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     Volume 11 |Issue 47| November 30, 2012 |


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The Tragedy that never Ends

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Tuesday, the day the Star goes to print has been declared a national mourning day with all garment factories closed. What else could that day be but that? How we ask ourselves, is it possible that 111 (perhaps more) people can perish in a single fire? Watching the breaking news bulletin seemed unreal enough. Was it really more than hundred people dead? Again, in a garment factory, again the same story of negligence, apathy and so little value for human life. Journalists, dazed with shock after visiting the charred scenes come back with stories that set our hearts ablaze with fury and make our heads hang in shame.

Photo: Palash Khan

According to the gruelling reports, supervisors told them to go back as they were coming down to safety, despite the beginnings of a fire, they said that it was just a false alarm, no need to panic. The workers smelling the smoke tried to escape anyway, through the exit but it was locked from the outside. All other stairways that many took, lead straight to the warehouse where the fire was in full blaze devouring everything in its path. They couldn't use the glass windows, they were bolt shut, the only escape was to try to climb down the scaffolding or just jump – whatever the consequences. Some miraculously lived by running across a makeshift bamboo bridge, quickly assembled by an enterprising garment worker who wanted to save his co workers even at the risk of his own safety. Others mercilessly, unnecessarily, became part of that statistic we call accidental death.

Only this cannot be called an accident as there were too many rules that were violated, intentionally, without a thought to the possible tragedy that such callousness could cause.

If this had been an office building full of middle class or well to do employees, it would be a lot more personal, the outrage would be a lot louder. Garment workers come from the strata of the population that many consider expendable. Because they can easily be replaced there are so many of them, their skills are simple, they are not very educated. Because they don't have a voice.

Funny how even the silenced can speak volumes. This time around, their deaths cannot be shoved into the pile of yesterday's news. This time the number of deaths, the constant talk of compliance demanded by buyers and international bodies, the veiled threats from the biggest buyer and the fact that the nation's most successful industry is facing its biggest test of survival – all this has awoken us from our complacent stupor.

Or has it? The government and BGMEA have cried foul play which cannot be ruled out. But does it really matter whether the fire was deliberately started or was a freak accident when even the most basic safety measures had not been adhered to? Will this horrible tragedy prick the conscience of those officials who practically drove those people to their deaths by denying that there was a fire? Will exit doors continue to be locked so that goods are not stolen, even though they could save hundreds of lives by being kept open? Will garment owners stop housing factories employing thousands of workers in narrow alleys, in residential areas where fire fighting engines cannot easily pass through? Will all floors have fire-fighting equipment that actually work?

We feel so proud when we hear about the unbelievable growth of this industry, a part of the miracle that has kept this nation afloat. We get excited at the prospect of newer, bigger markets for our garments which will definitely boost this growth even further. But we always forget those young women and men who toil long and exhausting hours – these diligent individuals who are the real heroes behind this godsend of growth and prosperity.

In an insightful article titled 'In Shame' in The Daily Star's business section, a garment factory owner Rubana Huq gives a whole list of all the basic safety standards that every garment factory must comply with and as far as we know many already do. But as she points out, garment factory owners have to not only practice compliance wholeheartedly; they are morally obligated to go beyond the bare minimum.

The so-called monetary compensation offered to victims' families is ludicrous. A human life is priceless and to allow it to be destroyed in this meaningless way, is unforgivable. As a country we owe it to our conscience to demand better, safer work conditions for workers in all garment factories. Being always driven by self-interest we should also remember that we are the greatest beneficiaries of their precious labour.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2012