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Thursday, May 23, 2013

In the voice of Durba Islam, Bangladesh – The cost of earning a living

                                                                                                                by Durba Islam

Durba Islam writes to GHRD about the skewed distribution of blame regarding the Rana Plaza tragedy in the media, informs us about the practices that put human lives in danger and discusses the future of the Bangladeshi industry.

The Rana Plaza in Savar, pre-collapse
Since the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Savar on the 24th of April, 2013, Bangladesh has been in the attention of the global media. The accident is said to have been the most devastating one in the history of the country’s RMG sector, having claimed the lives of 1127 people so far and leaving around 1943 wounded and injured.

Upon finding cracks in the building, authorities had ordered the building to be shut down, but on the 24th of April, garment workers were forced into the building, with threats of an entire month’s salary cut, even though the owners were fully aware of the potentially dangerous situation. Around 9:00 am, the building collapsed, leaving thousands of people trapped in there, both dead and alive. 

Over the next 20 days, survivors were rescued and dead bodies were salvaged from the site of the accident. In many cases, survivors have had their limbs cut off, in order to be rescued alive. The army, fire brigade and countless volunteers worked under grueling conditions to ensure that survivors and the dead bodies were pulled out.

Victims in the rubble
Source: Flickr: Dhaka Savar Building Collapse
On 13th May, at 6:00 pm, the rescue effort came to a close. The accident has not only left 1127 people dead, but among the 2438 people that have been rescued alive, many have lost an arm, or a leg, if not more than one limb. Many bodies have not yet been identified due to advanced stages of decomposition. These bodies have been sent for DNA tests in order to enable identification.

Over these twenty days, some channels have broadcasted live reports from the site, as rescue work was underway. They also showed people who were waiting for some news of their loved ones. There was no knowing whether they would be lucky enough to come out alive, or dead, or if their bodies would even be found at all. It has been a common scene to see people holding pictures of missing family members or friends, and crying and asking for them to be found, for some news to be given about them. Families have been robbed of mothers, fathers and children. Children have been left mother/fatherless. 

It has been very difficult to watch the broadcasts without feeling even a tinge of guilt about the state of the safety of the garment workers in Bangladesh, who are working so hard to fuel the country’s economy. Is this the price they have to pay in order for Bangladesh to deserve global attention, or to proceed towards becoming a developed nation?

After having read countless articles online about the accident, having seen the live footage broadcasted on TV, and the pictures circulating around the web of survivors and those who died, a question appears: How can we, as a nation, build our future and hopes of progress on the lives of those who work day in and day out without any guarantee of their own safety, in order for us to achieve that status? After twenty days of being a mere spectator of this incident, I cannot even begin to imagine how painful it must be for those who have actually lost their loved ones in this tragedy. As the twentieth day draws to a close, and along with it the rescue effort comes to an end, it’s high time to focus on what can be done on various levels to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

Following this incident, many protests and efforts by trade unions and activists has led to a few positive steps being taken by big companies, such as the recent event of global brands like H&M, Tesco, C&A Inditex and a few others agreeing to support the fire and building safety agreement initiated by the ILO, in order to ensure better, safer working environments for Bangladeshi garment workers.

While this is an excellent step, the bigger problem and solution might lie closer to home than it might appear. A lot of blame has been placed on foreign buyers and their ability to ensure safer working environments for the workers, but in doing so, one risks overlooking the people who are responsible for the garment industry in Bangladesh – the factory owners, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exports Association (BGMEA) and the government.

The Rana Plaza post-collapse
Source: Flickr: Dhaka Savar Building Collapse
It is first and foremost the duty of the owners to ensure safe and secure working environments for their employees, which would mean legally constructed buildings which follow all the correct construction protocols, safe machinery, and healthier working environments in terms of space, lighting and ventilation. The BGMEA should be actively involved in detailed inspections to ensure that the owners adhere to all the rules that are set down, and the government should be actively involved in enacting stricter laws and making sure they are being followed without any sort of partial treatment, no matter what someone’s social/political connections may be.

That would be, from my point of view, the ideal solution, and are steps that should be taken locally in order to ensure that buyers do not have to pull out production from the country, since that will eventually affect the economy negatively. If the people involved in the RMG sector in Bangladesh could honestly guarantee the buyers that they have no safety threats to worry about, wouldn’t it make a better impression? Surely it might mean that some, or even many buyers would pull out because of the higher production cost, but then, in the long run, it would help to create a responsible and dependable image for our RMG sector. 

But of course the solution is not as easy as it sounds. The RMG sector, not unlike almost all sectors in Bangladesh, is full of corruption. Owners may use their connections and political backing to get away with setting up and conducting businesses without having to follow proper protocols, or making ridiculous amounts of profits through improper means, and if there is any doubt of foul play involved, things are somehow always smoothed out, again, thanks to connections and bribes. The authorities at the BGMEA turn a blind eye when it comes to these issues, as long as they can keep the cash flow coming in. With both incidents of the fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory and the collapse of Rana Plaza, the BGMEA have not been actively involved in any sort of reform work that might indicate a desire or effort to create safer working conditions.

There are of course many factory owners who are doing their jobs well, and making profits while doing it ethically. But it is always the terrible stories that get the most coverage, and this creates an image that most factory owners are ruthless businessmen. But however we may look at it, it is very common in Bangladesh that profits come before the safety of workers or business ethics.

In relation to the human rights of garment workers, the labor law states that monetary compensation for one death is 200,000 BDT. But it is unheard of so far that upon the death of any worker, the owner has compensated the family with that amount. They are barely given enough to be kept quiet and out of the way, so that business can go on as usual. And due to a lack of education and finances, these people are unable to assert their rights in situations like that. Even in death, these hard working people’s effort and the hardships they face on a daily basis remain unacknowledged. Out of all the people who have died, and those who have been injured in the Rana Plaza incident, it remains to be seen how many of them will be compensated by the factory owners, BGMEA or the government.

If the death of over a thousand workers does not come as a wake-up call for the responsible people, to take necessary action, it is hard to say how many more lives need to be lost. With the retail giants finally focusing on helping to improve working conditions, it’s time for the people involved in the RMG sector in Bangladesh to pitch in and do their bit to ensure that tragedies like the fire at Tazreen or the building collapse at Savar does not happen again. A human life is not something one can quantify with a sum of money, and no financial compensation will ever make up for a lost life. So, instead of thinking about how to pay off people for dead family members, the authorities involved should begin to ensure that no lives are lost to begin with.

Durba Islam is a young woman from Bangladesh, living in Dhaka and working as an English teacher at the Australian International School 

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