Defying the stereotypes: women textile workers in Bangladesh

"We are not the object of mercy, the economy moves with our toil.”[1]

Victims of a cruel system. This is a familiar image of women garment workers in Bangladesh. It’s the heartbreaking pictures of women dead and injured after the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in the capital Dhaka, where over 1,100 workers were killed and more than 2,000 injured. Or the pictures of women and children, heads bowed, holding candles in memory of those lost in the many factory fires, building collapses and other so-called accidents.

These are the images the non-government organisations (NGO) and other forces campaign around to pressure government, factory owners and retail giants to pay compensation and provide safe working conditions in Bangladesh.[2]

There is no doubt that women workers in the apparel industry have suffered from the appalling conditions in the factories, the inevitable disasters resulting from shoddy buildings, lack of health and safety provisions and criminal practices such as locking all the factory exits, supposedly to stop theft or people leaving the building without permission. It is true of countries from the beginnings of the modern textile industry in the “dark, satanic mills” of nineteenth century Britain, through the sweatshops of Asia, the Americas and Australia, even today.

But this is not the whole story. Vanishingly few are the images of women as fighters against injustice, fighters for their rights. In direct contrast to the images I described above, Bangladesh has been the scene of militant garment workers’ struggles since the mid-2000s. There you’ll find stick-wielding women workers smashing up factories, marching in their tens of thousands down the streets of Dhaka, fighting back against police attacks, all in response to the factory deaths and as part of their wage campaigns. It is this force, the real force for change in Bangladeshi society, that has brought the employers and government to the bargaining table time and time again, winning important gains for workers in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector.[3]

In these two contrasting sets of images we see a story that is mirrored around the world. The first, the portrayal of women workers as victims or passive participants in numerous low paid jobs, more or less accepting their fate; appealing to charity when disaster strikes. The second is very different. Women workers who are fighters, women taking to the streets, striking, leading struggles, leading unions and the like, as events in Bangladesh illustrate. Recently across the Middle East there have been other inspiring examples where women have taken a lead in the workers’ struggles and uprisings in that region.[4]

The second is still a tale that you will rarely hear.

While the focus of this article is to highlight that story of resistance, where women are fighters not victims, nonetheless we need to start by putting the struggle in context. We need to understand the role of women in the workforce more generally and the history and economics of the female-dominated textile industry.

Women workers – the stereotype

Around the world today, women work in every sector of the economy, but there are jobs widely regarded as “women’s work”. These are workplaces where women are in the majority, even though some began as specialist “male” jobs, for example, in the clerical and bank sectors; or tailoring in many parts of Asia and in pre-industrial Britain. Nowadays, factory work – specifically textiles, small manufacture (toys, etc.) and the newer industry of electronic goods (semiconductors, iPhones and so on) are commonly female-dominated. Other modern-day occupations with a majority female workforce include nurses and health care, retail, teachers, childcare and clerical. Women also work in agriculture in the developing world and you will see them featuring in those picturesque photos – or sometimes heart-wrenching sights during droughts or famines – from Asia or Africa picking tea or tilling the fields.

Whatever the job, however, almost all are portrayed as fitting into the “serving/caring” role that women are meant to play. Job descriptions are frequently rewritten as women take on the work. For example, in Bangladesh tailoring, undertaken by men, was a skilled trade with a long apprenticeship, but as the garment manufacturing production line replaced tailoring, the work was described as “less skilled” and more “fitted” for women’s supposed natural talents.

It’s not just sexism that pervades the description of these jobs. Racist overtones creep in too. An advertisement put out by the Malaysian government to encourage investment by transnational companies explained: “The manual dexterity of the oriental female is famous the world over. Her hands are small and she works fast with extreme care. Who, therefore, could be better qualified by nature and inheritance to contribute to the efficiency of a bench-assembly production line than the oriental girl?”[5] And of course, because it’s so “natural” to women, so fitting their innate skills to work in these areas, really just an extension of the work they do at home, they don’t need to be paid much. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) makes a virtue out of the comparative advantage that women’s low wages offer. On its website is the following: “Bangladesh is endowed with an abundant and cheap labour force that is easily trainable and convertible into a semi-skilled and skilled work force.”

They go on to boast about how low Bangladesh garment workers’ wages are compared to other countries – even in Bangladesh they are low, earning about 14 percent of the minimum wage. The website blurb concludes that such cheap labour “is one of the advantages that Bangladesh enjoys and will be enjoying over a considerable period in the context of international trade in clothing.”[6]

Worldwide, from the early days of the TCF industry, employers have consciously driven the high rates of female employment in order to contain production costs. And in the process they have also actively promoted sexist stereotypes of women in order to justify the low rates of pay.

In the 1800s the textile firm Courtaulds, a pioneer of the Industrial Revolution in the UK, designed their machinery to best suit young female hands and opened factories in regions of high poverty and unemployment – regions which had previously been centres of home-based wool spinning. More recently, a Bangladeshi factory owner who completely changed his all-male workforce to one in which women were the majority with a few male supervisors, explicitly drew on sexist images to justify this. “Why women?… We want as little talk as possible on the machines… That is something women are prepared to do… Men in groups will immediately start agitating for more pay… Women listen better and they don’t talk back. Men won’t take instructions or accept authority easily.” And the crunch point is, “Women are cheaper because they have fewer choices…”.[7]

However, like all sectors where women’s labour predominates, there is a complex history of development in the textile and apparel sector, which has been both positive and negative for women workers.[8] It’s important not to categorise all of the textile industries throughout history as being identically structured and oppressive for women. Even employment in the sweatshops and sub-standard factories can provide women with opportunities to break out of rural backwaters and be crucial to their development as part of an emergent working class.

