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OP-ED: The struggle for survival

  • Published at 03:53 pm May 30th, 2020
File photo of readymade garment workers sitting on a Dhaka road in protest demanding due wages Focus Bangla

A tribute to those who lost their lives

The 2019 South Korean movie Parasite swept the awards at the Oscars earlier this year. It illustrated the realities of social division, a divide that many of the privileged members of society are yet to comprehend.

One of the most heart-wrenching scenes featured the distinction between the Park and Kim family’s outlook on rain. The Parks were enjoying the view from the comfort of their living rooms, whereas the Kim family was trying to survive in their semi-basement apartment during the downpour. The living conditions were definitely not ideal but watching their possessions float in the filthy sewage water following the “sage rain” was nothing but tragic.

Towards the end of the film, we knew that Ki-woo would never earn enough money to buy the house of his dreams because economic mobility was dead. The Kims weren’t a lazy family who would avoid hard work. They may have been duplicitous and conniving, but they didn’t expect others to do their work for them.

The RMG workers, housemaids, and day labourers flocking the streets demanding their “hard-earned wages” aren’t being unreasonable. No matter what happens, they are always prepared to run. Their lives depend on a random capitalist, socialist, or hardcore bureaucrat who could probably kill them with overload, disrespect them, and most likely pay them much less than minimum wage.

But even with such gloomy prospects, they claim to be better off than if they were jobless.

They can stand around the corners of your nearby streets, looking for work, toiling away, barely staring at the clock, as the sands of time settle at the bottom of an hourglass.

One can find countless examples of such people around the capital’s Malibagh Rail and Badda Crossings along with the Mohammadpur Bus Stand, Khilgaon, Jhigatola, and Nayabazar. The semi-skilled and unskilled workers get even lower than the wages offered to the skilled ones. Even a delay of five consecutive days is bad enough to push them past the brink of sanity.

Although a majority of these workers are young, ranging from ages 20-40, they cannot switch over to other jobs either due to being illiterate or being technologically challenged, or a combination of the two.

They left behind a life of poverty in their villages, escaping the trenches of misery only to run into the false promise of “a better life.” These blue-collar workers chase their employer’s BMW down the road not to witness the gloss coming off the car’s windows, cash, or promotions, but for obtaining their rightful sustenance.

If a day labourer doesn’t run fast enough, he only ends up with the trauma of an “agonizingly long wait” and a hungry stomach. Their world is unsparing with guaranteed suffering and no free lunches. While the rest of the population are sitting in their comfortable living rooms like the Parks, complaining about why the RMG workers aren’t maintaining social distancing via their social media platforms, I doubt they ever experienced true famine.

The RMG sector in Bangladesh is an example of a market under perfect competition, where firms choose to produce at the levels where the volume it sells is warranted by the cost of producing it.

Workers are generally paid the value of the last unit of output they produced. The “economic rents” are scavenged by the employers enabling them to obtain higher profits year on year. If employers pay less than their competitors, exploitation (or in this case “economic rents”) would be eroded by competition. So, the last or “marginal” unit reveals the value of what a worker has produced, which then sets the wage.

But what about the educated workforce, working for the big telecom companies, MNCs, and domestic market leaders? Monopsony, a term used to refer to a market power where firms can wield in the labour market alongside the more familiar term, monopoly, would be ideal to describe why the wages of the educated workforce haven’t experienced any real growth.

Similar to a monopoly, where firms have complete authority over their products and services and engage in various levels of price discrimination, monopsony power also allows employers to pay workers less than the value of their output, keep the organization progressing, and reap most of the profits for themselves. In essence, a monopsony combines the features of both a monopoly and perfect competition.

There are always significantly fewer employers than workers. Employers are not usually worried about where their next pay cheque is coming from, unlike employees. The moral hazard of bail-out packages will hardly be questioned in an era of “socio-capitalism.”

Employers always have a much stronger common interest than workers. The end result of all of this is the formation of further quasi-collusive cartels and monopsonies, as evident by the thousands of RMG factories in Bangladesh, which are to some extent balanced by workers unionizing.

These workers understand that all capitalists care about is getting a cut from the Tk18.50 per Tk1,000 transacted through mobile payment platforms every time a worker withdraws his “basic income” obtained from his employer or the government’s stimulus plans. They understand that all socialists care about are “free government pay cheques,” and all populists care about is their “vote bank.”

The disdainful disapproval they receive from certain members of society fails to take into account the extent to which they have been neglected by the state so much so that a sense of duty towards the country never developed within them in the first place.

It’s time we realize their stars are not to be blamed. If anything, it’s the unfortunate chain of events that have shaped capitalism over the years, that have forgotten to include the value of their contributions. It’s their blood, sweat, and tears that have built the empire inside which the capitalists and oligarchs reside in, and if these workers aren’t valued, they possess the ability to destroy all of that they have built throughout the centuries.

Sayeed Ibrahim Ahmed is currently aSenior Lecturer of Finance at AmericanInternational University Bangladesh (AIUB),pursuing research along the lines of capitalmarkets and economic policy.

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