THE death of 371 workers and injury to numerous others as a result of the collapse of the Rana Plaza is no accident. It is a corporate crime, caused by corporate greed and political patronage. Nor is it the first instance. Since 1993 when 17 young women workers lost their lives in a fire in Saraka Garments, there have been many instances of industrial culpability and state negligence.
Even as we mourn the dead, whose poorly paid labour contributed to profits from Bangladesh’ export garments, it is time to question why the state has repeatedly ignored violation of laws, why regulatory mechanisms fail to monitor systemic failures, why political patronage confers impunity for corporate crimes.
We must ask why an industry that has made millions for its owners and built Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves has done so little for workers’ safety, why it will not allow collective bargaining even when workers’ lives are at risk; we must not forget that a price squeeze by global buyers results in exploitation and denial of workers’ safety.
How can we make the industry comply with legal standards? The High Court following its suo motu rule issued on April 25 will no doubt establish the reasons for criminal liability and systemic faults. It has asked the police to produce the building owner, as well as the owners and managers of the factories that were located in the Rana Plaza on April 30 to explain their failure to comply with the law. Several other cases have been filed, for compensation for workers’ deaths and injuries, and for settlement of due wages.
This time the Court’s orders and directions must be followed, even if previously neither the industry nor government agencies have shown much respect for the Court’s rulings. In 2006 the collapse of Spectrum Sweater Industry in Polashbari, resulted in 64 deaths. The High Court orders to the Fire Services, Labour Directorate and BGMEA to report within two weeks on the legality of the construction, on ownership of land and safety conditions were complied with by BGMEA alone. While it took on the task of monitoring safety provisions, the field supervision did not progress beyond a few weeks and many factories were not surveyed. When Phoenix Garments collapsed in Tejgaon the High Court ordered compensation of Tk.300,000 for severe injuries and Tk.50,000 for minor injuries. Death of workers in major fires in KTS factory in Chittagong in 2006 and more recently of 214 workers in Tazreen Garments in 2012, have again pointed to the criminal culpability of the owners in not providing safe conditions and to institutional failure in monitoring major lapses. There have been smaller incidents as well, but in all cases the owners and managers have escaped accountability. The Labour Directorate admitted a lack of capacity for monitoring 5,000 units and the Fire Services Department a lack of equipment.
For the last 20 years since the Saraka Garments fire there has been no systemic effort to improve standards of industrial safety, even though it is a requirement of the Bangladesh Labour Code 2006. The Building Code too has been largely ignored. The procedure for giving permission for construction and the use of buildings needs to be re-examined, and qualified personnel put in charge. Custom built factories need stronger foundations than residential buildings. Licensing of garment factories need to be more stringent so that garment factories are not loaded onto buildings that are meant for residential use. Obviously Rajuk lacks engineering professionalism. As Prof. Jamilur Reza Chowdhury has suggested, a highly qualified Building Monitoring Authority should be set up to monitor and survey compliance with the Building Code. BGMEA’s membership should also be conditional to compliance with safety standards. If the regulatory agencies are not competent or able to handle such difficult tasks, a tripartite monitoring system should be established for each factory, to involve business, worker and regulatory representatives.
The disaster management procedures at Rana Plaza also proved the fragility of our official system. Rescue at the Spectrum site became almost impossible because of lack of proper equipments and effective coordination. A Task Force set up after the Spectrum collapse had recommended the import of equipment for precisely such rescue operations, but it is amazing that a shortage of mechanical equipments at the Rana site led volunteers to manually dig walls and open gridlocks. Numerous volunteers using their bare hands, small scissors etc to cut wires, have set a courageous standard in rescuing lives. But many more could have been saved if disaster management procedures had been more orderly, and proper equipments made available in time. We have provisions for an industrial police to control workers but no industrial disaster management system!
Rana Plaza tragedy is the most powerful wake up call. The cost in human life has been intolerably heavy. This is no time for escape clauses. The state and the industry along with global brands have to make sure that workers’ lives are not expendable and that labour is not cheap. As citizens we cannot stop after salvaging lives, we must enforce compliance by all parties responsible for the disaster.
The writer is Chairperson Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK).