Rana Plaza Amandla

by Aug 12, 2013Magazine

On the 24th of April, one day after inspectors ordered the owners to evacuate the building, the Rana Plaza textile factory in Savar Bangladesh, employing over 3,000 workers, collapsed. Over a third of those inside were killed and many others sustained major injuries. The horrific scenes of workers trapped, Pompeii-like, in the rubble, gave a spurt of publicity to the everyday brutality that underpins globalisation’s march.

Rana Plaza, like much of Bangladesh’s R216 billion clothing industry, produced textiles for leading Western brands and retail outlets such as Walmart. It employed workers in conditions similar to those that invoked the imagery of vampires and monsters in Marx’s descriptions of early British capitalism. It is a system where profit appears not to arise from innovation or the creative application of new technology but is rather sucked from the very life energy of the workers. Every moment of a labourer’s day is regimented – bathroom breaks are limited, if allowed at all, and conversation is forbidden. The most minor infraction, the smallest lapse in concentration, usually results in pay deductions or cruel punishment. Such can be catastrophic for workers whose subjugation earns them the barest minimum needed to keep a small family alive.

Of course this type of capitalism is not endemic to Bangladesh’s textile cities but accurately describes huge areas of the global South that exist in constant vexation of the economist Joan Robinson’s dictum that the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.

Colonialism has always championed itself as the cause of progress and modernity – whether through the spread of Christianity or as liberation from material and cultural backwardness. But for just as long its opponents have exposed its real motives – in early periods, this was the direct subordination of the colonial economy primarily through the extraction of raw materials and agricultural products.

Independence movements in the wake of World War II ended that formal subordination but Imperial powers were quick to reorganise the terms of their exploitation of former colonies. Today, the flow of value from the global South to the advanced capitalist countries, alongside primary goods, is increasingly embodied in manufactured goods and some services. Recently South and East Asia, have become the manufacturing source of much of the world’s high-end technologies.

The major drive towards outsourcing that came out of the economic crisis of the 1970s aimed to find cheap labour abroad and suppress domestic wages by pitting workers in rich countries in direct competition with those in the developing world. The huge multinationals that had grown up over the preceding decades were at the centre of these trends, abetted by the growth and deregulation of finance and new technologies that gave rise to ‘just-in-time’ production.

Advanced capitalist nations and the international institutions they controlled used every means at their disposal to pry open the economies of the global South to penetration by these marauding corporations. Among the most notorious were the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank and the IMF under the duress of debt or social crises, which dismantled capital controls, liberalised trade and put up state assets for fire sales that some compared to a recrudescence of what Marx termed ‘primitive accumulation’ on a massive scale.

Facing the decimation of local industries and markets, developing economies were pressed to compete through a race to the bottom – driving down labour costs and overheads in order to win contracts. A United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) study earlier in 2013 reported that global value chains, primarily controlled by TNCs, now account for more than 80% per cent of global trade. Manufacturers in former colonial countries are completely dependent on the capital and distribution networks of these TNCs, meaning that the value is entirely concentrated at the top end. A Nike takkie that sells for $20 on a New York high street may earn a matter of cents for its maker in South Asia. Yet the most marginal increase in prices by suppliers carries the threat that multinationals will simply slip away through the porous capital borders that globalisation celebrates, finding cheaper contracts elsewhere.

This is why three fifths of the garment factories in Savar are vulnerable to collapse, according to an engineering survey released in May. Archaic forms of capitalism persist in places like Bangladesh because the labour movement faces an almost insurmountable challenge in trying to win the gains that have ‘humanised’ economic relations in richer countries. Pitted against the might of TNCs and their local handlers, workers must also compete with a swelling ‘reserve army of labour’ and ‘surplus population,’ products of the economic destruction wrought by neoliberalism, whose conditions of extreme misery lend an inflection of truth to Robinsons’ dictum. The ‘Imperialist Rent’ earned from the appropriation of value generated by this brutally cheapened labour feeds the prosperity of the capitalist metropoles.

Ultimately this is a system that is held in place by the harshest forms of repression – the angry protests that swept the Bangladesh textile belt in the wake of the collapse were met with a vicious crackdown that left many injured. The collapse itself came almost exactly a year after the body of Aminul Islam, a key organiser at the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, was found, bearing the pock marks of torture having been abducted days earlier by agents of textile bosses. Local authorities take little action against this gangsterism, but large resources were devoted to the establishment of a Crisis Management Cell and an Industrial Police Force with the primary mandate of spying on and harassing worker leaders.

The only nations to have successfully escaped the trap of underdevelopment have relied on creative, interventionist states that have defied the dictates of neoliberalism – protecting strategic industries and directing investment and technological accumulation. The East Asian ‘Tigers’ managed this but on the basis on a very specific set of global circumstances and regional class dynamics – including favourable treatment by the US and links to Japanese capital circuits. China’s explosive growth has lifted millions into the middle classes and created an increasingly diversified economy, but its unstable rise continues to rest on the super exploitation of internal migrant workers in coastal export industries – tragically illustrated scarcely a month after the Rana Plaza collapse by a factory fire in Jilin that claimed 119 lives, mainly because workers had been locked inside. The faltering ability of the US to act as consumer of last resort is casting a large shadow on China’s continuing rise.

But for most former colonies, wage repression and export-led strategies have been an economic cul-de-sac – merely deepening dependence and peripheralisation and leading, if anything, to the enrichment of tiny elite. South Africa is no exception. Almost 20 years after democracy unemployment and inequality rates here are among the worst of any sizable nation, the median wage has largely stagnated and the economy remains dependent on the traditional minerals-energy complex sectors.

It is alarming, therefore, to see even former ‘progressives’ defending sweatshops in the local textile sector. The attack on minimum wages in Newcastle’s clothing factories, backed by powerful banking interests and right-wing think tanks, is an attempt to set a precedent for a generalised assault on labour regulation, and in particular the extension of bargaining council agreements to non-parties, which has been crucial to securing compliance from employers. Workers at the bottom of the pay scale in that sector are already earning less in real terms than their Chinese counterparts – sometimes around R200 per week – and rights violations are pervasive.

Yet studies show that in most industries, minimum wages do not lead to job losses. This is merely confirmation of what we have seen on a macro scale – wages have fallen consistently behind productivity over the last decades yet jobs have not followed burgeoning profits.

Trying to compete on the basis of wage repression will not lead South Africa up the economic ladder. It will merely reproduce the structures of the colonial economy and deliver further impoverishment to workers and their dependents. Moreover, such an economic programme can only succeed if the social rebellion it is already provoking is met by sharper repression and authoritarianism.

The Marikana strike wave and the farmworkers’ uprising were the harbingers of that rebellion and their example looks set to inspire more militant action across the labour movement. We could hope that these are the early shoots of a movement that will turn the tide against race-to-the-bottom economics and the open the way towards wage-led growth on the path to socialism.

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