Naila Kabeer challenges stereotypes of women workers in the developing world as “cheap, docile and dispensable”. From her extensive interviews with women apparel workers in Bangladesh (and confirmed in other studies), “most women workers…evaluated their factory jobs in largely positive terms, which included job satisfaction, new social networks, greater voice in household decision making…an enhanced sense of self-worth and self-reliance as well as greater personal freedom and autonomy.”[9] Quoting Fraser, Kabeer concludes, “From their [young women’s] perspective the employment contract was a liberation.”[10]

Garment-making is depicted as tradition-ridden, backward, slow to adapt to new technologies and modern forms of industrial organisation. And it certainly has a horrible history during the Industrial Revolution and in newly developing countries. But in most places the industry has actually been a path-breaker, bringing in the latest production methods and organisation.[11] Of the Industrial Revolution era, Judith Coffin also argues that, by the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain and France, “the garment trades were not only the largest, but the most rapidly growing sector of female employment, vigorously expanding and modernising”.[12] In France, by 1906, there were nearly a million and a half women workers in TCF. Some workers in the industry were also amongst the highest paid of women workers.

In the US in 1870 dressmakers and milliners were the fourth most important occupational category for women; seamstresses, the less skilled, more factory-based textiles workforce, were third placed. In 1900 dressmakers, with 338,144 workers, were the third top occupation; millinery with 82,936 workers had dropped to nineteenth.[13]

Coffin also questions the commonly held assumptions that outwork was always a retreat for women. Discussing the period 1866 to 1906, she writes that manufacturers’ need for “labour that was at once skilled, flexible and inexpensive” was fuelled by “the expansion of home labourers in the 1890s, when easy and aggressively promoted credit payment and small machines made it possible for women to move from declining sectors into the expanding garment industry”. Rather than a backward step, she says, it meant “a higher standard of living and access to the new goods symbolic of the nascent consumer culture”.[14]

Women textile workers – a history of struggle

Nonetheless, it is when women have been drawn into the factories and larger workplaces, where they have started to organise “as workers”, that they started to get a feel for their industrial power. The history of the textile industry throughout the world illustrates this point clearly. Beverly Silver argues that her data shows workers in TCF are easily as militant as others more usually seen as industrial leaders, particularly in the early industrialisation period of the sector.[15] The early resistance, indicated in Table 1,[16] was to mechanisation and industrialisation as textile production was transferred from home-based activity to the factories.[17] As the factory system took hold the protests continued, though on a different basis. In 1869 in Lyon 2,000 silk workers struck for better wages, shorter hours and an end to dormitory housing. At Courtaulds workers struck in 1860 when piece rates were cut. They were locked out and lost this dispute, but their actions inspired others and throughout the sector workers were more successful in the following decade.

On 25 March 1911 a catastrophic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York’s notorious garment district sparked protests and campaigns which won significant improvements in wages and conditions throughout the industry.[18] It also spurred the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), with support from socialists. Women such as Rose Schneiderman, famous for her saying “The woman worker needs bread, but she needs roses too”, began a speech to a memorial meeting for the Triangle workers with: “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship… Too much blood has been spilled… [E]very time the workers came out…to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.” Rejecting the appeals to charity, to the law, to the employers, Schneiderman concluded: “[I]t is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong, working class movement.”[19]

Australian unions struck for higher pay and better conditions in the 1920s, during the war years in the 1940s, and later mounted a spirited campaign around outwork, winning industrial award protection for the first time.[20] During the 1970s and 1980s there were massive strikes in South Korea and although it has been the Korean autoworkers who have hit the headlines, in fact the country’s female apparel workers were markedly more militant in that same period. Indeed, as Beverly Silver comments about women workers’ industrial activity in TCF world-wide, “from a simple count of the number of high-point waves of labour unrest [as shown in Table 1 in the Appendix] we would conclude that the militancy of textile workers was greater than the militancy of automobile workers”.[21]

In 2013 Burmese migrant women working for the M Apparel company, which supplies Lee Jeans, took on the company in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. Against all the odds they won unpaid back pay and a wage increase.[22] The famous Mahallah strikes in Egypt were part of precipitating the uprising of 2011 which ousted the president. And of course it was female textile workers who sparked that most famous of revolutions, Russia in 1917, when workers took control of society for the first time in history.

This is just a sample of the militant and inspiring history of workers in TCF; a history that directly challenges any notion of women workers as passive and industrially weak. Not that this history is often acknowledged, at least not openly. In a backhanded way though, business, despite citing women’s industrial passivity as a reason for their employment, actually guards against the reality of women’s combativeness. Companies seek out regions of repression – such as Bangladesh, where there are now three police forces in use against RMG workers, or Cambodia with its brutal repression and recent arrest of 23 industry militants. Or they go to locations like the southern states of the US, where low wage rates and high immigrant labour (often undocumented) are associated with strongly enforced anti-union legislation.[23]

TCF – the horrible history of a global industry

Because so many workers in the global TCF industry are poor, the most common images are of the run-down factories and fires and building collapses, the shocking conditions, almost slave-labour employment of young women and children and mostly migrant women outworkers, accompanied by below poverty wages. Surely, with this sort of history and current practice, this must be an industry that delivers meagre profits. However it is a business model that has delivered magnificent rewards to the textile bosses. It is, in fact, a key industry for capital, one of the driving forces, not just in underpinning the British Empire’s wealth expansion during the Industrial Revolution, but throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, it has been crucial in shaping and enriching global capitalism.

Initially it contributed to making Britain one of the richest imperialist powers, followed by similar enrichment in Europe and the Americas. In the second half of the twentieth century, the spread of textile and garment production has been concentrated in Asia. After World War II the US in particular fostered TCF production in Japan, Korea and Hong Kong (to a lesser extent Taiwan and Singapore). In part this was to open up markets for US raw cotton and provide low-cost inputs for the American apparel industry. It fuelled the development of these countries, accumulated vast wealth for the capitalist class and opened up massive new markets to re-charge capitalism after World War II. More recently we have seen the neoliberal-era expansion into China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and increasingly now, Africa – all of which promotes wealth accumulation amongst the capitalist class in both the developed and developing nations.

