A couple of years have passed since the fateful day in April 2013 when the world had witnessed one of its biggest industrial tragedies in Savar, in Bangladesh. The eight-story commercial building called Rana Plaza crumbled almost into dust leaving 1129 dead and 2515 injured most of whom critically. Different labour organizations have marked the second anniversary (24 April) of what we now call Rana Plaza tragedy or Savar tragedy with protest rallies and human chains demanding compensation for the victims. Regretfully, many of the families are yet to be compensated while the culprits responsible for the tragedy have not been brought to justice. Moreover, the funds raised from home and abroad to indemnify the victims against their losses are being badly mismanaged. It is indeed very sad that we could not save the lives of the dead, nor could we properly take care of their dependants and the injured.
Every year we are faced with many natural and man-made disasters which, we dismiss from our mind much before the wounds are healed. With the passage of a few years we have witnessed at least half a dozen man-made disasters in Bangladesh-Pilkhana tragedy claiming 74 lives, Neemtoli tragedy 124, Mirsarai tragedy 48, Tazreen Fashion tragedy158, Chittagong Flyover tragedy 25, and the hitherto last Savar tragedy where the death toll rose to triple of the number of all former five or even more! That we are vulnerable to and unprotected from the natural calamities causing heavy casualties due to the adverse effects of the global climatic changes brought about by the industrial emissions can be a pretty acceptable phenomenon. But to fall prey to similar kinds of man-made disasters repeatedly cannot be acceptable by any manner of means. However, we are stoically accepting them like the gold fish stranded in the aquarium revolving around the same circle vainly trying to find an exit.
If we had not forgotten the Tazreen Fashion tragedy, and had taken preventive measures to avoid identical damage, we could have very likely escaped the Savar tragedy. But it is a big if-the target to escape the tragic fall remains unachievable. The Savar incident is the most glaring example of this. Tragedy struck the whole nation and we were too stunned to speak when we saw a large structure was reduced to rubble by a sudden collapse. It was a great shock to the system to see piles of the dead bodies being pulled out from the wreckage. Many people have been crushed to death when the ceiling suddenly caved in on top of them.
They were flattened with other furniture and met with violent death. Many bodies were torn apart while many were ground between concrete floors like corn ground between the millstones. Though deaths are always painful, but some are more painful than others. The Rana Plaza deaths are far more distressing. Many died by knocking their heads or chests on or against the beams or walls or floors or roofs, and many died for want of food or drink or oxygen languishing in the collapsed building's dark holes. Phone calls coming from many undetected concrete cavities asking SOS remained unattended and finally got reduced to a deathly hush. This is called dying by inches! Horrific! And it is the most unscrupulous fact that all, who have died and who have escaped badly hurt, had been put to the situation under duress. This is a sort of killing! A manslaughter! A culpable homicide, which our factory workers usually fall victim to!
The labor force in Bangladesh has always been in a sorry state. In the last decade alone, as many as 6000 workers have been killed in man-made disasters. Though the economic emancipation was one of the avowed goals of our Independence War, it has been achieved for the favorites, not for the public. The 22 pre-independence business families have risen to, let's say, 2200 families and Mr. Sohel Rana of Rana Plaza must be one of them. They have made a mint on their business mostly by draining the workers of their energy.
This is because of their insatiable thirst for wealth and schemes to get rich quick, the laborer's interests have always been trampled over, whereas the cards are always stacked in the proud owner's favor. As a result of this prolonged plight, the ill-fated factory workers had to dice with death in order to do their master's bidding. This is what happened in the case of the Rana Plaza victims. They were forced to enter the ramshackle building risking life and limb. Their poverty led them to death whereas the bank employees who worked in the same building have made good their escape. The very plan to send them for work was the recipe for disaster.
These wholesale losses of lives in Savar have affected not only the people who died or were injured but also their families. And that is not the end of the story. The Savar tragedy has directly concerned the deaths of a figure in the hundreds, but indirectly it has struck the death knell of the entire apparel industry in Bangladesh. This bloody massacre of innocent factory workers has hit the RMG (Ready Made Garments) industry, which is the country's economic mainstay. It has shaken up the sensitive and caring people in the world.
The human rights activists have voiced concern about the safety of the laborers. It has made an impact on the US decision of GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) facility for Bangladesh. Influenced by the campaigns conducted by many Western organizations, the buyers had showed reluctance to buy clothes form the killer companies. This negative global attitude resulting from our callous unconcern for our laborers has been very discreditable for our apparel industry as a whole while it has been going through a sticky patch for quite a long time for different domestic problems.
Bangladesh RMG industry has an exciting prospect. Statistics show that the industry that entered the export market in late seventies with only 9 units and earned 0.069 million American dollars, has developed apace in the last three decades. The number of RMG units, at present, is about 4500 and the export earnings have exceeded about 19 billion US dollars, which is expected to double by 2020 marking Bangladesh as a tiger economy. More than four million workers have been employed in the RMG sector, and 76 per cent of our total export is covered by it. Given this phenomenal growth in the RMG sector, it is easily the highest earning sector in the economy of Bangladesh. This booming image of the RMG industry has been more or less tarnished by the Rana Plaza disaster, which is still taking its toll on our nascent apparel industry and the budding economy.
Therefore, to save the economy and thereby to save the country, we must save the RMG industry, and to save the RMG industry, we must save its lifeblood-the labor force. But we have miserably failed to save our workers in the literal sense of the term. The 33 Chilean miners trapped underground were hoisted to safety sixty-nine days after the mine collapse (2010). But we could not save a great many of our workers for want of necessary equipments and training. We are deplorably short of what we call DMS (Disaster Management Support). The sharp increase in the number of natural and manmade disasters in Bangladesh in recent years underlines the need of more attention to disaster preparedness activities. We should be more aware of the risks we face, and work out how to reduce their vulnerability.
The reduction of human vulnerability can also be done by promoting legal preparedness for disasters. The safety of the environment of the workplace and the efficiency of emergency responders and the success of recovery efforts can be underpinned by effective disaster laws.
Savar tragedy is primarily caused by building collapse. But why did the building collapse without any natural calamity? While all the skyscrapers of the world are standing still with their heads erect, a tiny hut in Savar suddenly collapses in a heap!
This premature structural damage is indicative of serious damage to the country's administrations where corruption is rampant and the rule of law has gone into exile. Criminals get off scot-free by virtue of their wealth or power affiliation. So it's no wonder that buildings would be erected overnight showing a total disregard for so-called building codes and concerned laws.
I think it is time to do away with this culture of nepotism, favoritism and impunity, and it should begin with trying the ones responsible for recent Savar serial killing by building collapse. The organizations like BGMEA (Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association), BGMA (Bangladesh Garments Merchandiser Association), BTMA (Bangladesh Textile Mills Association) and FBCCI( The Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industries) should not only run for profit, but also focus on the worker's interest following the basic principle of the ILO( International Labor Organization) that "labor is not a commodity".
They should take on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibilities) to serve the related employees, consumers and communities and all other direct and indirect stakeholders and to ensure the safety of the workplace. Alongside, Bangladesh labor and trade union laws should be modified to suit the laborers down to the ground. It is the laborers who keep the wheels of commerce in motion. If they are put to difficulties, danger and even deaths through neglect all too often, the future of our apparel industry would be bleak.
The author writes fiction and columns and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh.