Death by negligence and its normalisation
AFTER the Tazreen fire of November 24, 2012, which killed more than 119 workers, a few of us activists, anthropologists and photographers went to Nishchintapur, Ashulia where the factory was located. Immediately after the fire, we conducted a survey to collect information on the missing workers. We wanted to know how many families were searching for their loved ones, how many dead bodies had not been identified, which areas these workers came from, etc. We also spoke with the grieving community who witnessed the destruction and loss of the ravaging fire.
At every step of our fieldwork, we found allegations of negligence of the owner. On November 24, after the fire alarm went off in the evening hours, a worker on the 6th floor came towards the staircase and found the production manager smoking. The worker said: “Smoking is prohibited in the factory premises. Workers never smoke in the factory for fear of losing jobs. But the Production Manager (PM) Sir was smoking at the time. How do we know that it was not his cigarette that caused the fire?” The general people of the area had suspicions as to whether the fire was a conspiracy. Many of the victims asked how none of the management staff, who were in the building at the time of the fire, died. How did they get out of the building? The media has unearthed many details regarding the fire and its aftermath. However, a question is still unanswered: why did they lock the door after the fire started?
The factory clearly violated the to-do-list to prevent fire. We saw the violations. The factory did not have any fire exits. As per law, the fire exit must be outside the building. Although the staircases and hallways are supposed to be unobstructed, there were cartons, stacks of thread and pieces of cloth in every floor of the building. There was a high-voltage electric transformer on the ground floor. On the second floor, next to the women's staircase, there was a boiler machine for ironing clothes.
All of these made us wonder how the factory got safety clearance after clearly violating the rules/laws. The allegation of negligence also came through various other reports, but most notably from a home ministry investigation report which clearly suggested that this was a case of “death by negligence” of the owner. The report also recommended that the owner be brought under the land's criminal law (A/34 of the Penal Code) which says: “Whoever causes the death of any person by doing rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide shall be punished with either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both.”
Although some legal steps were taken against the owner, to our surprise, we noticed that the question of the legal liability of the owner began to lose its focus in the public discourse. Instead, a regime of compensation took over. With regard to the victims of Tazreen fire, Tk. 7 lacs were initially fixed as a compensation package for the people who had died. Much of this package was negotiated by different workers' rights global organisations which had experience of negotiating compensation packages. For us though, it appeared that some kind of formula was being tried in the case of Tazreen and Rana Plaza, the cataclysmic collapse of a building just six months after Tazreen fire, as similar actors were involved.
The engagement with compensation was not only restricted to global unions and their local counterparts. Immediately after Tazreen and Rana Plaza, there were many responses from private donors from abroad and in most cases it was expected that the money would be spent for “compensation” of the dead and the injured. Even NGO responses in the country adopted the same idiom. To give an example, in response to an Oxfam campaign, titled “In remembrance of Rana Plaza and to raise awareness on urban disaster,” and a critical argument that enough action was not taken by the NGOs to pressurise the government, one of Oxfam's staff writes in her Facebook page: “Oxfam has created huge pressure upon Kmart and H&M to compensate. And what Oxfam want[s] to do through this event is an advocacy for urban disaster which is emerging in Bangladesh. We can criticise the role of NGOs but do we have real sense of understanding how [the] country [is] operating disaster risk management and response. If no, then this kind of one-sided criticism will not produce anything …” (emphases ours).
Here too we see how the idiom of compensation is pervasive in the voice of a well meaning NGO activist. For us, though, this was the beginning of a set of research questions. The discussion of compensation, which came into consideration not only for Tazreen but also for the Rana Plaza, in the media as well as “activist talk” was very welcome by all quarters. As a justification, activists would say this is a “short term goal.” But the question that comes to our mind is, are we losing sight of the broad issues of structural negligence? We know from our experience that this is important for the victims and of course there is a need for compensation, and this includes not only the dead but the injured too. For some injured workers this may be a lifelong requirement. Yet, the thought comes as to how the very important issue of “unpardonable negligence” is being normalised through the discourses of compensation.
One must not forget that the victims always demanded the punishment of the owner. Sumaya Khatun, a Tazreen worker who died after long sufferings in March 2014, demanded the owner's punishment even on her death bed in a Dhaka hospital. When the owner of Tazreen Fashions was arrested (in a lower court case) after he remained absconding for weeks, more than 100 workers and passersby chanted slogans for death penalty for him. A victim's brother, after almost two years of delay in getting compensation said: “I have received the money, but haven't abandoned my demand for Delwar's (owner of Tazreen Fashions) punishment. The struggle for compensation has ended but I am available for the larger movement.” Let us not forget these “small voices of history” in the midst of compensation regime!
The authors are teachers, researchers and activists. They are also members of Activist Anthropologist, a collective of researchers and activists.