Food Riots in Bangladesh? Garments Worker Protests and Globalized Subsistence Crises

Ferdous Jahan and Naomi Hossain
University of Dhaka and Institute of Development Studies

Volume: "Food Fights," Volume 5 (2019)
Digital Object Identifier: 10.21431/Z3Z30S
Keywords: , , , , , ,




 

This paper explores the politics of provisions in Bangladesh through an analysis of the so-called ‘food riots’ of 2008. On the face of it, poor, malnourished, mal-governed Bangladesh was a clear candidate for food riots during the global food crisis, which the international media duly reported in April 2008. And there were indeed subsistence-related struggles, which resonated loudly with the prevailing moral economy. But in intent, form, and repertoire, these struggles rarely targeted failures of food marketing systems or demanded action by public authorities, and in no respects resembled what social history has taught us to think of as ‘food riots’. Although triggered in part by food price rises, these protests reflected a strong sense of subsistence crisis among the protesting garments workers, and were part of a longer series of struggles over wages, by this emergent, globalized precariat.

What do these protests tell us about the politics of provisions, or the struggle between elites and masses to secure basic protection against crises of subsistence? This paper1 argues that Bangladesh has, for reasons of political economy, developed a comparatively responsive state system of food security since the devastating famine of 1974. Its food security system marries moral with political economy, guaranteeing that the interests of the hungry masses and those of the ruling elite align, at least to the extent of providing protection against crises of subsistence and survival. For this reason Bangladesh is unusually good, for a country at its level of economic and institutional development, at providing such protection (Hossain 2017). But its precociousness with respect to national food security is not matched by forward thinking on industrial relations: wages have been kept so low that the steep rise in global food prices from 2007 caused a subsistence crisis among workers in the flagship garments industry, adding impetus and powerful moral economic resonance to an ongoing wage struggle. These wage struggles were not the contentious politics of a population whose state had yet to develop the food security apparatus necessary to safeguard against major crises of subsistence, but reflected instead the exclusion of that emergent precariat from the protection available to others. The prominent struggles of Bangladesh’s garments workers during the global food crisis point to what John Bohstedt terms the ‘politics of provisions’ as they play out in the recent, globalized subsistence crises of developing countries (Bohstedt 2016); the nature of contemporary grievances around food, and the opportunities affected populations have to mobilize ‘collective bargaining by riot’.

The paper is organized as follows. It first describes the food crisis of 2008 as it unfolded in Bangladesh, and examines some of the official responses, both short- and longer-term. Then it explores the politics of provisions during this period, looking at how the moral and political economy of food price crises played out in protests and other forms of popular and elite advocacy for action to correct failing food markets. It takes a closer look at how garments workers’ struggles were reported on and perceived, and at garments’ workers own views on the meaning and purpose of their protests. The paper concludes with a discussion of what the garments workers’ protests tell us about the politics of provisions in Bangladesh, both its broad effectiveness in achieving protection without need for widespread protest, which groups were always excluded from such protection, and who had the opportunities and means to mobilize to protest.

 

The Global Food Crisis in Bangladesh

The onset of the global food crisis in 2008 was, for Bangladesh, a matter of triply unfortunate timing: excess flooding and Cyclone Sidr in 2007 had reduced the harvest by almost two million metric tons (World Bank 2010); national foodgrain reserves had been run down, in line with policy recommendations by the World Bank (Islam 2012; Chowdhury, Farid, and Roy 2006); and the country was being governed by an unelected caretaker government (Ahmed 2010). As the global financial crisis unfurled around the world, workers in the flagship readymade garments industry had already been protesting low wages and breaches of labour rights since 2006 (Rahman and Langford 2012; Siddiqi 2017). The high price of food could only exacerbate their grievances (Rashid, Hasan, and Hossain 2012).

The Effects of the Food Crisis

Figure 1: The Price of Coarse Rice in Dhaka, 2000-2016 (Nominal BDT/100kg)
Source: Department of Agricultural Marketing (DAM), downloaded from FAO-GIEWS (downloaded January 6, 2017).
Note: The darkened patch marks the research period.

The high price of food caused a real if short-lived subsistence crisis for the majority of Bangladeshis. When global food prices soared in 2008, the country was classed among the largest developing countries at risk of a major food crisis (De Janvry and Sadoulet 2008). As late as 2005, 40 per cent of the population lived below the country’s poverty line, a quarter in extreme poverty (World Bank 2008). Almost half the children were underweight and 12 per cent severely underweight in 2007 (NIPORT 2009). And despite progress towards rice self-sufficiency (Murshid et al. 2009), Bangladesh was ‘substantially deficit in food grains’ when world prices spiked in 2007, partly due to Cyclone Sidr (M. Hossain 2010, 175). In usual years, the domestic grain production shortfall was met by Indian imports, averaging around five per cent of total consumption annually (World Bank 2010). However, the effective ban on Indian rice exports at the height of the global crisis saw consumer rice prices double in 15 months, from Bangladesh Taka (BDT) 18 per kg in January 2007 to BDT 35 per kg in April 2008 (M. Hossain 2010) (see Figure 1).

