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Bangladesh jute workers protest privatization moves

Plans to privatise state-owned Bangladesh Jute Mill Corporation are meeting with resistance from workers, who held demonstrations and rallies. Their protests were followed by a strike by private sector jute mill workers, demanding payment of wage arrears and the reopening of closed factories.

The Bangladesh jute industry, which makes materials for bags and sacks, is in crisis because of a sharp decline in export markets. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are insisting on privatisation and restructuring, which means retrenching workers. Between 1990 and 2005, an estimated 1,20,000 BJMC workers lost their jobs. The BJMC has 26 jute mills. Privatisation of state-owned enterprises, such as the BJMC, is part of a broader economic restructuring and austerity program, prepared under the direction of the IMF and unveiled in the budget handed down in June. Apart from other restructuring and austerity measures, IMF reiterated its requirement for a widening of the value added tax.

Jute and jute-related industries once made up 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s foreign currency earnings, but they have declined since the 1980s. Political instability in major jute importing countries such as Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Egypt has lowered demand substantially.

The jute workers’ protests point to rising class tensions in Bangladesh, amid the deepening impact of the post-2008 global recession.