South Korea’s so-called miracle economy, which started in the post-WWII era, is one example. Here it was built on “mostly young women working 16 hour days for minimal wages in factories where they could not stand straight, they were bullied, their unions brutally attacked” and were even forced to take stimulant drugs to stay awake. “They made clothes for export and in the process created the surplus value used to develop the high-tech industries the country now boasts about.” Then, as soon as trade unions were legalised and workers could fight more effectively, Korean firms outsourced to textile companies in Central America and Bangladesh.[24]

A highly mobile industry throughout its history, always chasing the lowest costs, TCF companies have launched themselves in each new location (usually some newly developing nation state) with all the characteristics of early stage industrial capitalism. And they have reaped the benefits for the capitalist class. Anu Muhammad, a left wing Bangladeshi academic, writes that that country “is living under the reign of the primitive accumulation of capital coupled with the firepower of the globalised economy.”[25]

Karl Marx, writing in Capital about the British manufacturing industry during the Industrial Revolution, describes how this model of capital accumulation first developed. He also details the critical role of textiles production processes in that accumulation, naming the sewing machine as the “decisively revolutionary machine”. Such industrial processes powered massive increases in productivity and riches, while rapidly expanding the workforce, even as they impoverished the class which produced the wealth.[26]

And while the capitalist class lauded its system for its progressiveness, Marx countered that this rosy depiction flies in the face of workers’ actual experience, such as pay cuts, forced migration, unemployment, longer working hours, job insecurity, hazardous working conditions and ill health. He describes how the worker becomes ever poorer, an ever cheaper commodity: “The more the worker produces, the less he has to consume… The more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes… [The system] replaces labour by machines, but it throws one section of workers back to a barbarous type of labour, and it turns the other section into a machine… It is true that labour produces wonderful things for the rich – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels.”[27]

It was not a wholly negative result for workers, as Marx details. It was part of the process of creating the modern working class, bringing them together en masse where they could begin to realise their potential industrial might. Nonetheless, wherever the TCF companies have gone – always downshifting to the next poorest nation – we see similar levels of exploitation. There we witness the poor OH&S standards, state intervention both to repress labour and benefit industry, enabling factory and retail industries to reach mega-profit levels. A paradise for capital. The CEO of Collective Brands, a US footwear company, described his company’s shift from China to Indonesia: “The utopia for one-stop sourcing for quality and low price has been China…but utopias never last.”[28]

These days some of the most powerful players in the industry are the buyers, the global retail giants, rather than the direct producers themselves. Recently some of these companies, under pressure because of the Rana Plaza fire, have signed an Accord which commits them to ethically source clothing from accredited factories and contribute to a compensation fund. One example is the Swedish multinational firm H&M, which has just launched in Melbourne. While they have at least registered some responsibility towards the loss of life in Rana Plaza and have publicly supported a minimum wage, they are currently squeezed by lower profits and a smaller retail spread than their competitors. So not only are they on a global expansion drive to increase sales – hence their arrival in Australia – they are actively searching for new lower-cost production sites. At the same time they were meeting Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to demand better working conditions in Bangladeshi factories, other H&M management were privately threatening their Bangladeshi sources that if they don’t drop their prices – by a reported 15 percent – the company would quit the country. Their attitude is “We don’t care how you do it — just make it happen.”[29]

This illustrates one of the garment industry’s “signature” features, one for which they are notorious world-wide – their constant drive to reduce labour costs. Not able to significantly reduce labour input – the sector remains labour-intensive because of limits to technological innovation in dealing with soft, flexible cloth interfaces – any attempt to reduce costs falls heavily on workers. The dynamics of the sector, driven by high volume, low-end item price retail sales, coupled with poor enforcement of labour laws and regulations in most of the countries with an RMG industry, give strength to the global retail giants and factory owners rather than the workers and their organisations.[30]

Using a range of measures common to capitalists of every kind – cutting wages, extending the working day, avoiding payment of allowances, or simply not paying mandated pay rises or overtime – clothing factory owners world-wide take every opportunity to profit from workers’ labour. Nowhere is this more the case than in Bangladesh, a country with some of the lowest wages in the world and little in the way of legal enforcement of agreements, and where all these measures are commonplace.

Another pressure on wages in countries such as Bangladesh comes from the globalisation of capitalism. One of the little discussed impacts of lowering the cost of consumer items such as clothing is its world-wide effect on the cost of labour generally. While production has increased enormously, global clothing prices have fallen by 10 percent in each of the last two decades and are falling even faster now.[31] This plays a structural role in reducing the global cost of the reproduction of labour power – what it takes to get each worker rested, fed, housed and clothed – and back at work each day. Low-priced consumer goods underpin a downward pressure on wages in developed countries. Pressure is then increased to reduce the cost of consumer goods even further, usually by a downward pressure on workers’ wages in the low-cost manufacturing countries. And so it goes, cycling ever downwards through the world’s working class.

It is as strong an argument as you’ll ever see for the need for international workers’ solidarity to fight the capitalists’ relentless race to the bottom.

This downward spiral accelerated as capitalism’s long post-war boom began to falter in the 1970s. Going into the next decade, the 1980s, the response of global TCF was for firms to harden up resistance to workers’ demands and begin another wave of relocations. Up until then, as the case of South Korea illustrates, both capital, and to a lesser extent labour, gained benefits from the TCF-driven industrialisation of the country. Bangladesh tells a somewhat different story. As with the other Asian nations where the textile industry made inroads, garment-making came to Bangladesh at the end of the post-war boom, when the ruling class was on the offensive and workers defeated and defensive. Capitalism has become steadily more brutal, especially after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), as the ruling class attempt to salvage their system.

Beverly Silver writes that initially her position was that “the geographical relocation of capital in the seventies and early eighties had to some extent weakened labor where capital had moved out from, but strengthened labor elsewhere, and that overall, seen as a global tendency, the overall process was one of labor strengthening.” She continues: “Up until the mid-eighties capital had responded to labor’s strength with a series of fixes (spatial, technological/organizational, product), none of which were particularly effective in undermining the overall strength of labor.”