The effects of the rising price of rice were wide and immediate. Nationally, half of all spending was on food before prices rose. People started cutting down quantities and eating less diverse diets, with lasting harm for infants and small children (Save the Children 2009; Thorne-Lyman et al. 2010; Sulaiman, Parveen, and Das 2009). Children were withdrawn from school (Raihan 2009), and people endured great physical hardships and indignities in order to meet basic needs (Rashid, Hasan, and Hossain 2012, 75).

It was not only the poorest, but people with regular but low paid jobs, factory workers and the lowest grades of the civil service or ‘fixed income’ groups, who suffered. Unlike domestic staff, they could expect no patronage from employers; unlike self-employed transport workers or vendors, they found it difficult increase their working hours or bid up their earnings. Even middle class folk were seen queuing to buy the subsidised (often poor quality) rice offered for sale in the Government’s Open Market Sales (OMS) scheme (Khan and Wadud 2010). Toiling away in the factories for 10 or more hours a day, six days a week, garments workers found it particularly difficult to take advantage of the OMS.

Garments industry wages have been low, and until recent minimum wage rises, had stagnated in real terms since the beginning of the century. The price spike of 2007-08 left garments workers’ at ‘starvation levels of living’ (Muhammad 2011, 25), eating poorly, and sharing overcrowded, unsanitary housing, even while working long and arduous shifts. Although garments workers saw rises in the minimum wage rate in 2006 (from BDT 930 to BDT 1,662 per month, the first rise since the wage was established in 1994) and again in 2010 (to BDT 3,000), food price inflation meant their real pay stayed more or less stagnant throughout the period (Ahmed and Nathan 2014; Rahman 2010; Muhammad 2011). In other words, workers struggled at great risk to life and limb, only to remain on the lowest wages in Asia (Moazzem and Raz 2014).

The international media broadcast news of food riots in Bangladesh in April 2008, amidst a wave of similar protests in similarly poor and hunger-prone countries worldwide. In Bangladesh, these were framed as food riots (The Times of India 2008), food price riots (Al Jazeera 2008), and strikes or riots by garments workers over food prices (Ramesh 2008) in the second week of April 2008, when the price of rice also peaked. Bangladesh appeared in numerous lists of countries experiencing food riots (for instance, CNN 2008; Schneider 2008).2

 

Reaffirming National Food Security3

The global food crisis of 2008 came as a sharp shock to the ruling class and the state, and immediate and sustained action was taken. A key lesson from the 2008 food crisis appears to have been about food sovereignty: that the Government of Bangladesh must protect its power to influence the stability of domestic food prices. Under conditions of global food price volatility, it could not rely wholly on international trade to achieve that, as trading partners were pursuing their own food sovereignty goals at the expense of their neighbours’. This implied the continued need for a strong and capable public food distribution system with the agility to respond to crises. It also implied the need for stronger capacities for food storage, and a Public Food Distribution System that enabled the Government to rotate public foodstocks and meet its goals of poverty and hunger reduction and food and nutrition security.

Bangladesh continues to view international trade as crucial to its food security: when India closed its borders in 2008, Bangladesh started to diversify its imports with new trading relationships with Myanmar, Pakistan, Viet Nam and Thailand (World Bank 2013). But while the overall thrust of food policy management has been to enable markets to work more effectively, the social and political costs of food price spikes mean a continued role for public intervention, particularly food price stabilization. Some of the key achievements with respect to food crisis management have included interventions to avert market failures due to hoarding or other collusive behaviours (see, for instance, Osmani 1991; Banerjee et al. 2014). The success of OMS and other fair price programmes depended on the state having foodstocks to release into the market, to stabilise prices, reassure consumers and traders that food prices would not go too high, and ensure food affordability and access. But in 2007-08, the then-Caretaker Government failed to import enough grain to be able to make an appreciable difference in the market (A. S. Ali et al. 2008). In part this was due to the decline in grain storage capacity: in the 2000s, the Government of Bangladesh had reduced reserves with the aim of relying on the global market. By 2007-08, only half a million metric tonnes were distributed through the Public Food Distribution System (PFDS) (Raihan 2013), when the National Food Policy declared a million tons of public food stocks as its objective. After 2008, distribution through the PFDS rose to 2.29 million tons; at its peak during the 2007-12 crisis period, public food stocks amounted to 2.77 million tons, of which 1.6 million were to be distributed through the safety net programme (World Bank 2013). A new programme of warehouse construction featuring improved grain storage facilities has been supported by the World Bank since the 2008 crisis, on grounds that the Government needed a ‘renewed focus on ensuring a higher level of public stocks … a consequence of hikes in international rice and prices and disruptions of rice imports in 2007-08’ (World Bank 2013, 109).

