I arrived in Bangladesh, checked into my hotel, and asked for a newspaper. There on the back page was a story, just a few column inches in length, which shines a light on everything we do for ethical trade.
Workers at a factory which had been closed over a wages dispute “beat up and hacked to death” another worker, because they thought he was “a management spy”. We only have one name of the victim, Swapan.
Violence of this type never seems far below the surface here. Managers can be attacked, factories vandalised, cars set on fire when workers “go on the rampage” as it is termed. Managers told me that “we go into hiding when these things happen.”
In neighbouring India too, such incidents are becoming more frequent. Last month I was in Assam, and was told of an incident where some workers on a tea estate set fire to a manager’s bungalow, killing him and all his family.
Now some might say, agreeing with Paolo Freire (not a Brazilian footballer, but very influential in leftist circles back in the 1970s) that the “violence of the oppressed” is different from the “violence of the oppressors”. That a few dead managers are nothing compared to, say, the numbers killed at Rana Plaza. I doubt many readers will buy that.
Or you might say, looking at the rest of the paper that day, “there seems to be an awful lot of violence in this society.” True, there were some other ghastly stories.
Those who know some history might point out that two hundred years ago, groups of workers such as the Luddites in the UK used violence and assassinated at least one factory owner - an incident that was fictionalised in Charlotte Bronte’s second novel Shirley. These things will just happen in the early stages of industrialisation, they will say.
Well yes, maybe. Historians should take a long view, but do we have to go on repeating the mistakes of two centuries ago?
What drives people to murder one of their co-workers? What seething resentment boils over and targets a suspected management chamcha? (A word which literally means a spoon).
It’s not poverty. Garment workers are by no means the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, where 17% of the population are destitute, according to new research. That’s better than India where the figure is 28.5%. Destitute means you might have lost two of your children to a common, treatable illness, that you have to defecate in the open, you don’t have electricity, you don’t have a mobile phone, the floor where you live is mud, the walls plastic or tin. You have no assets.
Life is hard for garment workers in Bangladesh, but they are not destitute. In fact, they have expectations, hopes and dreams. They have learned that they have rights.
And they are getting impatient. Workers know that the sweat of their brow has meant huge wealth coming into Bangladesh and they want a share. They also want to be treated with some dignity.
Bangladesh’s garments workers have also seen that when they “go on the rampage” they do get the attention, even if momentarily, of the country’s truly awful elite. Which might just get a result, like an increase in the minimum wage.
The dispute that sparked Swapan’s murder was over some unpaid wages and piece rates. Once workers might have just accepted whatever management offered. But they can read the papers; they know that the world is watching Bangladesh’s garment industry and that there are supposed to be changes.
And their anger is because they don’t see the changes - yet.
So we need to deliver. We are in danger of forgetting that ethical trade is not about reputation management, or “building robust supply chains systems” or whatever.
It’s about making workers' lives better. And in doing that, we might stop another tragedy like Swapan’s death.