But capital was on the verge of crisis, the rate of profit was falling and the system needed to recover if it was to survive. There were two options: labour revolts leading to an overthrow of the system, or a capital counter-offensive, bringing recovery to capitalist profit rates on the back of workers’ sacrifice. As we know today, the workers’ struggle faltered, the system survived and as Silver comments, the deep crisis of capital turned into a deep crisis for labour.[32]

In countries like Bangladesh, this has meant that the gains of industrialisation have been even more directed towards the ruling class. The result is that between 1972 and 2003 there were more people living under the poverty line (from 50 million to 68 million), while wealth inequality increased dramatically. In 1983-4 the lowest five percent of the population held 1.17 percent of the national income, dropping to 0.67 percent by 2003. Meanwhile for the top five percent of the population wealth share increased from 18.3 percent to 30.66 percent.[33]

Bangladesh – how the RMG industry came to dominate

Bangladesh was a wealthy region within the state of India and part of a thriving commercial trading route for centuries. Before British colonial occupation, the region was famed throughout the world for its muslin (a very fine, light cloth, woven from cotton).[34] During the 200-year British rule of India (1757-1947), this textile industry was destroyed when the British ruling class decided to develop their own, in the mills of Lancashire and Manchester. Bangladesh was forced to become a primarily agricultural region, exporting unprocessed cotton and jute. Not surprisingly it became poverty-stricken as thousands were driven from the cities into the countryside to eke out a living. Dhaka, the biggest city, literally halved in population.

After Indian independence from colonial rule in 1947, partition to form Pakistan and then a bitterly fought, though short, civil war, Bangladesh, in separating from West Pakistan, became an independent country for the first time in 1971. A period of nationalisation followed (with 90 percent of industry nationalised), then episodes of military and democratic rule embracing privatisation and so-called structural adjustment under the dominant neoliberal project of the World Bank and the IMF. A US adviser explained that “Great inequalities were necessary to create industry and industrialists”, and in his pollyanna world, “the concentration of income in industry facilitates the savings which finance development”.[35] Mostly, and Bangladesh is a case in point, it has gone to line the pockets of the rich.

In the 1980s, with the collapse of the jute market and because of some of the specifics of the multinational trade and tariff agreements, it became a country of choice for textiles once again – but under a very different economic regime. As the government “liberalised” the tax, tariff and labour regulations and set up export processing or free trade zones, local Bangladeshi businesses leapt at the opportunity to develop the RMG industry and today are still the major owners and operators. It has made them very wealthy and delivered many political rewards, including about ten percent of the seats in parliament, as well as mass media ownership and control.

One analyst pointed out that, “As a result, no matter which party is in power, it needs to woo the garment industry. This accounts for the vacillating position of the [current] ruling Awami League, which relies on workers for votes, but has to do the bidding of the factory owners if it wants to keep the economy afloat in the short term.”[36]

And it is an economy highly dependent on RMG production. After a somewhat slow start in the late 1970s, the industry grew steadily through the 1980s and ’90s, but truly skyrocketed from the 2000s. By 2004 two million workers laboured in 4,000 enterprises. In 2007 the RMG sector was raking in $10.7 billion in export earnings and by 2013, there were around three million workers in 5,000 factories bringing in $20 billion. That is nine percent of the country’s GDP[37] and 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export earnings. Another 20 million workers are indirectly employed by the RMG sector in transport and related industries. These latest figures are expected to triple by 2020.[38]

Clearly there is a lot at stake.

Karl Marx famously described the working class first as the producers of the system’s wealth, essential to the capitalist system, and then as the grave diggers of capitalism, the class that has the potential to overthrow the existing regime and put in its place a society run for human need.

When the largest garment workers’ demonstrations ever to occur in Bangladesh erupted in 2013, Nazma Akter, president of the United Garments Workers’ Federation (comprising 52 unions), highlighted this when she commented about the potential power of RMG workers: “We are not the object of mercy, the economy moves with our toil.”[39]

Bangladesh – the union history

Bangladesh has a long tradition of workers’ struggles, especially since World War I, and has some important pro-worker legislation on the country’s law books. However it is important to understand that for much of this history, women have been only a small percentage of the workforce – and an even smaller percentage of union members. (See Table 2.)[40] Significantly more women entered the workforce after the social movement uprisings of the late 1960s and the early ’70s. Since the onset of economic neoliberalism and the massive expansion of the RMG sector, with most of the employment going to women (80-90 percent), we have seen an increase in women workers’ involvement in industrial action.[41] This mirrors a major trend in women’s employment worldwide, as Table 3[42] shows.

While women’s employment rose, men’s fell by roughly the same percentage. It does appear now that women’s labour force participation, as measured in 2012, is falling slightly, from 57 to 55 percent.[43] Unemployment, under-employment and the blight of casualisation, for both sexes and the young, have risen with the impact of the GFC and the system’s attempts to recover. Robotisation and other forms of automation and technological developments are contributing to lower overall rates of employment too.

Industrially we are seeing that the traditionally militant, unionised, male-dominated blue-collar sectors have been hardest hit, both in terms of jobs, but also in rates of unionisation and industrial action, which have plummeted in many countries. It leaves us then with a global labour movement with more women than ever before, but who are also newer to industrial workplaces and relatively unaware of traditions of militancy. However, these workers are also the hope for the future and capable of developing their own industrial strength, as Bangladeshi and other Asian workers have shown. As Naila Kabeer concludes, the Bangladeshi women factory workers “aspired to such employment because it moved them from their position at the margins of the labour market to a more central, better paid and more visible place in the economy. Their jobs can be seen as an expression of a new, if problematic, inclusion.”[44]

In the Indian sub-continent, workers had formed unions and taken industrial action from the late 1800s; the big increase in union formation occurred in the wake of World War I, when the Bolshevik Revolution had an enormous impact.[45]

From the 1950s – after the partition of India, while Bangladesh was part of Pakistan – there were periods of military rule which saw repression of unions, mass arrests of political and union leaders and martial law. 1968-69 saw mass upsurges in which different groups launched general strikes, student strikes, street processions, gheraos (blockades) and torch processions, met by repression from the military junta under General Ayub Khan. In 1970 the national liberation party, the Awami League, launched a series of street protests joined by many unions, forcing the regime to hold elections. The League won a majority, but the Pakistani military was not prepared to cede power and the result was the nine-month armed struggle, ending in the formation of an independent Bangladesh.

Initially the new, leftish government nationalised most industries and announced a progressive labour policy, enacting a raft of pro-worker laws. After the first president was assassinated and the party overthrown in a military coup in 1975, the new leader General Zia banned unions. By 1977 the ban was lifted but restrictive regulations were imposed and each political party was required to set up its own labour front – aimed at diluting the impact of any militant unions and giving right wing forces an influence among workers.

