Selling garments, or your soul? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 02, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 02, 2012

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Selling garments, or your soul?

The world is in a state of turmoil. In September, it was the Prophet Mohammad video which sparked protests in the Muslim world. This was followed by an armed attack on the US Diplomatic Mission in Ben Ghazi, Libya, killing four Americans. In October, we were rocked by the anti-austerity demonstrations in Spain. In November, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated, resulting in the Gaza death toll soaring past the bloody milestone of 100. Add to this the continuing unrest in Syria, the resurging dissent in Egypt, and we have a scenario of economic upheaval, social unrest, terrorist attacks and the possible threat of a full-scale war in the Middle East.
Apart from the calamities initiated by rivalries and ideological differences, we have also been hit by Mother Nature with tornados and cyclones causing havoc to human lives. In the midst of all the chaos there is, however, one recent tragedy that has shaken all of us-- even those who are practically immune to violence and suffering. Yes, I am referring to the fire in the garment factory (Tazreen Fashions) in Ashulia, Bangladesh, which killed 111 workers trapped inside with no fire exit.
One cannot assign ranks and grades to catastrophes that result in the loss of innocent lives. But this was not a case of sparring ideologies or collateral damage or even a natural disaster. It was willful murder resulting from extreme greed of the factory owners who consciously decided to overlook basic safety standards to minimise their investments and locked the doors during the fire to prevent "theft." The loss was caused by a callous lack of compassion and disregard for human life. And, of course, due to the confidence that unethical businessmen in Bangladesh nestle in -- that they are not accountable to anyone since money can buy anything!
The fact is that these profiteering men and women know, as do we, that the furor and protests will last only a week. Leaders and politicians will vow to take suitable actions and make amends. A few feathers will be ruffled, some sentimental speeches will be delivered to pacify the protesting voices and the affected families. Finally, the efforts will taper off until the next calamity. It's all sound and fury signifying nothing.
Sadly, the human angle is always missing in the entire process. The power brokers don't seem to care that there are real people behind these real tragedies. And they get hurt in the real sense. The heroic effort of the man who broke the window, jumped to an adjacent building and helped his fellow workers to escape is, for me, the "real" story. And the fact that 111 people couldn't escape because the doors were locked is the "real" issue. But these narratives are lost in the political rhetoric which is already diverting attention from the "real" problem.
My request to the leaders of the country: Can you please stop propounding your preposterous conspiracy theories? We really don't believe you anymore and we don't care. If you know who the culprits are, punish them and do your job. What we care about is why 111 under-paid, hard working, honest workers had their lives cut short because no one considered them to be of any consequence! They are an integral part of your country. Listen to the voices of their families and peers rather than the corrupt few at the top who have muscle and money power. Don't dehumanise the people at the bottom because they are the ones who are making it happen for all of you at the helm. You, the elected officials, need to ensure that minimum safety conditions are provided for these workers who are the backbone of your economy!
As for the garment factory bosses sitting in your golden cages -- come down and feel the pain you have caused to the many families. Look at them with empathy (if you are at all capable of feeling empathy) and you might be able to understand the total impact of what you have done. And, stop justifying your heinous acts by passing the buck on to others and making unforgivable, lame excuses. Take a little time off from your leisure and pleasure and reflect on the last few minutes of the woman who was trapped inside because of your willful callousness. The woman who sent that last text message to her husband, saying she knew she was going to be burnt alive. Put yourself in her position -- think of her children, her family. Next time you hug your own child spare a few thoughts for her child -- it may help you regain some of your moral bearings which you have lost in the quagmire of greed and avarice!

The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.

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