Social Protection

The global food crisis also helped persuade the government of the need for stronger social protection provision, noting in particular the exposure of the urban working classes to the global economy:

with informal safety nets eroding, newer risks emerging from rapid processes of urbanization and global economic integration, and, stronger assertion of mitigation demands from a democratizing polity, a holistic re-thinking on the direction, scope and design of safety net policies in particular and social protection policy in general has become necessary (GoB 2012, 165).

The 2008 food crisis prompted the establishment of at least one important new social protection scheme, the Employment Guarantee for the Poorest. Although this was originally introduced under the Caretaker Government in 2008, the incoming Awami League government rebranded and expanded the scheme in its first term. The National Social Security Strategy stated that ‘Despite numerous administrative problems, these programmes [FFW, the EGPP, and the OMS] have helped cushion against the impact of food price shocks’ (GED 2015, 41). However, provision falls well short of need: a 2009 nationally representative survey of household shocks and coping mechanisms found that 29 per cent of respondents had access to a public safety net, but that these ranked fourth in the list of sources of help with the crisis (Santos et al. 2011). Analysis in the wake of the 2009 Cyclone Aila found that 90 per cent of relief (food, cash, water, medicine, etc) was distributed via state safety net channels and was well-targeted to those affected, but resource levels were inadequate to make a significant difference, and need was far wider than provision (Akter and Mallick 2013)(Akter and Basher 2014). Direct social protection against food crises remains somewhat token—gesturing towards rather than guaranteeing food security.

 

Subsistence Protests and Civil Society Action, 2007–12: Who, When, How and Why

Who protested or demanded action, why and how, during the global food crisis? To what extent did their claims hold government to account? What does the pattern and nature of these contentious events tell us about the politics of provisions in Bangladesh more generally? To address these questions, we constructed a political events catalogue from a careful digital and/or hand search of three of the most influential daily newspapers in Bangladesh: the English language Daily Star, the Bangla Ittefaq and the highest circulation Bangla Prothom Alo. A search protocol was developed, tested and refined, and a database developed to enable systematic quantitative and qualitative analysis of all reported events in which food security or related issues of subsistence were in contention over the period 2007-12. To ensure coverage of a sufficiently wide range of contentious events to capture the quality and tenor of the politics of food crisis, claims-making in relation to food consumption (e.g., demands for fair priced food, price controls, subsidies, food relief) were included as well as in relation to food production (fertilizer, costs of irrigation, other agricultural inputs), as well as subsistence protests or claims-making activities that explicitly identified the rising cost of living as a source of subsistence crisis. The experience of constructing a political events catalogue showed us the great variability of coverage of such events, including urban bias. After selecting from several thousand newspaper articles, a total of 168 newspaper articles covering 86 discrete events, some of them connected in protracted struggles, were analysed in detail.

Although this was a febrile, protest-rich period worldwide (Ortiz et al. 2013; Barnett 2011), contentious events relating to food or fuel were surprisingly few in number in fractious, low-income Bangladesh. This may have been due to the official ban on political demonstrations during the Caretaker Government, which was in place in 2007 and 2008. The 86 contentious events relating to the food crisis reported on in 168 articles, many of them non-violent or ‘civil’ in nature contrasts with estimates of political violence, chiefly between political party supporters, of around 2,423 episodes of ‘political conflicts’ between 1991 and 2002 (Moniruzzaman 2009), and 2,859 of political violence, including terrorism, between 2001-6 (J. Alamgir 2011). But while food crisis-related contention was limited in scale, it clustered around moments when retail prices of basic foodstuffs were peaking. This suggests that those who protested were persuaded of the seriousness and justice of their protests, and/or disinclined to believe the public authorities would suppress them. That they were few in number does not mean the protests were insignificant: indeed their rarity may tell us something important about the moral and political economy of food crises in that context.

