Tragedy, courage & choosing the way forward
Last week, a 9 story building collapsed in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The initial missing figure was put at 3500, out of this 2433 people were rescued alive. So far a total of 377 dead bodies have been recovered. The figures are high and there’s more missing people. The tragedy itself is horrifying but it is the courage of the rescuers that humbled me. The outpouring of support for the victims from the public that humbles me.
While I am angered at the callous carelessness of the owners of the building and the garment factories it housed, I am saddened by the angry outpouring against ALL garment factories. This is not fair, not all owners are assholes. There are many who are good honest businessmen who care about keeping their workforce safe, paid on time, who comply by the regulations set by their buyers. This Ready Made Garments sector was the first to provide mass employment to the women of this country. It is still by far the largest employer of women in any economic activity where their contribution is counted, in dollars, not just for their families or employers but for the country itself. How is it responsible of us, the general public to be so quick to judge all garment factory owners in the same vein?
It is not.
I have worked in the RMG sector. I know the hard work it entails. The toiling can be excruciating. The uncertainty can be enough to make strong men sweat. The buyers can be ruthless in making sure that their deliveries are made in time. I know factory owners who started from nothing, built something up and cared for it like their babies. It took courage, grit and bloody damn hard work to get to where they are now.
I am not trying to justify anything or anybody’s action, I don’t have to.
We are all free to choose, but we are not free from the consequences of our choice.
Before we choose to crucify all garment factories, lets take a moment and think of the millions of workers for whom this is their best chance of having a steady income and 3 meals a day. Lets reflect on the fact that this sector provides more income and contributes a significant portion to our GDP than any other sector. Lets reflect on the fact that it is not the rules that is the problem, it’s the implementation and monitoring of the regulations that is already in place.
Those who are responsible must be made accountable for their actions but lets not persecute innocent people, their only source of income and an entire sector in that process.
- A story. A gentleman I know was employed in the garments industry. After some years he collected some capital, bought some land, and started a small factory. He worked day and night and slept at the factory. after 9 years he owns a large factory employing 3000 people. He has 3 cars, his kids go to a good school. He has been paying fair, on time salaries for years despite all the difficulties of politics, weather, extortion, cancellation, labor unrest. also taxes, bank interest, etc.Then a factory 30 miles away collapses. his factory is vandalised. Factories all over the country are closed for a week. Customers cancel because of the negative image of “MADE IN BANGLADESH”and the owner has to pay the fabric suppliers, employees, bank, etc. net losses are immense this is happening right now. in many factories.
This story is not about me. but i am facing the exact same situation. This week I and my colleagues in the industry are being referred to as cheats, thieves, liars, tax dodgers, murderers. There have been many river launch tragedies, can any of you name a single launch or where it happened?There are traffic deaths everyday, where are the complaints about these?Police, doctors, journalists, civil servants, DESCO, WASA, all these professions and organizations are populated by extortionists. where are the complaints? Politicians (i don’t think i need to elaborate their qualities)In Bangladesh most people take shortcuts if they can. it is the norm. if you try to do something correctly people look at you funny (yesterday in traffic a bhodrolok driving his own car said i should go on the pavement with my bike, when i said that would not be right he just laughed at the pagol on the bike and pointed out the motorbike on the pavement).The garment industry and its malpractices are the issue de jour, the flavor of the month, the present headlines. A high profile target for finger pointing and venting of bile. Plenty of flak coming our way but will YOU remember this any better than hundreds of tragedies that have preceded this? will you pressure those that you have voted for to do something about it? will you find a new talking point next week?
There used to be factory collapses in china. the government made a list, checked all the factory buildings, closed up the factories that did not meet standards regardless of who owned it. Simple.
p.s. apologies for the length
p.p.s. never apologies for the length
And an incredible writing in NY Times by Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder and chairman of the antipoverty organization BRAC, formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.
Bangladesh Needs Strong Unions, Not Outside Pressure
By FAZLE HASAN ABED
Published: April 29, 2013
BANGLADESH, my country, is again in tears. Last week in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, the capital, a poorly constructed building that housed garment factories and other businesses collapsed. More than 300 have been confirmed dead, and the final death toll could well exceed 700.
Bangladesh is no stranger to disasters, both natural and man-made. Still, this is one of the saddest chapters since we won our independence in 1971, precisely because the tragedy could easily have been prevented. Structural weaknesses had been found but not fixed. The victims were among the most vulnerable in our society — hardworking people making an honest, but meager, living. Many died manufacturing clothing for Western brands.