Nonetheless, a strong labour movement eventually emerged, based mostly in the state-run sector, protesting different anti-labour acts by the then Ershad regime. In 1984, major labour unions in the country formed SKOP (Sramik Karmachari Oikko Parishad) and started various movements against anti-labour laws, including a 48-hour country-wide hartal, or general strike, on 22 and 23 May that year. Since that time, however, despite the presence of around 7,000 unions, the privatisation of government enterprises has led to a steep decline in unionisation, which is currently around three to five percent. Phases of military rule, continued repression by the police, army and paramilitary forces have also taken their toll. As well, the labour laws, though good on paper, have rarely been enforced and give workers little protection.

The ready-made garment sector – a history of workers’ resistance

In the RMG sector unionisation is low, partly a result of fierce owner opposition, coupled with state-sanctioned repression. Unions were completely banned in the Export Processing Zones until a limited form of organisation was allowed in 2013. However low participation also comes from high labour turnover and the fact that most of the “first generation” workers in the sector were desperately poor young women fresh from the countryside, with little or no experience or tradition of worker organisation.

Initially isolated to individual factories, workers’ protests in Bangladesh’s apparel sector began happening in the late 1980s. A more organised labour movement emerged after a fire in a garment factory in the Mirpur area of Dhaka on 27 December 1990. Following two days of strikes in January, a number of union leaders met to form the first peak council of garment worker unions. Since then around 250 unions have formed in the sector – many enterprise-based and so not particularly militant or strong. Most unions, however, have organised themselves into four main union alliances, with a fifth, somewhat left wing and looser alliance.

Despite the lack of legal protection and the low union coverage, since the 1990s there have been a significant number of serious worker protests. They have some common features – wildcat strikes, occasionally with union involvement but mostly spontaneously organised, often very militant, pulling out tens, if not hundreds of thousands of workers in the factory districts. Disputes are spread by picketing outside neighbouring plants, while factories are frequently burnt down or trashed during the protests. Riots and major actions, such as blockading major highways for hours or even days at a time, regularly occur. The protests also get widespread local support in the areas surrounding the factories. In general, such spontaneous protests are triggered by the same longstanding issues – the physical or verbal assault of a worker, lay-offs at a factory and the failure to pay workers what they are owed.

These protests have brought the employers’ associations, the Bangladesh Garment Makers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), to the table with unions many times during the 1990s and into the 2000s. But much to the workers’ frustration and anger, agreements are usually signed off, but rarely implemented in full or when promised. Zia Rahman comments, “time and again these agreements [have] focused on the same issues as neither BGMEA nor the state took any steps towards improving garment workers’ conditions,” despite agreeing to them in earlier deals. By 2006 the union federations had had enough and launched a drive for a new minimum wage.

What happened next was beyond anyone’s expectations. The first action came when workers at one factory in Gazipur started protesting early in May over non-payment of wages. When management retaliated by sacking workers and police arrested two others, the situation escalated. At that point one of the sector’s left wing unions, the Garment Workers Union Federation (GWUF), led by Moshrefa Mishu, one of the few women union leaders, got involved and helped organise a short protest in front of the factory on 19 May. The next day management effectively locked them out, so the workers occupied the adjacent highway, chanting slogans.[46]

The police were again out in force, killing one worker and arresting one of the union organisers. As the news of the killing spread, thousands of outraged workers from other factories came out to the streets. On 21 May the leaders of the BGWUF came to the Gazipur district and announced a dawn to dusk strike in the district on 23 May.

At this point another left-influenced – and equally small – trade union backed the strike and helped spread it. The Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Unity Council (BGWTUC), with its leader Idris Ali, had been helping workers at another factory in the Savar district since late April. They’d been meeting up with them, training them in labour law, helping draft demands, including planning a sit-in strike on 22 May, as well as independently promoting a “grand garment workers’ procession” in Savar on 23 May.

So over the two days, 22-23 May, many thousands of workers in the RMG sector in Dhaka and surrounding areas struck. The dispute was now largely out of the hands of the two small left unions and the workplaces they were associated with. Larger, mass forces of workers were reacting spontaneously to the calls for action. On May 22 groups of militant workers burnt down two factories, five buses and damaged $2 million worth of clothing in the Savar area. Workers in nearly all the country’s factories came out the next day, while another 16 factories were burnt, 50 were vandalised and 200 vehicles ransacked. Actions continued through to June, with the whole sector shut down on some days as employers temporarily closed factories, pre-empting workers’ actions. Roads were blockaded with workers and locals joining forces and then fighting pitched battles with the police before they were forced back off the road.

This was also a time of more generalised industrial unrest in Bangladesh as millions of workers enduring poverty-line or lower wages took action. Railway workers were on strike, thousands of primary school teachers had gone on a hunger strike and there were mass protests about the poor power supply. In the RMG sector the employer groups and government finally agreed to a new minimum wage and improved conditions, as well as more access for unions. But again compliance was poor, just a repeat of earlier broken promises. More than a year later, September 2007, unions reported that only 20 percent of factories were adhering to the agreement.

Fuelling the unrest was the fact that wages were falling even further behind. Research in 2011 showed that from 2008 an increasing percentage of the population were living in poverty – reversing a 20-year trend of gradually declining poverty rates. But of more concern was a report from the World Bank in 2013 indicating that between 2001 and 2011 wages for garment workers in the top ten TCF-exporting countries fell in real terms – in Bangladesh it was around a 2.7 percent drop. At this rate, reaching a living wage for poorly paid textile workers was decades, if not centuries away.[47]

Not surprisingly protests continued through 2007 to 2009, even during the 2007 state of emergency, when industrial action had been banned. The year 2009 marked a significant increase in militancy amongst young women workers, prepared not just to march down the streets, but also to join the groups of workers who fought back against the police or trashed the factories. In 2010 the protests spread widely again and the demands became more generalised. Lower rent, gas and water prices, certainty of power and water supply and a living minimum wage were all claims that galvanised millions into action. And the garment workers’ protests began to spread outside the factory regions and into suburbs where the rich lived and shopped. The spread of demands and protest were all indications that workers were beginning to use their workplace power to express wider demands of their class as a whole. It was a threat the ruling class could not afford to ignore.