Contentious Actors and Actions, 2007–12

Table 1 categorizes all groups and organisations mentioned in all news articles about all contentious events relating to food in this period. These included riots, protests, and demonstrations as well as more ‘civil’ or organised events staged by civil society organizations (‘human chains’, petitions, roundtable discussions) that also fell outside the formal political process. The main political parties took up issues of the cost of living in the period, particularly while they were in opposition, and both parties when in opposition staged demonstrations. A small number of civil society groups also mounted actions, usually polite, formal organizational advocacy rather than protests. Some involved stylized repertoires of contentious politics such as demonstrations or actions staged for the benefit of the media, such as the token hunger-strike. However, organised labour and worker welfare organisations were prominent. Garments workers’ protests led the fray: almost 40 per cent of all groups mentioned in relation to subsistence protests were garments workers or their organisations. The next most important category were farmers and fisherfolk and their associations, with almost one-fifth of all mentions and other labour organisations, including those of low paid public sector workers’ unions and groups. The rural poor, including destitute women and people affected by disasters or demanding relief comprised only 6 per cent of all mentions.

Table 1: Protesters and Petitioners as Described in Articles on Contentious Events

Political Parties and ActorsSocial Movement / Civil Society GroupsOccupational GroupsTrades Unions / Labour OrganisationsOther
Main parties10Consumer Association of Bangladesh2Garments workers35Worker welfare associations and councils13Villagers / poor people / destitute women10
Leftist parties7Student and cultural groups4Farmers / fishers17Blue-collar labour unions / federations9
Local political representatives4Think tanks2Economists2Bangladesh land port workers' league1
Parliamentary Committee on Food and Disaster Ministry1Development NGOs2Intellectuals, professionals, journalists2Garments workers27
Regional or area organisations2Fertiliser dealers1Public sector worker unions / organisations7
Employers and business associations3Agricultural land owners1Coal miners1
Local citizen groups2
2117585710

Note: This table takes the news article rather than the event as the unit of analysis. Figures used here are of citations for each time the group was mentioned and so provide a sense of how the events were covered in the media, not of the extent of activism by each group.

Newspaper reports of grievances to do with rapid food price rises were less frequent during the 2010-11 spike than in 2007-08. In real terms, the second price spike was less severe than the first, and wages had risen for many (Zhang et al. 2013). It is possible that the drama of price spikes had subsided by 2010, and that people had adjusted their lives and expectations to the ‘squeeze’ of higher rates of inflation (Hossain, King, and Kelbert 2013). In addition, protections against food crises in the form of the national foodgrain reserve and direct food transfers and subsidies were more in evidence and quicker to kick in than in 2008.

Whatever the precise mix of factors, those who protested in 2010-11 were still aggrieved about high food prices, but the objectives and triggers for subsistence protests were now even more closely focused on wages and labour rights than had been the case in 2008. It may not, then, be a coincidence there were 30 episodes of garments industry violence in the six months between August 2010 and January 2011 (Rahaman et al. 2011), at the height of the second food price spike; but by this time, perhaps as a result of their success at having bid up minimum wages in 2010, their attention was on the minimum wage, rather than on food prices (which appeared to continue to rise) or on the marketing of rice, which proceeded as it always had. Other groups similarly focused on their rights to earn a living wage rather than on what that wage could afford them, despite remaining aggrieved by high food costs. In early 2011, as food prices spiked the second time, Dhaka rickshaw-pullers told researchers they felt they needed to protest to alert the attention of the Government to unliveable inflation. Yet when members of their profession rioted three weeks later, they cited the closure of their usual routes, rather than food prices, as their grievance (Rashid, Hasan, and Hossain 2012). This suggested that inflation had become normalized or de-politicized, and that, although still a major public grievance, high prices no longer afforded the political opportunity for protest they once did.

Several of the more ‘civil’ events to advocate for public action on food prices addressed similar points to subsistence protestors themselves. At a pre-budget consultation meeting, a group of respected economists denounced governmental inaction to address food prices, noting that ‘economic indicators could not feed people’ (Daily Star 2008). Such awareness of and/or proximity to the plight of those living with poverty and food insecurity is, for political-historical reasons, characteristic of the elite-mass relationship (Hossain 2005). It suggests a degree of cross-class consensus with respect to the moral economy, or views about the responsibilities of public authorities to protect the population against the failures of food markets.

National government agencies were an object of major protests and advocacy events, but local government was targeted by more localized protests. Global policies and actors were rarely objects of protest, other than a handful of events protesting actions of corporations and large companies, including foreign investors (the China Contractual Authority). Fully one-third of all targets of protests mentioned in all the articles were garments factory owners and their association, the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Through these indirect routes, the subsistence protests targeted transnational actors and institutions.

Figure 2: Repertoires of Protest or Action
Source: Political events catalogue, Dainik Ittefaq archive.
Note: N=95 because more than one action could be recorded during a single event.

