women workers.

By Jeremy Seabrook

On 27 August, 12 young women and men garment workers were burned to death in a factory fire in Dhaka. Mostly in their late teens and early 20s, their bodies were laid out on the damp pavements in the monsoon dawn. This incident coincided with the burning of the Ostankino Tower in Moscow, which made headline news in BBC World.

The fate of the Dhaka workers was not mentioned, even though they were making clothes for export to the West. Their deaths brought to over 200 the number of people killed by fire in the factories of Bangladesh in recent years.

It was 3:00 in the morning when the fire broke out on the ground floor of the building, where the finished garments were stored. They were working all night to finish an urgent export order. The owner was out of the country. The doors were locked, the emergency exits closed. This is usual practice, officially for purposes of ‘security’, but principally to ensure that workers do not stray from their place of work during nights of compulsory overtime.

The locking of the factory gates has a shocking resonance: just as in the great epic of Globalisation, workers are destined to remain locked in their countries of origin as a pool (or rather an ocean) of cheap labour, so within those countries, they must also be incarcerated, as an instrument of industrial discipline so that the delivery of merchandise shall not be delayed.

Free markets indeed, except for a humanity imprisoned by their majestic workings. It is significant that the first action of the authorities in Dhaka was to send two squads of police to the afflicted factory, including one from the Riot Control Division, to maintain law and order among distraught relatives unable to discover whether or not their loved ones had perished.

All the factories I visited in Dhaka were locked: a metal grille closed and bound with a giant padlock. The key was usually in the hands of a security guard. Each factory occupied one floor of a six- or seven-storey building. The stone steps and corridors were crammed with garments ready for dispatch to Complices near Paris, K-Mart, Walmart and other Western companies.

In some factories, there was a power-cut, and work had stopped. Exhausted workers lay on the backless benches where they usually sit for their 14-hour day, or sat with their head resting on the silent Juki or Brother machines. Piles of material - vivid blue, scarlet or black, lay in great swathes across the floor. Management were unperturbed by the stoppage: the workers would simply make up at night whatever time was required.

On one occasion, I accompanied a small demonstration of workers protesting that their salaries were three months in arrears. They marched, about 50 slim young country girls, in front of the Press Club in Dhaka, outnumbered by police, bellies bulging over their belts.

A few days after the death of the workers at Globe Garments, the British Home Secretary arrived in Dhaka to great fanfare, bearing the news that Britain may well be prepared to relax its immigration rules, in such a way as to permit the entry into the country of some categories of skilled workers. In this context, he came as a kind of concierge of Globalisation, endowed with the power to release a few selected individuals from their industrial prisons.

Mr Straw reiterated his earlier policy of giving work-permits to people investing £1 million or more in the British economy; a category to which few garment workers belong. To these gilded migrants would now be added workers in information technology, and other sectors where there is now a serious shortage in the UK.

In other words, those to be released from the house of correction that is Bangladesh are the rich and skilled. That such people were educated at the expense of Bangladesh, that the country might be in urgent need of their particular skills and abilities, that this selective relaxation of stringent immigration laws represents further impoverishment for Bangladesh and an escalation of the brain drain - all this is of no importance to those anxious to enhance the economies of already privileged corners of the world.

The fact is, workers are required now in Britain to keep the cost of labour down and to avoid wage-led inflation. Never mind the sombre consequences of resentment and racism that this may engender in time. Immediate economic imperatives take precedence over everything else.

Jack Straw made it clear he was offering no such release for the unskilled workers of the world. He said Britain would continue tough policies towards ‘illegal migrants’ who try to get in ‘through deception. Every time a Bangladeshi tries that, it makes it difficult for others’, he said.

Mr Straw also offered his views on forced marriages and acid-throwing against women. He made no mention of the factory workers, who must remain where they are, in the carceral units of Dhaka, Chittagong and now, in Narayangaj - a huge satellite city of Dhaka, where whole areas of new factory buildings are growing, their foundations in acres of water hyacinths, reached by potholed embankments that permit the workers to get to their place of employment above the floodline.

These events took place against the background of the UN Millennium Summit, where an unparalleled gathering of the world’s luminaries committed themselves to poverty eradication. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, was offered an honorary doctorate from the University of Bridgeport for her dedication to the poor; a virtue scarcely perceptible on the ground, where the policies are precisely the opposite of those proclaimed by the ‘world leaders’ amid their pious exaltations in New York.

Jack Straw came with the key to the global penitentiary (where those who have committed the supreme crime of being poor must be detained) to entice the already advantaged out of Bangladesh, leaving the most exploited and the destitute even more bereft of the skills and services with which such people might have provided them.

The only people present to record the pain and injury to the charred bodies brought out into the oppressive humid dawn of Dhaka were detachments of police, whose absence of compassion for those they were sent to control is matched only by the indifference of Western politicians to the fate of those they are (while advertising their ‘liberal immigration policies’ to the privileged)  ready to leave under double lock and key in houses of detention, which in other contexts, are honoured with the designation of sovereign nations. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.