I appreciate the unease a Westerner might feel knowing that the clothes on his or her back were stitched together by people working long hours in dangerous conditions. It is natural that people in richer countries are now asking how they can put pressure on Bangladesh and its manufacturers to improve the country’s dismal safety record.
But ceasing the purchase of Bangladeshi-manufactured goods, as some have suggested, would not be the compassionate course of action. Economic opportunities from the garment industry have played an important role in making social change possible in my country, with about three million women now working in the garment sector. I have dedicated my life to alleviating entrenched poverty, and I know that boycotting brands that do business in Bangladesh might only further impoverish those who most need to put food on their tables, since the foreign brands would simply take their manufacturing contracts to other countries.
The rise of manufacturing here has had good effects. In the past, for example, a poor family’s vision for a newborn daughter’s future was often to marry her off as young as possible, since the dowry paid to a husband’s family grows as a daughter gets older. Even after the dowry was outlawed in 1980, the practice continued. A girl would often be married off as young as 13, and would never leave her village, never know a brighter future for herself or her children.
Partly because many women and their daughters now take garment industry jobs — even in factories where workers’ rights are virtually nonexistent — families living in poverty have changed their vision of the future. More have acquired long-term goals, like educating their sons and daughters, saving and taking microloans to start new businesses, and building and maintaining more sanitary living spaces.
Many outsiders think only of calamity when they hear the word Bangladesh — of factory fires, cyclones, floods and poverty. But the true Bangladesh is also the birthplace of microfinance and home to a robust civil society. It has seen rapid gains in living standards: maternal mortality is one-quarter of what it was in 1990; early childhood mortality is one-fifth of what it was in 1980, and we have eliminated the gender gap in primary and secondary school enrollment.
These remarkable gains will mean little if we allow tragedies like the one at Savar to continue. The law must work for everyone, rich and poor, landless laborer and factory owner alike. We must not allow those who benefit from the exploitation of the vulnerable to continue to treat life so cheaply.
What, then, is the solution? The changes must come first from Bangladesh itself. My country will require new political will to hold accountable those who willingly put human lives at such grave risk. It will also require the support of factory owners; civil society organizations, including my own; and the private sector, including Western buyers.
The solutions start with the workers themselves; they must be allowed by their employers to unionize, so they can engage in collective bargaining and hold their employers responsible for basic standards of pay and safety. Their organized power is the only thing that can stand up to the otherwise unaccountable nexus of business owners and politicians, who are often one and the same.
Western buyers, instead of squeezing factory owners on price, should finance better safety standards. The point needs to be made in the marketplace overseas that safety improvements are not so expensive that they can be used as an excuse for raising prices to the consumer. And consumers who are shocked by the working conditions need to realize that a playing field where the price tag is the only standard for a purchase is not a level one when workers’ lives are at stake.
At the same time, the owners themselves cannot be let off the hook, for there is no excuse for criminal negligence. But they cannot be trusted to voluntarily do all that they might. In a country with 100,000 factories in and near the capital, and three million workers in its garment industry, an inspection force numbering 18 people only invites unconscionable lapses on the part of unscrupulous employers. The inspection force must be increased drastically, and it must vigorously enforce safety standards.
The government, finally, must stop neglecting worker safety issues, even as it steps up enforcement. But that will be extremely difficult to accomplish as long as there is an unholy web of employers and politicians colluding to avoid responsibility for criminal negligence; that, in the end, is what trapped thousands of workers in the flimsy factory building that collapsed on them in Savar. Those workers cannot be forgotten until these issues are resolved.
“Made in Bangladesh” should be a mark of pride, not shame. Bangladeshi civil society stands ready to work with the authorities to make this so. In the 1970s, during the early years of my country’s nationhood, Bangladesh was suffused with the energy of the struggle for independence, a yearning for freedom from exploitation. From this energy came microfinance, community health work, and other social innovations that, combined with new economic opportunities in export industries like textiles, have transformed the lives of tens of millions of poor people, particularly women.
Today I grieve with my fellow countrymen, but I also raise my voice to say that this must not continue. As we mourn our losses, let us rekindle that spirit of liberation.
Fazle Hasan Abed is the founder and chairman of the antipoverty organization BRAC, formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.