Figure 2 provides a basic count of the types of action described in the article (in some cases more than one action was mentioned). All are from the Dainik Ittefaq, which provided a relatively rich archive in the vernacular. Reflecting the dominance of industrial conflict in the sample, the description of the events and the actions taken are substantially more often unruly and disruptive (demonstrations, agitations, sieges, marches/processions) than civil (hearings, human chains, memoranda, discussions, petitions). This pattern extends also to the violent nature of these events: in some 30 events, or more than one-third of the total, vandalism of factories or vehicles and threats of violence occurred. The impression received from the news coverage is also that these were usually unorganised events—riots and agitations rather than organised lobbying or civil action: out of 84 events, 47 were described in terms that suggested spontaneity and lack of organisation, and 36 were characterised as organised or planned events.

We turn now to a closer look at how garments workers themselves perceived their grievances and opportunities for mobilization during this period of subsistence crisis.

 

Wage Struggles and Subsistence Protests among Garments Workers, 2002-12

For further insight into these subsistence struggles, we turn to evidence of garments workers’ protests in the peri-urban industrial area of Savar, north of Dhaka, the April 2008 episodes of which were reported internationally as ‘food riots’. Because of the sensitivities of researching such events, the case study research involved preliminary assessment and observational work and then a period of building trust and rapport with workers; only then were focus groups and interviews conducted. Focus group discussions used prepared protocols with protest participants, other factory workers from the area, and local market stallholders and shopkeepers, while interviews with a small number of journalists, leaders and activists and officials filled in gaps and helped triangulate findings.

Savar has been the focal point of industrial unrest since the 2000s, owing in part to the concentration of garments factories and the presence of the Dhaka Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in this sub-district, 25 km north of Dhaka. Savar has more recently become associated with the exploitation of global export industry, as the infamous site of the Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1130 workers and injured almost 5000 more in April 2013 (for accounts of which, see Karim 2014; Motlagh and Saha 2014). More than any protest, the tragedy and horror of that event exposed the chronic precariousness of workers’ lives, and their dependence on dangerously exploitative jobs to earn the barest subsistence.

Moving Targets and Shifting Repertoires in the Garments Workers’ Struggles

Garments workers offered a timeline of the struggles in their industry that placed the so-called ‘food riots’ of 2008 in perspective as a comparatively minor, if distinctive, moment in a longer struggle. Workers in Savar linked the 2008 and 2010-11 protests to a longer sequence of struggles for adequate pay and conditions that dated back to 2002, and continued beyond the period covered by the research. Protests were initially motivated by demands for increased wages and against illegal termination of contracts. In 2004, the main protests spread out across factories in the area after an illegal sacking which had in turn been triggered by demands for trade union rights in a sweater factory. The police and local gangsters were called in to quell the protest, so organisers soon learned to organise outside the factory walls. These struggles were often fruitful: in one factory, workers described how they had been permitted to organise after a demonstration entered the factory.

By 2006, protests had shifted from targeting the management of individual factories to making demands of industry leadership and the state, through a movement focussed on the single and clear demand of raising the minimum wage. Since its establishment in 1994, the basic monthly minimum wage had been stagnant at BDT 930 (in January 2017 exchange rates, USD 11.74) (Ahmed and Nathan 2014).4 In 2006, the struggle that emerged was large in scale and spread rapidly through the Export Processing Zones (EPZ),5 despite repressive tactics by the police. The 2006 struggles were widely seen as a success for the workers, as the basic monthly minimum wage rate was raised, for the first time since its establishment, to BDT 1,662 (currently, USD 20.98). As the workers explained it, these protests were generally self-organising, without involvement by external actors. They adopted non-violent means to protest, viewing acts of violence as committed by ‘outsiders’ – professional agitators, not workers. The major political parties offered workers no support, although leftist political organisations backed them. Workers began to learn from their successes.6

There was a qualitative change in the political space for workers’ protests after 2007, as external actors—workers’ rights organisations, leftist coalitions and groups, and activist and civil society organisations—began to engage with their struggles. Through this engagement, workers’ repertoires widened to include dialogue with factory owners and industry leaders, information campaigns through leafleting about workers’ demands, and the use of peaceful human chains. Even with the involvement of new actors, the main source of mobilisation was stimulated by the ‘in-charge’ workers who commanded workers’ respect and could organise large numbers of workers, who would then spread the word by mobile phone and other means. In some factories, even this relatively flat leadership was absent, and groups decided on actions without clear leadership. Workers themselves felt external actors played little role in their mobilisation, the site of which remained the factory.

