|Volume 6 | Issue 12 | December 2012 ||
Where Lives Come Cheap
Kajalie Shehreen Islam
Making it in Dhaka city is our very own 'Bangladeshi dream'. Thousands flock to the capital every day in search of better-paid jobs, higher-quality education and healthcare, greater opportunities, better lives. The rapid growth of the garments industry since the 1980s, a 20-billion USD industry that accounts for 80% of the country's exports and a major share of its GDP, has come as a blessing, turning around the nation's economy, not to mention the lives of the industry's owners, as well as the futures of the 4 million workers, 3 million of them women, employed in some 4,500 factories. Or has it?
On a good day, a garments factory worker in Bangladesh works from eight up to an endless 24 hours, depending on the pressure, in less than bearable heat and sound. They contribute to the production of well-known foreign brands of garments that they will never be able to afford, sold in countries they will never see beyond their 10-inch, black and white television screens. Add to that the sexual harassment faced by women employees by their co-workers, or thugs and police on the streets. All for a salary of Tk. 3,000 for an entry level worker and going up to Tk. 9,300 in the case of a grade-1 worker (minimum wages announced in July 2010, after a 80% increase, following months of violent protest over poor pay and working conditions) at the end of a long, hard month.
On a bad day, they will end up burnt to ashes in a 'tragic blaze', 'accident', act of 'sabotage' or 'arson' -- euphemisms and excuses that do not justify the predictable, preventable, unforgiveable deaths caused by gross neglect at the very least.
There have been at least 33 major fires, killing over 500 workers in garment factories since 1990 -- over 300 of them killed in the last six years, 111 in the recent outbreak in Ashuliya. The reasons have been the same. Poor planning and construction of buildings lacking emergency exits or having inaccessible ones, causing workers to either burn or be trampled to death in stampedes. Absence of fire extinguishers, or functioning ones, or staff to operate them. The refusal of factory officials to let workers out for fire drills and, as in the latest tragedy, even in the case of actual fires -- lest they leave the workplace and take company goods with them.
The 2006 Bangladesh Labor Law and the Factories Rules of 1979 have adequate provisions stressing the welfare of workers but are flouted with wanton disregard for safety at the workplace. Thus, the consequences of the tragedies, too, have remained the same over the years. Death and injury of workers, leading to some form of compensation; financial loss to the owners; a temporary hue and cry in the media and civil society. To date, there has not been one conclusive investigation; no one has ever been held responsible. The nameless, faceless thousands who drive the country's economy remain as unrecognisable in death, their tragic demise as inconsequential as were their lives. With the expansion of the industry but without concomitant development of infrastructure and following of regulations to protect workers, the scale of the tragedies has escalated.
Claiming ignorance, blaming management or external and foreign evil machinations are unacceptable. It is the responsibility of factory owners, to be monitored by their associations and finally the government, to guarantee the safety of their employees. Buyers, too, have a liability and must ensure that production in their name takes place in line with labour laws. It is also the right of workers to be able to unionise for better working conditions and pay without being victimised.
Yes, compliance is costly and labour is cheap in a country of more than 160 million where over 30% of people live below the poverty line. The value of human life, however, is the same everywhere. But so far, the deafening cries of those who have lost their loved ones in factory fires have been falling on already deaf ears.
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