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     Volume 4 Issue 45 | May 6, 2005 |

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Cover Story

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Shamim Ahsan

They won the fight for survival. Buried in virtual graves of concrete slabs and parts of their bodies crushed under heavy garment machinery they held onto life fast for hours and came out victorious. Some of them were critically injured with their legs broken, hands twisted, or their kidney damaged, but they were still grateful for being alive. But lying on hospital beds, the survivors of the horrifying garment factory collapse at Savar are waking up to a painful realisation. They may never be able to live a normal life.

Twenty four-year-old knitting operator Mozaffor broke down when he learnt that doctors had suggested amputing his right leg from just above his knee. "Leave it to whatever bad shape it might take, I will somehow manage it," he pleaded. But the lower part of his right leg that got crushed after a heavy knit machine fell on it, had already started to rot and the infection was quickly approaching upwards. Five days after the accident, his right leg was cut off from his thigh. When Mozaffor regained consciousness after the operation, for the first time, he wished he had died on that fateful night.

In fact, it could easily have gone that way. "We thought we had fallen deep inside the earth. It was pitch dark, I could not even see my own hands. I thought I was dead," Mozaffor recalls the first few seconds after the collapse. The next moment he was jerked back to reality by a sharp pain -- his right leg was smashed as a huge knitting machine fell over it.

There was screaming all around, some were crying out of pain and some were crying for help. As time rolled by, the sound of crying began to weaken. "I could feel my saliva being dried out. My throat became so parched that I could not force any sound out of my mouth. There wasn't any air, and I could not breathe. I thought I was dying," he remembers. After two or three hours, as Mozaffor moved his left leg a little, he touched someone's leg -- a shiver ran down his spine, it was cold. Seven and a half hours passed by with Mozaffor oscillating between horror and intolerable pain, before he was finally rescued by army personnel.

Shafiqul, a 17-year-old lad from Manikganj was rescued after 14 hours, but his ordeal was of shorter duration as he lost sense around an hour after the collapse. The blissful unconsciousness lasted until he was about a couple of hours away from being rescued. "It was absolutely dark. I was trying to move, but could not. Then I realised that a wall had landed horizontally on my legs," are all he now remembers of his 15 hours' burial. He remembers another thing too. "I was very frightened," he adds a little later.

He has not recovered fully from the trauma yet. His pale, expressionless looks, his almost inaudible voice and the frequent pauses he takes every two to three words seem to have resulted from his inability to get over those nightmarish hours.

Though only 17 and had been in a garment worker for just eight months Shafiqul knew his job better than many of his senior colleagues. He appeared for his SSC examinations last year but one fine morning told his father that he would not study any longer and would work. His farmer father Serajul Islam was too poor to disagree. "Bajan (father), I will earn a lot of money," Shafiq's father quotes what he said before he left home for Dhaka. He really did earn a lot of money. During the peak season he earned from 5,000 to 6,000 taka a month and sent almost the entire amount home, reports his father. The energetic, confident lad Shafiq is now lying on a hospital bed, crippled and shattered. He has a fracture a little above his knee and the lower half of his body from the waist down is paralysed, which, the father says quoting the doctor, might never be cured. The father now accuses himself for his son's condition. "I was greedy for my son's income. I should not have let him come to Dhaka and work," he starts to cry inconsolably. "He is only 17 and his entire life is lying ahead. I feel like dying when I think of his future," he says.

Twenty-year-old ill-fated Rafiqul Islam Masud joined the doomed garment factory only four days before the accident. He was working on the ground floor when the building caved in. He suddenly noticed dust falling from the roof and the next moment he found himself covered by pieces of brick and concrete. He was rescued within an hour, thanks to a stranger, one of the many hundreds from the neighbouring areas, who rushed to the spot hearing the big sound.

Though his wound -- he sustained injuries on the lower half of his left leg and several cuts on his right shoulder -- did not seem so serious initially, his condition has deteriorated. Doctors have said he has three fractures. He might be spared from amputation, but is very unlikely to get back an active and strong leg.

The parents of the victims say that someone called Belal from BGMEA visits them on a regular basis and is bearing some of the expenses. Doctors and nurses are also taking care of them. But it is not the present suffering, but the uncertain future, the victims themselves and their families are more worried about. Lying on the hospital beds as they look at and think of their lost limbs, they feel devastated -- the future looks quite grim. The hardest part is coming to terms with their present reality -- from being able workers who provided for their families to disabled dependants burdens on their families for the rest of their lives.

Significantly, the seriously injured workers of the Savar
tragedy are not likely to get any compensation except their treatment cost. While different human rights and legal aid groups have been bargaining with the BGMEA and agitating in the streets to force the owners to pay an acceptable compensation for the dead workers' family, compensation for the severely injured ones is hardly receiving any attention. BGMEA, which will pay Tk 1 lakh in compensation to the families of the dead workers, have so far offered nothing to the injured workers. The victims' and their parents' only hope is that something is done so that they can earn a modest living. "Maybe a grocery shop," suggested Mozaffor's elder brother Ekabbor. Is that too much to ask?