The increasing inadequacy of wages as food prices rose in 2007 led to relatively spontaneous and unorganised responses by workers in Savar. By this time, workers were accustomed to taking to the street and to factory-based action. Actions that started in one factory quickly spread to others, as news of wage increases were shared. The ‘movement’ was sporadic and stop-start, and never sought a long-term solution to their problems: direct action stopped whenever a raise was realised, and re-started when increased wages were found to be inadequate. Throughout, the workers’ struggles had no major party political support (no doubt reflecting the importance of garments factory ownership among the political elite). Small leftist political parties joined in actions later during this period, but played no significant role. A mutual lack of interest between the workers’ struggle and party politics reflected the workers’ distrust of political parties of all stripes. One male worker in a focus group with (non-active) male garments workers noted that ‘we do not believe in banners (of political parties)—that will compromise our movement’ (focus group discussion on 23 July 2013, Savar, Dhaka).

The Moral Economy of Garments Workers’ Protests

Over time, garments workers framed protests in different ways, in part depending on the wider political context, and in part on the political education gained from (at times) successful organizing. However, they continued to lack important party political backing and articulated their grievances and demands without reference to leftist or popular groups. Despite the occasional presence of established leftist groups (such as the workers’ wing of the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal) workers’ struggles did not noticeably make common cause with other urban groups on fixed low incomes. This may partly reflect the central significance of garments labour to the economy as a whole: this labour-intensive industry alone contributes 80 per cent of export earnings (Bangladesh Bank 2015; MoF 2015b), and employs more than half of all industrial labour (BBS 2013). It may also reflect the historic co-optation of organized labour by party politics, and the tendency for Bangladeshi garments workers to attract support from international labour interests and groups (see Siddiqi 2017).

However, compared to their early days, when protests almost universally targeted factory owners for wage rises, workers began to frame their struggles in terms of subsistence rights, flagging the rising cost of living and the minimum wage, and basic labour standards. This was particularly noticeable during the food crisis period, and for the first time, garments workers’ concerns appeared to be resonating with those of not only the low-income rural and urban masses, but also the ‘respectable’ middle and lower-middle classes, all of whom were struggling with the sudden price rises to greater and lesser extent.

Some workers used the term a ‘fair wage’ to talk about their demands for higher pay. Workers clarified that such a wage afforded not only a basic living standard—not merely enough rice to stave off hunger and maintain factory functionality – but enough for a decent standard of social reproduction. Speaking to us in 2013, when food prices were still high and the period of the price spikes vividly remembered, people noted the unfairness that their hard labour failed to afford even them basic needs. MH, a male, married 40-year-old EPZ worker explained that, “Now the ongoing movement (andolon) is for fair wages. If government were to give those fair wages, we would see that everywhere people could meet their needs.” Workers spoke about how rising living costs made it difficult for them to remit money to their families in the village—to do so is not only a source of pride but also an important source of support for aging parents or families left behind.

Price controls were widely agreed upon as one of the key responsibilities of the government. The established idea was that the government can and should set a fixed price or control prices that people can afford to pay. The idea of a fair price or a fair wage refers to a social order in which people can manage their needs to a reasonable standard of living. In the protests in 2008, in particular, garments workers used the slogan ‘dam komao, banchte dao’ (‘reduce prices, let us live’). Labour leaders noted that food prices became a central part of their agenda at this time, because the rises made it even harder for workers to maintain even basic dietary standards, let alone other expenditures. By 2011, however, even though the political events catalogue identified other, smaller populations of (other, non-garment) factory and other workers protesting high food prices, garments workers’ protests were framed more in terms of wage rises. This reflected their successes at getting raised minimum wage levels in 2006, 2010 and 2013.

Food Security for Garments Workers

To label workers’ struggles ‘food riots’, is to misrepresent their meaning; however, the food crisis created distinct political opportunities for the workers to dramatize their grievances around fair pay and conditions. At the same time, exploitatively low wages—workers’ ‘forced underconsumption’ (Araghi 2009)—were part of the same global economic system that led to the food price crisis. In brief, workers’ wages had always been unliveably low, and ‘the end of cheap food’ (Moore 2014) meant that in real terms, they declined further, and sharply so.

That policy elites recognised the moral and the political-economic significance of the garments workers’ protests during the food crisis can be gauged from several different responses. The development of greatest significance was the rise in the minimum wage (see Table 2). Workers’ struggles for a higher wage continued into 2017. This no doubt reflects both their success in securing higher wages, and the continued inadequacy of the minimum wage in the context of rapid inflation. One 2014 estimate was that the minimum wage should have been set at BDT 8,200, but that the cost of meeting a ‘model diet’ would have set the minimum wage at BDT 14,900, well below the current level (Moazzem and Raz 2014).

Table 2: Minimum Wages in the Garments Sector

Year of RevisionMinimum Wage in BDT% of Increase in Real Terms
200616638.8
2010300038.3
2013530065

Source: 2006 and 2010 are from Ahmed and Nathan (2014); 2013 estimate of % increase is from (Woodruff 2014).