Again there was a settlement in 2010, but more repression too. While employers agreed to some trade union rights as early as 2006, they have consistently demanded industrial peace “to ensure unhindered production and export shipments on schedule”.[48]

With the upsurge in struggle since 2006, by 2010 the government was more determined than ever to crack down on workers’ actions to ensure industrial peace for employers. It introduced a new Industrial Police Force (IPF), which was to be located within the garment districts (not in central Dhaka), and thus able to act as a spy agency as well as respond more rapidly to workers’ unrest. This would top up the ordinary police force and the feared Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), trained by the British and responsible for deaths, torture and brutal suppression of uprisings. If all else failed, the army was available.

While the IPF kept a lid on protest in 2011, it couldn’t stop the rising tide of unrest from breaking out in 2012, a year of disasters. In April, the leading organiser of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, Aminul Islam, was tortured and murdered, probably by the RAB, his body later dumped. Mass protests erupted in May and June, but the bad news continued with a tragic fire at the Tazreen factory in November 2012, killing over 100 and injuring twice as many. Nothing changed much in the five month period after Tazreen, with another 28 factory fires reported. Meanwhile nearly 600 were injured and eight workers died between November and the end of January 2013 alone.[49]

And then of course came the dreadful collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on 24 April 2013, killing over 1,100 people and injuring several thousand. The initial response from government, employers and the retail chains was shocking. The Bangladeshi finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said: “I don’t think this is very serious. It’s just an accident.”[50] At Walmart headquarters, according to Sujeet Sennik, a former designer with Walmart Canada, “[A thousand] people died, no one said a thing. They didn’t, they didn’t say anything about them, they just talked about the loss in terms of units, how are they going to make up their margins?”[51]

Mass protests of angry workers hit the streets. As well as demands for compensation and enforcement of safety standards, they were also demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Again the workers were beaten back, though the government and employers were finally forced to respond to their demands, as they had been in the past. The government, factory owners and some of the retail giants were also forced into an Accord with workers’ organisations headed up by the international union federation, IndustriALL, promising to provide a compensation fund and carry out factory inspections. For the first time enforced closure of sub-standard manufacturing sites was also included.[52]

Overall, however, the gains this time have been meagre. The wage rise still leaves workers below the poverty line, and rent and utilities went up as soon as the wages rose. A number of firms tried to reclassify workers onto lower levels or raised the daily garment target, forcing many to work at a faster pace or longer hours – the latter often unpaid. And as usual, many factories simply haven’t paid the increases.

The liberalisation of union laws more generally, promised in the agreement, is far from that. It actually prohibits more sectors from being unionised, including such workplaces as hospitals. Where unions can be formed, 30 percent of a company’s workforce has to sign up to allow a union presence and workplace leaders are still vulnerable to victimisation. Strikes are only allowed if voted for by two-thirds of the membership. However the new law allows the government to crack down on strikes if they affect the “national interest” or cause “serious hardship to the community”.[53]

As Kalpona Akter, a long time unionist and ex-garment worker, said: “The issue is not really about making a new law or amending the old one. In the past whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beatings and harassment. The owners did not hesitate to fire such workers.”[54] Nor are they hesitating now.

The much lauded Accord has also been lax in its actual practice. The promised dollars for compensation have only trickled in, and over a year later workers from Tazreen and Rana Plaza have received a mere fraction of what they’re owed. Factory closures have been infrequent. Out of an estimated 4-5,000 sites, some hundreds have been inspected and 176 have been closed, though currently only seven are closed and 13 are being repaired. In May 2014 another building was evacuated in Gazipur, injuring 50. In a chilling repeat of Rana Plaza, huge cracks appeared, but after the building’s owners called in engineers who found nothing wrong, workers were forced back to work hours later.[55]

Nonetheless there have still been spirited actions from workers. In September 2013 over 200,000 workers took to the streets for three days. This did result in more firms paying the agreed pay rise. The next month at one factory, when the employer told the workers there was no money for their rightful holiday bonus, workers locked him in his office until he promised to make the payment – keeping him there until all the workers had been paid.[56]

Obstacles to struggle

Despite such an inspiring history, however, there are some serious problems for the working class, both in Bangladesh and globally.

There is no doubt that the gains for the global workforce, not just in the TCF sector, have been less frequent, especially after the GFC. Real wages in the US are lower than they were in the 1970s, prompting some firms to return to America after decades in Asia, while wages in the TCF sector have fallen steadily in Asia, except for China. Europe is also a site of low-paid factory work, relying on immigrant and ex-Eastern Bloc labour, every bit as exploitative as the worst in the world. In fact declining wages and persistent poverty for garment workers in a majority of the world’s leading apparel-exporting countries throws serious doubt on neoliberalism’s catch-cry that building an export-led development strategy, as promoted by the World Bank and IMF, will create a rising tide that lifts all boats.

In Bangladesh, gains have been meagre and the organisations purportedly representing workers have been ineffectual at best. While many of the workers’ actions have been organised spontaneously, without trade union input, workers’ constant call is for the right to join unions and for the creation of independent trade unions. Trade unions are certainly there in numbers, but apart from a few, very small, unregistered, left-aligned unions, they are often ineffectual, condemn the workers’ actions and negotiate with employers after the protests, often disregarding workers’ demands. More critically, most are corrupt or severely compromised by the political and organisational links they have.

