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“WHEN THEY SAY AR-REST, WE SAY PRO-TEST”

On the 11th anniversary of the deadliest tragedy in the garment industry in modern times, the Rana Plaza Solidarity Collective took the fight to the heart of the accessible glamour of the UK high street – Oxford Street. We wanted to tell the story of the brave struggle of Bangladeshi garment workers for a decent wage, and the brutal repression it was met with. While over 40,000 workers are at risk of criminal charges posed by unnamed warrants orchestrated by factory owners, brands that profit from their labour remain silent. Here, in the belly of the beast, we chanted, we samba-ed, we acted to make one message loud and clear to fashion brands: We know you are complicit, we won’t let you get away with it! This is a write up of the demonstration. 

 

Images: @protest_photos

Imagine working endless hours in cramped conditions, day after day, only to fall further into debt. Imagine having to skip meals and struggling to clothe your children, and all the while making clothes for brands that make millions in profit. Imagine being told you’re getting a new wage increase – and it is half of what you need to SURVIVE.

With little option to make their voices heard otherwise, Bangladeshi garment workers took to the streets in their tens of thousands. Both workers and brands were not blind to the danger of protesting – indeed violence and repression followed the last wage setting process in 2018.

And yet, brands sat on their vast wealth and said nothing to support the just demands of workers asking for a bare minimum to live. 

Repression and the importance of solidarity

Brands’ silence on the wage demand from workers indicated to factory owners that there is little chance for a significant change in the prices they pay for orders. And so, they quickly resorted to well-known and well-used techniques of union busting and intimidation. Both manufacturers and the government responded to the workers’ demand with harsh and violent repression which saw four workers killed, hundreds injured, and 40,000 at risk of false arrest under at least 35 baseless criminal charges that left dozens of workers jailed for months, including four union leaders.

The four workers who died are Rasel Howlader, 26, Jalal Uddin, 40, Anjuara Khatun, 23, Imran Hossain, 32. 

Filing baseless criminal cases that accuse workers generically, and without individualised evidence, of inciting vandalism and other serious crimes, is a well used tactic by the Bangladesh Government and garment factory owners to repress freedom of association and maintain poverty wages in the industry. These charges against unnamed workers pose a threat to any worker who steps out of line.

The vast majority of brands have shirked responsibility by falsely claiming that their suppliers aren’t involved, defending their suppliers’ filing of criminal cases, and/or denying that the charges are being used as a tool of systematic retaliation against workers who demonstrated for higher wages. Or simply not answering at all.

Not just remembrance, but resolve

The system of oppression and exploitation that sees corporations extract resources and value from people in the global south is what created the Rana Plaza tragedy. Factory safety may have improved since then, but without a fundamental transfer of power back to the workers who make our clothes (and many other goods in our economies), there can’t be true justice. 

Year after year, we gather together on the 24 April not just to share our grief, but to feel each other’s anger, to inspire each other’s actions, to collectively build a movement that says ‘ENOUGH’. 

Primark, Zara, Next and H&M are among the list of brands that have built their wealth off the back of poverty wages in Bangladesh, and elsewhere. It’s not enough for them to say they comply with the law, when the power they hold in the industry is so unequal, the law will be tailored to their needs for cheap labour. 

The deaths of 4 workers in the protests last year, the injuries, the violence against the people who make their clothes, the threat of arrest that now hangs over thousands of workers – it could all have been avoided had these fashion brands stepped up and said ‘We will pay a decent wage.’

Pointing the finger at the Bangladeshi government for the ongoing repression is not enough. More than half of the criminal cases filed come from the brands’ own suppliers. Clear communication from the likes of Primark or H&M could stop the criminalisation of workers. A commitment to a basic livable wage – a wage of 23,000 taka-  should be a bare minimum for brands to do business in Bangladesh.

“H&M, call off the cops! Care for your workers, not just your tops.”

From Bangladesh to every place

Justice for garment workers is justice for all of us.

Corporate impunity tries to divide. It tries to isolate us, it tries to tell some of us we are just consumers, while others are the workers and their demands will cost us. It is willing to profit from violence, from suppression of democracy, from unfreedom, from poverty – and all this time selling us t-shirts about self-love and self-care.

But it is solidarity, a collective love and a collective care, in struggle for all, that truly builds an alternative. It’s the samba band that knows music is protest and power. It’s the passers-by that recognise the justness of our demands, it’s the unionist that stands side by side with another worker, even if they are an ocean away. The Rana Plaza Solidarity Collective grows. Our movement grows stronger, our voices grow louder. Together, we win.