A practically minor but symbolically significant success saw workers win the right to Market Sales (OMS) or state-subsidised foodgrain sales in factories. Specific factory-based sales were necessary because OMS usually take place during working hours, and typically involve queuing for long periods of time. The state had responded by allocating subsidised grains for sale to up to 3 million workers by May 2009, soon after the newly-elected Awami League government came to power. This was a significant commitment in principle, but in practice was soon abandoned as market prices dropped in the first half of 2009, making the (often poor quality) subsidised OMS grains less attractive (bdnews24.com 2009).

While it never actually improved workers’ food security, the deployment of OMS in factories signalled a shift in how garments workers were viewed, suggesting a new recognition of workers’ rights to food security as equivalent to those of other urban citizens. It also signalled that the state accepted the responsibility or mandate for enabling their access to affordable food. It is possible to argue that this symbolism has gendered significance, in that an estimated 80 per cent of the country’s 4 million garments workers are women. There are no credible estimates of the level of women’s participation in workers’ struggles in the 2000s, but although men are in general assumed to be more active, women workers have visibly taken a frontline position (Siddiqi 2017; Z. Rahman and Langford 2012). It was partly because of the presumed docility and dependence of Bangladeshi women that wages had been kept low; implicitly, women had husbands or fathers responsible for providing for them, and anyway, they were unlikely to rebel. Among other things, the establishment of OMS in factories signals explicit recognition of women as citizen-workers, or as ‘householders’ responsible for food security in their own right, and therefore with the right to protection against food crises tailored to their needs.

It should be kept in mind, however, that the Industrial Police were also established in 2010, and that repression has been a significant, if not the most important, response to the workers’ struggles (Siddiqi 2017; Z. Rahman and Langford 2012). In addition, neither the Industrial Policies of 2010 or 2016 directly addressed garments workers’ wages or food security issues; the 2013 amendments to the Labour Law and other policy initiatives related directly to the after-effects of the Rana Plaza disaster, including the US’s withdrawal of trade privileges, and not specifically to their ongoing wage struggles (Kibria et al. 2014).

 

Conclusions

What does this survey of contentious events around the 2008 food crisis tell us about the politics of provision in contemporary Bangladesh? The paper noted that the global food crisis hit Bangladesh hard in 2008, its impact aggravated by pre-existing poverty and hunger, two major cyclones, and exposure to global food market volatilities. A series of contentious events, including high-profile violent protests by workers in the flagship readymade garment industry, dramatized and politicized inflationary conditions. But the Awami League government elected in late 2008 took credit for stabilizing the food situation in this turbulent period. Tackling food prices took top billing on the election manifesto that won the party its largest mandate since the 1970s, signalling its intention to handle the crisis at all costs (BRAC University and Institute of Governance Studies 2010). The government shopped further afield for grain imports, expanded open market sales of cheap food, widened the social safety net, and built warehouses for expanded food reserves. When world food prices spiked again in 2010–11, Bangladeshis were better insulated than many of their neighbours – and than their grandparents – would have been.

Arriving in the middle of an unelected, military-backed regime, the 2008 food crisis showcased the wide, democratic streak that runs through the politics of provisions in contemporary Bangladesh. A popular political theory heard around the 2008 crisis was that the government was responsible for protecting its people against food shocks; it would do so not out of great love for its people, but because of simple democratic pressures—exerted, if necessary, through direct action, electoral or protest (Hossain and Kalita 2014; Hossain and Green 2011). The coincidence of the tenure of the caretaker government (January 2007–December 2008) with the rising rice price lost its popularity, and confirmed the idea that military governments were inherently less capable than ‘political’ governments of protecting the population against food crises (see (Islam 2012)). The US Embassy reported on the worries of an unelected government, highlighting in particular the grievances of garments workers:

Bangladesh’s food crisis threatens the country’s fragile Caretaker Government … 80 to 90 percent of Bangladeshis surveyed said they were worse off economically under this government than under the previous government. Thirty to forty percent of those surveyed said they had low or extremely low confidence in the CTG, up from 20 to 30 percent in February. Since January, thousands of garment workers have staged protests over high prices and low wages. The government is especially sensitive to discontent in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector, which supplies the country’s main export earnings and employs close to 2 million workers. The average wage for a garment worker ranges between USD 45 and 90 per month. Food security has political ramifications in Bangladesh and threatens the stability of an already-weak Caretaker Government committed to hold elections and restore democracy in the Muslim-majority nation (American Embassy Dhaka 2008).

