<i>Left in the lurch</i>
Their jobs are gone. Their employer went into hiding. The industry's lobbying group shied away from responsibility. The government is in silence. It now seems that they are confined to a bleak future.
These are part of a tragedy now playing out in the lives of some 350 workers of Smart Export Garments Ltd, ravaged by a fire on Saturday.
They are not even certain about getting this month's wages, let alone any compensation. Besides, they remain clueless about severance allowance, overtime and other benefits.
â€œI want justice more than anything else,â€ said Moyna Akhter, who lost her sister Kohinoor Akhter to the fire.
â€œNo one has contacted us or given us anything except for Tk 20,000 that we have received from the government. Is that what my sister's life is worth?â€ Moyna said, with anger in her tone.
Sabuj, whose wife was severely injured in the fire, said he already spent around Tk 5,000 more than the medical allowance provided by the government.
His wife, Rozina, 17, with blood-shot eyes, was showing signs of mental distress and trauma, he said, adding he feared that her treatment would not be over with her discharge from the hospital.
â€œI have stacks of [visiting] cards of people who came to us to express sympathy. But no one has offered any help so far."
The owners must pay compensations to the families of the dead, said Mushrefa Mishu, labour leader and president of Garment Workers Unity Forum. The compensation should be equal to the amount the workers would have earned for the rest of their lives.
Also the injured should be provided with all medical expenses, Mushrefa said. All the workers who have worked there for more than six months are entitled to termination benefits equal to their basic wages for 120 days.
For now, workers of Smart Export Garments want this month's wages as whatever money they have left is quickly diminishing.
Jobs are hard to come by in Dhaka where everybody is in a race for survival and many of the fire victims think they will not be able to manage with their scant savings until they get the next job.
â€œIt's almost the end of this month and I don't know where money will come from the next month or how I will look after my three-member family that is dependent on me,â€ said 19-year-old Shathi Akhtar.
Some of the workers in the area said three people came to them during a demonstration yesterday, claiming to be the factory owners' representatives and assured them of wages and compensations.
â€œA caretaker of the factory, a mechanic and a store keeper told us not to protest. They said we would be paid our wages and bonuses by February 10 and the victims' families would receive Tk 1 lakh,â€ said Mosharraf Hossain, a worker.
However, the identity of the â€œowners' representativesâ€ could not be independently verified.
Bangladesh Garment Manufactures and Exporters Association shrugged off its responsibilities, stating that Smart Export Garments was not its member.
However, labour and leftist leaders yesterday held demonstrations and protests in parts of the country, pointing out that the subcontract firm had worked for six export companies that are members of BGMEA and so the exporters' association should be held responsible.
â€œWho subcontracts jobs to these factories? They have to be BGMEA members,â€ said Shireen Akhtar, president of Karmojibi Nari.
BGMEA was well aware of the deplorable condition of workplaces and child labour but yet turned a blind eye, Mushrefa said.
The labour leaders also challenged the government as to how these illegal firms could operate.
â€œWhat are factory inspectors doing if these factories are allowed to exist?â€ asked Shireen.
â€œWe are proud to be the second largest garment manufacturer in the world. How can we take pride in this industry if its achievement comes at the expense of our workers?â€