The “Selfies” of Labour

 Published in: The Daily Star on August 11, 2014
The “Selfies” of Labour

JUST read about a monkey taking a picture after it played around with British photographer David Slater’s equipment. Wikipedia and Slater are locked in a battle, asking a basic question: who owns the copyright of this photo that was clicked by a monkey in 2011 with Slater’s camera? Slater thinks he has the right; Wikipedia thinks an animal cannot have any copyrights vested in him. My question is, are we taking the case of the workers as “monkey see, monkey do” in our country? Are unions working as Slater and tugging workers to whichever direction that suits the unions the most? And who clicks the camera in this case? Labour or the Union?

For the most part of last month and the current one, we have been watching scenes in the media of workers in Tuba Garments in distress and have been reading about them. Neither does a camera lie nor is the viewer incapable of interpreting the expressions that were pasted all over the workers’ faces. In hunger and desperation, they chose any and every voice that promised them allegiance and loyalty. They sided with promise. One must say a particular labour leader did a great job in this case. She went on a hunger strike. She called for a nationwide strike from last Saturday. She spoke to a foreign journalist (which was leaked in You-Tube two days ago) and shared with him the success of “her” particular union and the failure of others. Unfortunately, none of this worked all that much just because the workers truly were hungry and couldn’t afford to go on an infinite unrest that would not have ultimately added to their advantage. Accepting a two-month salary was way better than indefinitely waiting and striking for the total package to be received “only” from the owner.

In the case of Tuba, while the aggrieved workers had solid, non-negotiable points, one needs to realise that no degree of mediation or coverage will ever be able to solve it unless the owners own the issues. Cameras can cover, activists may crowd the scene, unions may declare solidarity, but at the end it’s still a case between the owners and the workers. The change has to come from within otherwise the stopgap disbursement of salaries, the intervention of industrial police, and the baton charging et al. can only act as a steroid but will never permanently cure the sector of its ailments.

An interesting book by Ha-Joon Chang, an economist from London School of Economics, reflects on the case of labour and brings in two movies as points of reference. The first movie is Django Unchained where Stephen, the character played by Samuel L. Jackson, takes the lead against the other slaves in perpetuating injustice. Slaves like Stephen exist in our societies where collectively a society internalises oppression and inequality, which coincides with what the Marxists call “false consciousness.”  There are many within us who believe that what the workers receive is just and apt and till we ourselves feel the extent of deprivation and misery, no external pressure can force us to balance our books. Another movie that Ha-Joon Chang brings into his discussion is the 1999 movie Matrix, where the Wachowski siblings created a character like Morpheus, who refuses to live under fall consciousness while Cypher, another character finds the illusion of happiness acceptable. In our case, the owners may be going through the phase of “adaptive preference” in which we reinterpret situations and make them “bearable” by impacting the lives of the labour in a manner in which the workers are influenced to accept the “sour grape” principle.

But this change cannot come into effect if the owners are defensive. Unfortunately, attacks on the entrepreneurs initially prompt defense. Therefore, your columnist strongly feels that no number of seminars will be able to change the mindset of the owners. Accusations like “BGMEA stands for the sub-contractors, who exploit the cheap labour force, and the politically-linked owners,” will not change the scene. Public intellectuals need to address their concerns in a much more responsible manner. At the same time, for the interest of everyone, the owners need to paint a clear picture of potential opportunities and disasters that could very well either help or kill the sector.

Reality is, EU has turned out to be the biggest garment importer. In spite of China and Turkey leading the exporters’ race, Bangladesh is continuing to increase exports to EU where, in the first three months of 2014, exports have gone up by 35% and market share by 18%. Also, in spite of remediation processes that will possibly cost more than $200 million and take another 2 years or so to complete, the North-American Alliance members also are buying more products from Bangladesh, according to Ian Spaulding, a senior advisor to the group.

At the same time, let us not forget that China is again managing to offset fears about competitiveness as the Chinese manufacturers are now offering falling unit prices. Data reflects that average price fell 1.4% year-on-year in the last six months from January to June, as higher wages are being balanced by productivity gains. While we continue at our end with threats of strikes and disruption, the activists also need to understand the global reality on China being unbeatable in terms of the size of its supply base, multiple skills, quality, variety and supply chain competitiveness.  Let’s not also forget that an extremely business-friendly government is at play in India where the manufacturers have just pressed the government to conclude the EU-India free trade agreement, or alternatively provide export subsidies to the garment exporters. Bear in mind that the recent budget announcement of the Indian government declared helping the exporters out with increasing duty-free entitlement of imports of trimmings, embellishments and a range of other items from 3% to 5% of the value of the exports.

At a time like this, when Bangladesh is confronted with a myriad of to-do lists, the owners as well as the activists need to plan their strides with caution. The “selfies” that we click are all our own and no matter who stands with the camera equipments like Slater did, the portrait is ours to own, even if it is an ugly one. A cosmetic recue won’t help. A long telephone conversation with a foreign journalist enthusiastically informing him about the state of affairs also won’t be of use. At the end of the day, it’s our workers and it’s our own land.

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

Posted on