As the Caretaker Government had (somewhat ineffectively) banned political protests, the sound of popular discontent was muffled. Some of the country’s superstar economists, a group frequently found on television talkshows and opinion columns, hosted a meeting to discuss Amartya Sen’s theory on the relationship between democracy and famine, an unsubtle dig at the unelected regime. Among its many efforts to address the food crisis, the top-ranking General made the politically naïve proposal that Bangladeshis ‘should eat potatoes’ rather than relying on expensive rice (Unb 2008). So when food prices dropped sharply just after the Awami League government took power in early 2009, this gave credence to the idea that political governments respond faster than military (even though the success reflected the global commodity slump and a bumper harvest more than action by the new government). In general, the failures of the caretaker government were overstated in popular opinion, and the successes of the Awami League government in 2008 slightly lucky. But the popular theory was reaffirmed.

What reasons do Bangladeshis have to believe elected governments will do whatever it takes to protect against food crises? As was noted in the Introduction to this paper, Bangladesh has earned a reputation for having developed relatively responsive systems for protecting its population against the crises of subsistence and survival that come with the country’s chronic exposure to natural disasters such as cyclones, and food price shocks, such as occurred in 2008 and 2010-11. The political origins of these systems in Bangladesh themselves originate in the aftermath of an earlier global food price crisis, the OPEC or oil crisis of 1973-4, which pushed up world food prices and subjected starving populations across Africa and Asia to the realpolitik of cold war food aid (Gerlach 2015; Rothschild 1976). The 1974 famine in Bangladesh was a humanitarian disaster (M. Alamgir 1980) but also a disaster for the political elite, contributing directly to the assassination of the nationalist founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family, ushering in 15 years of authoritarian rule, and, for better or for worse, paving the way for liberal economic reforms and aid dependence (Hossain 2017). The Bangladeshi elite to this date remain closely attuned to the de-legitimating effects of subsistence crises. When asked why Bangladesh has such an elaborate and relatively responsive system of food security in place, several respondents from the upper rungs of policy and scholarship explained that it was ‘because of the famine’. This was offered as the self-evident underlying political economy of food security policy, needing no more detailed explanation.

Some protest was likely in the Bangladesh of 2008, as all governments struggled to stabilize prices and protect their vulnerable. In Bangladesh, the hapless unelected regime fumbled at first with imports and fair price outlets. As the crisis struck, political parties and civil society elites no doubt felt the need to remind the unelected regime of its responsibilities under the moral economy. But the garments workers’ protests added two new dimensions to these politics of provisions. First, they highlighted the acute vulnerabilities of the country’s flagship export industries to not only the low wages that come with a position at the bottom of the global value chain, but also to commodity price volatilities. Second, they highlighted workers’ effective exclusion from the protections of the moral economy. Bangladesh’s national food system has, somewhat prematurely, achieved the kinds of security that Tilly noted came with an integrated, openly-traded domestic food market; this reduces the likelihood of riots targeting the marketing of foodgrains (Tilly 1974). But those most exposed to the downsides of global economic integration, the garments workers, also (and partly as a result) have the greatest opportunities to mobilize, and likelihood of success. There were no ‘food riots’ in Bangladesh in 2008 signalling the pains of adjustment to a market economy, but garments workers’ wage struggles were nonetheless, a sign of the country’s adjustment to its newly industrial position in the global economy.

 

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Notes

  1. This paper was previously published with the same title as Chapter 4 in N. Hossain and P. Scott-Villiers (eds.), Food Riots, Food Rights, and the Politics of Provisions (London: Routledge/Earthscan, 2017). The authors are grateful to Routledge/Earthscan for the permission to reproduce the paper in Zapruder World. The research on which this paper was based was funded by an Economic and Social Research Council/Department for International Development Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research (Grant reference ES/J018317/1).
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_world_food_price_crisis#Bangladesh (accessed January 10th 2017).
  3. This section cites grey literature, official documents and newspaper reports. But it relies substantially on interviews with a small number of high-ranking policymakers (government and aid agency) and senior experts and scholars, the aims of which were to reconstruct the policy thinking and practice of the period. Due to the sensitive nature of some of the material discussed, these interviews have been anonymised to protect the identities of respondents.
  4. Note that workers typically earn considerably more than the basic rate, which is the entry-level pay, and because most also earn overtime. However, take-home pay remains very low in practice, and hourly rates particularly so. See (Nazneen Ahmed and Nathan 2014; Moazzem and Raz 2014) for discussion of the minimum wages and effective wages in the RMG industry.
  5. EPZs are special industrial zones offered for setting up industries by foreign investors. These are protected, closed areas with strict security.
  6. See also (Siddiqi 2017; Rahman and Langford 2012).