Corruption, the killer in Savar: Thoughts for international response
The Savar tragedy caused by the collapse of the Rana Plaza near capital Dhaka has been, and will be, analysed and interpreted in many different ways. Cutting across anything else is that it is one of the worst possible examples of ill effects of corruption -- abuse of power for private gain.
We have known corruption is as a malaise that prevents development. It undermines democracy and deprives people of fundamental human rights. It erodes trust in leadership and democratic institutions. More important(ly), not only does corruption prevent access of the poor and disadvantaged to the whole range of basic services and entitlements like education, health, and nutrition and safety-net, the Savar tragedy tells the world that corruption kills innocent, honest, diligent and hardworking women and men striving to eke out a living in an extremely challenging context.
That it is about corruption is clear enough. Rana Plaza was allegedly constructed in an illegally occupied piece of land in collusion with the powerful from both sides of the political spectrum, supported by commission or omission by officials in the municipality, Rajuk and other authorities whose responsibility it was to ensure compliance to laws, regulations and codes relevant to the design, height, content and quality of construction and use of the building. There were gross violations a to z by power or transaction. Question remains if and to what extent source of income behind such a huge property was a matter of interest to the tax authority. The UNO abused power to undermine security threats caused by the cracks, so did owners of garments factories who forced the workers to come to work. The reckoning can go on.
Meanwhile, official death toll has crossed 520 with hundreds missing; nobody will know the exact number. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of those killed and maimed are women garment workers who not only emerged as the catalyst of social change, but also lifeline of the economy. They have done so in spite of the failure of successive governments, laws, institutions and garments owners in particular, to accord due recognition of their contribution.
To be sure, compared to the patronage, privileges and even impunity granted over the years to factory owners represented by the BGMEA, precious little attention of the high and mighty has ever been drawn to the basic rights of workers -- right to union, workplace safety and security of life.
There are within the sector certainly some compliant business houses that could be good practice examples. But obsessed with quick profits, a larger section of the so-called employers have not only ignored the basic requirement of transparency in setting up terms of employment like basic minimum salaries and benefits and work place safety, they have also used their money-power to enjoy impunity blatantly violating laws, regulations and codes thanks to a vicious and apparently unbreakable collusion of elements in politics, business, administration and law enforcement.
This pernicious collusion is symbolised by the "monument of corruption" in the heart of the capital -- the BGMEA headquarters built on an illegally occupied water body defying civil society outcry and even court orders. No wonder that the foundation stone of this citadel of illegality was laid by one prime minister while it was inaugurated by another, symbolising an unabashed and endless mutual contest of gaining inches in the power base of political space.
This growing linkage of politics and business with plus 60% of members of the parliament having business as primary occupation against below 20 in the first post-independence parliament four decades ago, lies at the core of the policy capture by forces that have prevented strategic and concrete measures. Nothing more than a few eyewash efforts happened when deaths and destruction took place in the garment sector leading up to the Savar tragedy.
This is also the reason that blame game continues by both the leading political parties casting doubt if everyone responsible will be brought to justice even this time. No one can also guarantee that Rana Plaza would be the last in this series of killing, maiming and human tragedies.
For obvious reasons, the international community including the UN Secretary General, Pope Francis, ILO and many direct stakeholders in garments business like the US and EU have joined the uproar occurring in the country. Many have extended both short and long term support. The EU, for instance, has raised strong concern over labour conditions and declared "appropriate action" to encourage improvements in working conditions in Bangladeshi factories.
Coincidentally, the international response was preceded by the Universal Periodic Review of Bangladesh's human rights situation under the UN that took place in Geneva five days after the building collapsed. The session and consultations building up to it were almost captured by outpouring of sympathies and demands for action to prevent any such tragedies in the future. All these, combined with a possible hard look, if any, by those who hold business, political and enforcement power in Bangladesh may raise new hopes of positive change.
However, industry insiders are reportedly concerned that international response might include measures to affect Bangladeshi products' access to global markets, especially duty and quota free entry in EU countries. Therefore, this is also the time to look at the issue of workers' rights and safety in a constructive and responsible manner to ensure that any actions taken does not adversely affect the industry, which can only victimise the workers further.
Responsibility for such tragedies lies on weak law enforcement, corruption and a desperate game of making quick money. Everyone responsible must be brought to justice to prevent such tragedies in future and ensure higher safety standards. However, nothing in the wake of such tragedies can justify any measure that could restrict access of Bangladeshi products to the EU, North American and other global markets. This will mean chopping off the head for headache, and lead to punishing the garment workers for no fault of them, over 85% of whom are women.
It is also time for the buyers of Bangladeshi products abroad -- individuals and companies -- to refrain from any shortsighted, irresponsible and cowardly course like turning away from this highly productive and profitable supplier with extremely dedicated, disciplined and active women workers.
At the core of the international community's concerns are workers' rights. But any action that may reduce access of Bangladeshi products to the global market will scarcely affect those who are responsible for it -- sections in business, politics, administration and law enforcement -- who have enough capacity to live with such eventuality. On the other hand, it is the workers who will be worst affected for lack of employment opportunity, and the common people who will suffer for its impact on the economy. The international actors have two possible ways of making constructive and positive contribution to change. First to use their economic and political leverage to work with the relevant authorities in Bangladesh to catalyse new legal and regulatory reforms and contribute to building institutional capacity for enforcement to effectively challenge impunity. Second, incentivise buyers and other business agents in their own countries to promote more business here while packaging such business deals in a manner that ensures higher safety standards and welfare of workers.
The lesson of Rana Plaza is not to scare business and investment away from Bangladesh, but to underscore the importance of conducting business with responsibility and integrity. The importing companies cannot shy away from their own role to ensure stricter compliance to safety standards in factories they conduct business with. Anything like playing safe and dumping business when tragedies occur will be cowardly and unsustainable even from a profitability point of view of buyers.
Nor have such companies have any reason to perceive themselves as helpless in the face of corruption and impunity of their business partners. Their concerns of violation of worker rights and safety issues have better ways of expression than punishing the workers by rendering them jobless. The importing companies can be closely involved in preventive measures, like ensuring strict compliance with safety and rights standards as part of their business deals. Like quality and design of a product, indicators of strict adherence to safety and security standards and labour rights can also be a part of profitable, responsible and sustainable business deal.
The Savar tragedy shows that profit from cheap garments comes at a cost which the global garment market players, especially buyers and Governments of the developed world have to share if they want people to be convinced that they practice what they preach -- rights of workers.
The writer is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.