Zia Rahman has painted a somewhat bleak picture. He points to the incorporation of unions into political parties and further profusion of unions, which splits up and weakens the movement, along with continued nepotism and corruption. He argues that the linkage with political parties has “hindered the growth of modern labour unions that might have preserved the workers’ interests rather than the interests of the respective political parties”.[57]

Rahman also draws a wider picture than just Bangladesh, arguing that the country’s union history is typical of countries that have passed through colonialism, militarism and neoliberalism. They have “seen the development of more or less similar labour movements characterized by: an extreme exploitative relationship between the employers and employees; co-option of labour leaders and politicization of labour unions…and excessive labour bureaucracy, corruption among the labour leaders, and mistrust of leaders by rank-and-file workers”.[58]

Silver points to another factor undermining workers’ ability to win gains. She explains that the structural positional power of workers at the point of production means they are able to push forward demands, often in upsurges. However she then argues that “each of these upsurges is brought under control through a combination not only of repression, concession and co-optation, but also through systematic transformation in the organisation of production that weakens movements ‘behind their backs’, so to speak.”[59] And as Barker and others write, the computer-driven innovations of capitalism have had a major impact on the level of employment, to the point where major work sites such as docks, car manufacturing and the like are dominated by robots, employing a fraction of the workforce they once did.[60]

The future – each uprising a rehearsal for the next?[61]

Bangladesh is both the past and the future, the horror and the hope. It illustrates both the early industrialisation which Frederick Engels so graphically describes in England during the 1800s Industrial Revolution[62] and its continuation through the decades around the world, but also the future: the hope, as Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, of the workers organising and becoming the grave diggers of capitalism.

For the present, as anti-sweatshop campaigner Anna McMullen spells out, “to fix the garment industry you need…a workforce that is able to refuse work that is unsafe…to mobilize and demand better conditions…genuinely empowering the people who work in these factories to be agents of change.”[63]

In such a global – and mobile – industry, strong action along all parts of the chain is also needed.[64] One such example is Inditex, the owner of brand Zara which sources from factories in Bangladesh. Trade unions in Inditex headquarters’ Works Council fought with Inditex management until the company pressured local Dhaka factories to end union-busting.[65]

On a smaller scale, the Australian textile union, the TCFUA, has put pressure on local companies to sign up to the Accord, to force improvements in safety and guarantee compensation. As part of an ongoing campaign the union has organised stunts in Melbourne’s and Sydney’s main shopping precincts, and outside companies such as Just Jeans and Adidas which refuse to sign the Accord. The National Union of Workers which covers warehousing, has joined the TCFUA in some of its city actions.

But the impact would be greater if the Australian shop workers union, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Union (SDA), was prepared to target the retail outlets directly.

To date the history of women workers’ struggle has been downplayed and a stereotype crafted of women as passive members of the working class, exploited and consigned to the bottom rungs of society. But, as I’ve shown here, against enormous odds – a sexist society, low-paid, precarious employment, grinding poverty, repression and a weak and corrupt union movement – women workers in Bangladesh have shown themselves to be able fighters for their rights.

We are seeing the emergence of a new layer of women garment workers in Bangladesh who are starting to flex their industrial muscle. It may also be the beginning of a new phase of struggle in that country, across not just the RMG sector, but other areas where women work. We don’t know. It’s always hard to see a turning point if you are living through it.

But one thing we know for certain is that women are now firmly embedded in the workforce and will be part of – and leaders of – the struggles of the future.

Marc Norton, in his critical review of the film 12 Years A Slave, hit out at those who see exploited people as only victims, who would write workers’ rebellions out of history. He concluded:

There is a current among some who call themselves progressive to see exploited people as mere victims, meekly waiting for deliverance from some saviour. It appeases the conscience of some liberals, but it is not a true story. People fight back against their oppressors. It’s part of human nature.

Sometimes we fight back smart, and sometimes we just fight back. Sometimes we are organized, and sometimes we are disorganized. But history is the story of rebellion after rebellion.[66]

And that is just as true of the fighting women workers of Bangladesh today.



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Ashton, Brian, 2006,”The Factory Without Walls”, Mute, 14 September,

Barker, John 2013, “A stitch in time: the ‘orchestrated networks’ of bloody Taylorism”, 10 July, orchestrated-networks%E2%80%99-bloody-taylorism-john-barker.

Bloodworth, Sandra and Tom O’Lincoln (eds), 2008 [2005], Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, Red Rag Publications.

Bradbury, Alexandra and Jane Slaughter, 2014, “How to Fan the Flames”, 31 March, WPWB.dpuf.

Chapkis, Wendy and Cynthia Enloe (eds), 1983, Of Common Cloth. Women in the Global Textile Industry, Transnational Institute.

Coffin, Judith G., 1966, The Politics of Women’s Work. The Paris Garment Trades, 1750-1913, Princeton University Press.

Collins, Jane L., 2003, Threads. Gender, Labor and Power in the Global Apparel Industry, University of Chicago Press.

Cyran, Olivier, 2013a, “Wrecked Lives for Another Ten Cents Profit. Bangladesh’s exploitation economy”, 6 June,

Cyran, Olivier, 2013b, “A Tale of Two Fires”, 7 June,

Dannecker, Petra, 2002, Between Conformity and Resistance. Women Garment Workers in Bangladesh, The University Press.

Ellem, Bradon, 1989, In Women’s Hands? A History of Clothing Trades Unionism in Australia. University of New South Wales Press.

Engels, Frederick, 1969 [1892], The Condition of the Working Class in England, Panther.

Gamber, Wendy, 1997, The Female Economy. The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1960-1930. University of Illinois Press.

Hardy, Jane, 2013, “Globalisation: a World of Workers”, 21 August, Socialist Worker (UK).

Kabeer, Naila, 2000, Bangladeshi Women Workers and Labour Market Decisions, Vistaar Publications.

Lazare, Sarah, 2013, “‘The Economy Runs on Our Toil’: Record Protests Sweep Bangladesh”. Common Dreams, 22 September,

Lennard, Natasha, 2013, “Garment Workers Held Boss Captive Until He Paid Promised Bonus”, 15 October, garment_workers_held_boss_captive_until_he_paid_promised_bonus/.

Lockwood, Denise 2014, “More manufacturers looking to re-shore back to U.S. experts say”, 7 May, news/2014/05/06/more-manufacturers-looking-to-re-shore-back-to-u-s.html?page=all.

Marriott, Red, 2006-2014, at Libcom website, apachesolr_search/bangladesh.

Marx, Karl, 1867, Capital, Volume 1, marx/works/1867-c1/ch15.htm.

Marx, Karl, 1959 [1844], Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,

McMullen, Anna, 2013 “Why the Problem of Bangladesh isn’t Solved Yet”, 24 October, #sthash.pXWuz12f.dpuf.

