The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes records Solomon, the wise king of the ancient Israelite people, as saying: “One sinner destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18). How true is this wise saying! The death of so many garments workers in Rana Plaza at Savar, and other many such recent man-made disasters, are living commentaries of that adage.
Words cannot describe the pangs, the sorrows of thousands of people who lost their dear ones in the rubble of that monument of greed. Millions of people will remember this horrendous crime against humanity for many years to come. This will remain as a classical example of corruption of some people, who lay behind this man-made disaster of epochal proportion.
This kind of corruption eats into the vitals of our life and our God-given identity and dignity as the crown of creation of God, ‘ashraful maklukath’ as it is termed in Islamic teaching. Human rights of the poorly paid and ill-nourished labourers have been violated in the garment industry in Bangladesh ever since this industry drew the attention of the world market. They are abused, exploited as cheap labour. Garment industry is but a kind of slavery!
I am reminded of the Mine Engineering French Professor Le Pley, who asked his students: “What is the most valuable thing that comes out of the mine?” Some students replied: “It is gold”; some said: “It is diamond,” etc. etc. “No”, replied the teacher, “it is the human person, the mining labourer, who goes underground and come back alive, who is most valuable.”
Many of our garments factories have proved to be death traps for the workers. Because of the insatiable greed for more and more money owners compel the poor workers to work virtually like slaves in most abject and vulnerable conditions. Saraka Garments fire in 1993 cost 17 lives (all women), Spectrum Garments in 2005 cost 64, Tazneen Garments tragedy in 2012 killed 112 people, and Rana Plaza has taken almost 600 lives, most of whom were women.
Three most important positions in our parliamentary democracy are now held by women — the prime minister, the leader of the opposition in the Jatiyo Sangsad and the Speaker. It is not too much to hope for a better day for our women in the future. Our lady leaders must play a vital role in securing the human rights of the women workers.
Someone has divided human beings from perspective of attitude to wealth into three distinct types: one type of people says “what is mine is mine and what is yours is also mine,” another says “what is yours is yours and what is mine is mine,” and the third type of people says “what is yours is not mine and even what is mine is not mine!”
RMG factories earn the lion’s share of our foreign currency. Over the last decade or so Bangladesh has gained reputation as a promising economy due to the RMG industry. We have been dreaming of achieving the status of middle income country. Our garment industry is second in rank in the world after China; it has been a $ 20 billion export-driven industry, but is now under microscopic scrutiny by importers from so many countries. We are now in a vulnerable situation.
The question is how do we retain the glory that we enjoyed? Perhaps one way is to ensure that our authorities make the world understand that they are determined to address the issue with all-out efforts to make sure justice is done and workers are respected. Industrial compliance must be ensured.
Savar tragedy is but a corporate crime resulting from greed and pride, god-fathered by stakeholders of different types in different times over the years gone by. There are many stakeholders, both government and non-government, having definite interests in the entire corrupt phenomena involved. How many are involved in this heinous system and structure of abuse and exploitation? We need to trace them out and identify them. Corrupt people cannot live and thrive on their own and without allies.
Hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries and maiming, millions saddened and the entire nation challenged to do self-searching. But the truth remains, the corrupt and evil ones are always in the minority. We need to create and sustain the spirit of love and compassion among people. We need to cultivate the spirit which will make us decry what is evil, and respect what is good. The problem for us is that evil appear to be overpowering because people in office and authority do not play the part they ought to.
Let us hope, and join hands with all those who have goodwill and respect for the dignity of people to usher in a day when modern-day slavery will be a thing of the past. We can overcome. But first of all, let those who are supposed to represent the people really represent their hopes and aspirations. There is no alternative to good governance, honest practices, justice and rule of law for any society worth the name. This is more so for a developing country like Bangladesh. Our leaders often say that the people are the source of all authority and power, let them sincerely try to prove this cliché by attending to the needs of the people.
The writer is Principal of College of Christian Theology Bangladesh, and a social worker.