Meanwhile, the five-member RAJUK investigation committee, which submitted its report on April 27, has categorically held the four owners, Altaf Hossain, Shahriar Syed Hossain, Abul Hashem Fakir and Alhaj Raisuddin, the RAJUK and three engineers Samiul Islam, Shamimul Islam and Md Liton involved in the construction of the doomed nine-storey Spectrum garments factory. A six-member expert team from BUET assisted the investigation team regarding technical aspects of the case. Though Savar Cantonment Board approved the design of a four-storey building as submitted to them by the owners, they went on to build a nine-storey building in utter defiance.

The report identified structural fault, construction fault and piling fault as reasons for the collapse of the garment building. The structure was raised on a marshy land. Though construction laws require "free casting piling" necessary for construction on such soft soil, the builders made holes instead, filling them with concrete and unsuitable materials. Consequently, there was always the possibility of rotten soil entering the pilings, creating vacant spaces inside them. This would make the entire structure easily vulnerable, the report explained.

Three weeks into the tragic building collapse at Savar, no one has been arrested yet. DB Inspector Khorshed Alam of DMP, the in-charge of the case, claimed that they were looking for Shahriar Syed Hossain and Hashem Fakir who are named as the owners in the <>ejahar of the case but could not find them. But the victims' family members have alleged that the police are not serious about arresting the owners because they are very influential and well- connected people. One of the owners, Shahriar Syed is the son-in-law of a ruling party lawmaker, Mahbubur Rahman.

The allegation of the owners' use of political connection to manipulate the case seems to get further credential looking at the way the compensation case is being conducted.

Factory and Organisation Inspection Department filed a compensation suit with Dhaka's first Labour Court on April 16. Obaidul Islam, an Inspector under Dhaka Divisional Office, cited Workers' Compensation Act of 1923, 10 (ga), as he claimed for a compensation of 21,000 taka for only 44 dead workers. On April 10, the Court ordered the owners to deposit 21,000 taka for each of the 44 families with the court. Now, the great haste with which the case was filed, the choice of the Act under which the case was filed and the death toll cited seem to lend credence to the allegation that attempts are on to save the owners, on the part of different government agencies associated in the different phases of the case.

Eminent lawyer Shahdeen Malik explains that the compensation suit should have been lodged under Serious Accident Act of 1855, which was later revised in 1955. The act requires that if a worker dies at work the compensation has to be approximately equal to the worker's total income of his entire remaining service life. A case under this act would roughly put the compensation amount at minimum 7 lakh taka, says Shirin Akhter, President of Karmajibi Nari and a senior Jatya Samajtantrik Dal leader. Whereas the Workers' Compensation Act, 1923 under which the case was filed allows the owners to get away with an outrageously low amount of 21,000 taka per victim's family. Many smell a definite collusion between the owners and the Factory and Establishment Inspection Department. "At least the selection of the law (under which the compensation case was filed) was made without taking the interest of the workers into consideration," Malik believes.

BGMEA Acting President Abdus Salam however claimed that according to labour law, the compensation should be 30,000 taka, but BGMEA would go by its own regulations and give away 1 lakh taka.

Accidents in garment factories have been a fairly regular event. A recent report in a vernacular newspaper reveals that some 450 workers died and about 2,000 were seriously injured in about three dozen accidents over the last 15 years. The huge casualty figures give an idea about the hazardous working conditions the workers are in.

Most of the 4,000 garment factories in the country are potential death chambers. The factory buildings often do not have adequate ventilation facilities and are often too jam-packed with workers and machinery to allow any breathing space. Most of the garments do not take the mandatory safety measures. Though fire incidents are rampant, most of the factories do not have fire-fighting equipment. Fire drills are not conducted in many factories. The exit staircase is a must, but they are a rare sight. When there is one it is often too narrow even for one person to comfortably get down.

Shirin Akhter then gives a survey report, which Karmojibi Nari conducted on 50 relatively good garment factories in Uttara, Mirpur, Malibagh, Mohakhali, Taltola, Shamoli, Gulshan areas. The survey found that most of these garment factories do not have safe working conditions, as it is required by law. 9.2 percent of the workers have experience of encountering fire-related accidents. In about 16 percent of the factories small-scale fire related accidents occur quite often, which are not covered in the newspapers. According to the government's Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment, entrusted with the job of monitoring the working condition of the factories, 50 percent of Dhaka's garment factories do not have safe working conditions. In fact, in 2002 the department lodged cases against 900 garment factories and served warning notice for not maintaining safe working environment.

The owners along with inefficient and corrupt government agencies have been responsible for putting the lives of thousands of workers at risk for their monetary interest. The boom in the country's garment sector, which came along riding on cheap labour, made some people incredibly rich, almost overnight; but for the thousands, whose hard work made it happen, life remained the same. The garment workers continue to be ill-paid, have to work more hours than the law permits and very often they are forced to work putting their life and limb on the line, on the floors of factories.

For the poor workers, the blatant indifference of the rich owners often results in loss of ability to work; it at times has led to the workers' death in different garment factories across the country. Whether it is workers' death or grievous injury, the garment-owners do not even pay the minimum compensation. As far as the paradigm of Bangladesh's rag-trade goes, a worker's labour and life are equally cheap.

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