Savar Tragedy–I

Gambling on Workers’ Lives

Shamim Imam

Don't go away before rescuing me', 'For your parents' sake, save me'—such were the words uttered with a feeble voice by two helpless workers from the ruins of the collapsed nine-storied building of 'Rana Plaza' of Savar. A little later, the voices relapsed into eternal silence and only the lifeless bodies were left. People were running here and there with photographs of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and other relatives.... These were the scenes in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the 'Rana Plaza'.

This human tragedy was the most ghastly one that can be remembered, and it took place at about fifteen to nine in the morning on 24 April 2013. Subsequent fact-finding efforts revealed that Sohel Rana, a close associate of the local Awami League MP and a youth leader of the same ruling party, had this nine-storied building constructed although the permission of the municipal corporation was for a six-storied house. The permission was taken under the 'shopping mall' category, but before the eyes of the concerned authorities including the municipal corporation, five garment factories were set up by using political power and in collaboration with corrupt extortioners. Experts have suggested several reasons for the collapse. The building was constructed in defiance of the building code in vogue, use of substandard materials for construction, lack of regular piling according to rules, the lack of capacity on the part of the building to withstand the weight machines and the vibrations when the machines are in operation.

It should be mentioned that a large crack appeared in the building the previous day, 23 April. Immediately after sighting it, the garment workers doing duty in the building stopped work and came out. A team of local technical and industrial police visited the building and recommended suspension of activities. Other business units like shops, banks etc were closed by their owners and managers but the owner of the building, Sohel Rana, and owners of garment factories defied the recommendation and reopened the factories on 24 April. Just as the factories started their operation, the building crumbled with a thunderous sound, leading to the death of 1127 workers. According to the surviving workers and local eyewitnesses, the actual number was much larger. Several thousands of workers were injured. 2438 workers were rescued alive, and more than one thousand were missing. The figures of the number of workers given by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association (BGMEA) do not tally with the number of corpses, number of persons rescued and the list of missing workers taken together. In cases of such earlier incidents, allegations of hiding corpses were heard. This time too, the public is legitimately raising questions.

For the dead and wounded workers, the BGMEA had announced an aid of only Rs twenty five thousand per factory. It is not only that the owners who are after super profits have not maintained safe and healthy environments, but also that they have refused to grant adequate compensation to the victims and have evaded the responsibility of providing medical care and rehabilitation to all of the injured. In most cases, the near relatives of the dead have been harassed by the garment owners and the BGMEA. This was a piece of black humour made by the owners and the BGMEA. The owners have declared a compensation of Rs 1 lakh for the dead and Rs 1.25 lakh for the incapacitated per head in accordance with Bangladesh Labour Law 2006. But according to the law regarding serious accidents, framed in 1855 and still in force, the amount of this compensation should be much larger. According to this law, the amount of compensation should be double the amount the deceased was to earn during his expected lifetime. Dr Shahdin Malik, an eminent lawyer, has said that the court has the power to direct the owners to pay compensation according to this law. If a suit is filed , it is possible to force the factory owners, the BGMEA and foreign purchasing agencies to pay compensation. He has further argued that three components are to be considered for determining the reasonable amounts of compensation. The first is the total potential expenditure of the worker on his family for the rest of his life. The second is the monetary value of the loss of the worker's company by his family. The third is the penalty of the owner's neglect.

Anu Mahammad, an eminent economist has made a calculation and shown that every worker killed or injured in such serious accidents should get Rs 1.8 million as compensation. By summing up the evidence supplied by various news media, it is learnt before the incident of 24 April, more than 1.5 thousand garment workers lost their lives in similar accidents, and more than five thousands were injured. But the dreadful truth is that not a single factory owner has been punished for such killings. Why is such a procession of death getting lengthened? The reasons are the character of the government that runs the state of the exploiting classes and the indulgence shown by the government, absence of a law that prescribes severe punishment for such offences, absence of free trade union rights and the defiance by the profit-hungry factory owners of the existing rules and regulations. These incidents only prove once again the veracity of Karl Marx's observation on the insatiable greed of capital for profit.

It may be mentioned that on 24 November 2012, 125 workers died when fire broke out in Tajrin Garment of Asulia. Then all the concerned organizations including the Fire Service, the Department of Environment and the BGMEA announced a programme of identifying the risk-prone garment factory buildings and taking appropriate actions. But even after the expiry of five months they did not take any effective initiative in this regard. The owner of Tajrin was not even arrested.

As in the past cases, attempts have been made in this case too to shield the factory owners and the owner of the building. On the day of the incident, the Prime Minister made the ‘false’ statement that workers entered the factory premises for bringing valuable articles. The fact is that on that day, workers did not want to go, but were forced to join their duties. The Prime Minister also tried to brazen it out by saying that ninety percent of the buildings of Bangladesh were constructed in a similar fashion, and hence if the owner of this building was to be arrested, all those who owned buildings in Bangladesh were to be arrested.

In order to evade responsibilities for or to hush up the real facts about any major incident taking place in the garment sector, the organization of owners and the government resort to a number of tricks. They include the formation of enquiry committees (the reports of such committees never see the light of the day) and theories of sabotage and of domestic as well as foreign conspiracy, which have so long remained unproven. Another excuse is the theory of loss to the national exchequer. The argument underpinning the excuse is that since the garment industry is the second largest earner of foreign exchange of the country in the export sector, an exposure of the carelessness and neglect of duty on the part of the owners or the BGMEA would harm the industry as well as the nation.

It is true that a harm to the garment industry would lead to loss of employment. But it is no less true that workers provide the life-blood of this industry. The principal reason why foreign customers purchase garments from Bangladesh is that this country offers garments at prices lower than those prevailing in other countries, and this is made possible by the cheap labour power of the workers. The owners of the garment factories of Bangladesh are making high profits in exchange of the sweat, blood and life of these workers.

No conscious and conscientious person can meekly accept this process of killing. Hence it is extremely urgent for the government and the owners to take effective steps for changing the situation. What is necessary is a political solution. For the development of the garment industry or of the industrial sector as a whole, the government must make on the spot surveys in every factory with the owners and real workers' representatives, discuss the situation with them and promulgate strict laws and implement them seriously for ensuring a healthy and safe environment in work places. There is no alternative to a vigorous movement for a people's democratic movement, which requires effective workers' struggle for the protection of garment workers and of the industry as a whole and for putting an end to this situation. Workers do not desire this dance of death—they want safe work places.
[Translated and slightly abridged by Anirban Biswas; Courtesy : Sramajibi Bhasa, June 2013]

Vol. 46, No. 3, Jul 28-Aug 3, 2013

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