Muhammad, Anu, 2008, “Global Hegemony and the South: Experiences of Bangladesh, a Peripheral Economy”, CLA, 5, South-South Collaborative Program. Occasional Paper Series. collect/clacso/index/assoc/D5248.dir/OP5_MUHAMMAD.pdf.

Muhammad, Anu, 2010, “Peripheral economy, global capital and movements in Bangladesh: An interview with Anu Muhammad”,
28 December,

Muhammad, Anu, 2013, “Bangladesh Crisis: Quest for People’s Power”
16 December,

Nations, Richard, 2010, “Pakistan: Class and Colony”, New Left Review, 68.

O’Lincoln, Tom, 2005, United We Stand. Class Struggle in Colonial Australia, Red Rag Publications.

Pinchbeck, Ivy, 1981 [1930], Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850, Virago.

Pratap, Surendra, 2011, “Bangladesh Garment Industry in Turmoil. Workers no longer willing to perish in the Profit Machine”, Centre for Workers Education Working Paper, CWE Publications.

Rahman, Zia, 2011, “Labour Unions and Labour Movements in the Readymade Garment Industry in Bangladesh in the Era of Globalization (1980-2009)”, PhD dissertation, University of Calgary.

Rosen, Ellen Israel, 2002, Making Sweatshops. The Globalization of the US Apparel Industry, University of California Press.

Shingavi, Snehal, 2010, “Textile strikes rock Bangladesh”, Socialist Worker (US), 24 August

Silver, Beverly, 2003, Forces of Labor. Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870, Cambridge University Press.

Silver, Beverly, 2010, “Interview with Beverly Silver”

Sluiter, Liesbeth, 2009, Clean Clothes. A Global Movement to End Sweatshops, Pluto.

Standing, Guy, 1999, “Global Feminization through Flexible Labor: A Theme Revisited”, World Development, 27 (3), pp583-602.

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[1] Nazma Akter, quoted in Lazare, 2013.

[2] There are many reports of the Rana Plaza tragedy and the NGO campaigns on NGO sites such as Clean Clothes Campaign, the daily press in Bangladesh, US and UK.

[3] For the most worker-friendly and useful reports and images of the Bangladeshi workers’ campaigns since 2006, see Marriott, 2006-2014.

[4] Toscane, 2014.

[5] Quoted in Rahman, 2011, p111.


[7] Naila Kabeer, 1988, quoted in

[8] Dannecker, 2002.

[9] Kabeer, 2000, p402.

[10] N. Fraser, quoted in Kabeer, 2000, p403.

[11] Pinchbeck, 1981; Chapkis and Ensloe, 1983; Collins, 2003.

[12] Coffin, 1996, p253.

[13] Gamber, 1997 pp1, 7.

[14] Coffin, 1996, pp253-5. Kabeer, 2000, also argues that outwork is not, by definition, a backward step.

[15] Silver, 2003, Chapter 3.

[16] See the Appendix to this article, p13.

[17] Silver, 2003, p82.

[18] With 146 young women dying, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, it remains one of the deadliest in New York’s history and the fourth-highest loss of life in US industrial history.

[19] schneiderman.html. The “bread and roses” quote has inspired songs and many chants during marches for women’s rights.

[20] Ellem, 1989. For other examples of textile workers’ struggles in Australia over the years, see also Bloodworth and O’Lincoln, 2008 and O’Lincoln, 2005.

[21] Silver, 2003, p96.

[22] Barker, 2013.

[23] Lockwood, 2014, cites current US labour costs as lower than in China, Canada and Germany. With energy and plastics dropping in price, lower production costs overall in the US are encouraging American firms to “reshore” their factories. See also Rosen, 2002.

[24] Barker, 2013.

[25] Quoted in Cyran, 2013b.

[26] Marx, 1867.

[27] Marx, 1959.

[28] Hardy, 2013.

[29] Cyran, 2013a.

[30] Barker, 2013.

[31] Barker, 2013.

[32] Silver, 2010.

[33] Muhammad, 2008, p.14.

[34] Rahman, 2011.

[35] Quoted in Nations, 2010, pp3-26.

[36] Shingavi, 2010.

[37] By comparison, Australia’s coal industry, its second biggest industry after iron ore, is four percent of GDP.


[39] Quoted in Lazare, 2013.

[40] See the Appendix to this article, p15.

[41] The total estimated civilian labour force is 60.3 million, of whom 37.81 percent are female. (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics Labour Force Survey, 2000). Women are increasingly entering the job market mainly in RMG and allied sectors, tea gardens, NGOs, health care, food processing, export processing zones, services sectors and commercial enterprises and informal sector, i.e. construction, agriculture.

[42] See the Appendix to this article, p14.

[43] The World Bank Group, 2013.

[44] Kabeer, 2000, pp403-4. Emphasis in original.

[45] Information in this section from Rahman, 2011.

[46] The information for this section about the 2006 protests, especially about the involvement of the BGWUF and BGWTUC, comes from Red Marriott’s LibCom reports for 2006. Other sources include Rahman 2011, Muhammad 2010, 2013 and Pratrap 2011.

[47] The World Bank Group, 2013.


[49] APPG-UK Report 2013, p15. This report detailed that between 2006 and 2009, 414 workers were killed in at least 213 separate factory fires.


[51] Sennik was at the meeting. From the transcript of the TV report “Made in Bangladesh”,

[52] IndustriALL is at Founded on 19 June 2012, the new organisation brings together affiliates of the former global union federations: International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) and International Textiles Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF).

[53] APPG 2013, p21.

[54] Quote from Akter at the Oxfam forum in Melbourne, April 2014. Notes taken by the author. Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity was in Australia campaigning for compensation for the Tazreen and Rana Plaza workers.

[55] Factory closures: and Dhaka Tribune, 7 May 2014, “Cracks in RMG building, 50 hurt while evacuating”.

[56] Lennard, 2013.

[57] Rahman, 2011, p97.

[58] Rahman, 2011, p36.

[59] Silver, 2010.

[60] Barker, 2013, Ashton, 2006.

[61] Bradbury and Slaughter, 2014.

[62] Engels, 1969.

[63] McMullen, 2013.

[64] Sluiter, 2009.


[66] BsZVbyZD.wEoD6qN8.dpuf.