A lesson on lessons not learnt
Eleven years ago, on a hot, stuffy day not unlike today, a building had come crashing down on the sweating workers of a sweater factory. It was 1 am, and the late night workers had been waiting for their supervisor to arrive with some food – a cake, some fruits and an egg – to get them through the long, stifling night. Without prior warning, the floor had started to oscillate, and then, before they could grasp what was happening, the workers had sunk further and further into the ground, as the building crumpled like a pack of cards. What was an eight-storey building became, moments later, a three-storey pile of rubble and a mass graveyard.
In the rescue mission that ensued for the next eight days, at least 64 dead bodies were recovered, only two of whom were women, including a seven-month pregnant worker. As many as 80 percent had worked in the factory for less than a year, and almost half of the deceased had a spouse and children who were less than 5-years-old. An overwhelming majority of those who died were breadwinners of their families, taking care of at least 118 dependents in total, in addition to their immediate spouse and children. Around 80- 100 workers were injured; 54 workers were officially classified as "seriously injured" – 55 percent of whom were under the age of 25.
According to official count, there were 184 workers in the factory at the time, but workers stated that the actual number was closer to 400. Since the factory conveniently "lost" the register in which the names of the workers were noted down – it was allegedly destroyed during the building collapse –it could not be confirmed how many workers had been employed by the two factories, Shahriyar Fashions and Spectrum, which were housed in the building. In the end, even though workers and labour unions stated that 4,000-5,000 people had worked there, officials put the number at 2,700. The BGMEA, with its makeshift stall, could only identify 918 workers, and made no real efforts beyond putting an ad in the papers to track down all the workers. The reason I list this failure to 'list' is that, eleven years on, we still confront the same problem every time there is an industrial "accident"; inevitably, the register gets lost; inevitably, in the absence of official appointment letters, there is a discrepancy in the statistics presented by the owners and the labour unions. Inevitably, there is chaos and confusion when it comes to identifying "missing" workers and providing compensation. There is as yet no central database with undated information on workers employed at BGMEA member factories, despite promises made by the owners' association to collate the necessary information five years ago.
The Spectrum factory was built flouting multiple building codes, on top of a flood-prone former swamp. Although it had permission for only four floors, the factory owners constructed an additional four floors, allegedly duping the authorities. That the owners were to be blamed for the sub par construction goes without saying, but what of the authorities whose very mandate it was to oversee plans and ensure that the buildings were constructed following the very designs that they had approved? Although Rajuk announced a committee to investigate the causes of the collapse, the full report was never made public. Predictably, no efforts were made to identify the role of the authorities in overlooking the gross violations of building codes that led to the building collapse.
In November of 2006, the government finally passed the National Building Code to establish "minimum standards for design, construction, quality of materials, use and occupancy, location and maintenance of all buildings within Bangladesh in order to safeguard, within achievable limits, life, limb, health, property and public welfare." A long-awaited intervention, no doubt, but the extent to which the code has been implemented is obvious from the alarming number of "accidents" that have taken place since Spectrum, including the Rana Plaza collapse, which claimed the lives of over a thousand workers. Eleven years on, the provision of formation of a Building Monitoring Authority still remains unenforced, despite a petition filed in 2008, and an order from the High Court in 2013 that a Building Code Enforcement Agency be established within three months to monitor compliance with the National Building Code. How many more lives must be lost before we find it within ourselves to prioritise the issue of compliance is a question to which there can't be a humane answer; so rather than ask uncomfortable questions that "dishonour" our honourable RMG producers, let us be content with the well-orchestrated, well-publicised endeavours to prove that all our factories are compliant, with but a few "rotten eggs."
Spectrum and Shahriyar Fabrics produced orders from a range of European companies including Inditex (Spain), Carrefour, Solo Invest, CMT Windfield (France), Cotton Group (Belgium), Karstadt Quelle, New Yorker, Bluhmod (Germany), Scapino (Netherlands), and New Wave Group (Sweden). The foreign buyers were on the spotlight with the collapse of Spectrum, and lost no time in threatening to withdraw their business from Bangladesh unless it improved its safety standards. Of course, they conveniently forgot to acknowledge how the compliance costs have to be borne by the manufacturer, while the buyers continue to make the decision of where to buy from based on the lowest price and quality of product. Following widespread international pressure, there was an initial agreement among some of the brands to establish a voluntary fund to properly compensate injured workers and the families of the deceased, but in the end, only one company, Inditex, provided compensation to the workers; all other brands backed out, fearing it would set a dangerous precedent for industrial accidents and arguing that the responsibility of providing compensation fell upon the state and national bodies. There was, in short, blatant refusal on the part of the brands to take joint responsibility for the deaths of the workers. While they took a holier-than-thou attitude in blaming the Bangladeshi authorities, none of the brands revealed their auditing reports,ignoring the demands of the national and international labour organisations. Notably, the BGMEA also did not publicly disclose reports on their fire safety programme at Spectrum Sweater.
Meanwhile, although 45 cases were filed against the factory owners, Shahriyar Sayeed Hassan and Abul Hashem Fakir, according to Sayeed Salahuddin Ahmed, the Asst. Managing Director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, no action has been taken against the owners. Even the hearing on the writ petition by four human rights organisations in 2005, demanding that the cause of the collapse be investigated and the culprits identified, is still pending to this day. Despite the myriad investigations conducted to probe the causes and the flood of promises of "exemplary action against the perpetrators", eleven years on, we face the all too familiar reality of "no one killed the Spectrum workers". If the owners, owners' association, buyers and authorities are all spared the rod, what incentive is there really to ensure basic safety codes at higher costs? Why would we expect owners to mend their ways when they already have complete impunity to risk workers' lives?
Our failure to have learnt our lesson from Spectrum resulted in Hameem, in Tazreen, in Rana Plaza; our consistent failures to learn from each of these tragic and murderous incidents have only weakened our industry, and caused irreparable damage to the country, its people and its so-called image. Till we have closure for the untimely deaths at Spectrum, at Garib and Garib, at Tazreen, at Rana Plaza, till we learn the harsh lessons, how can we truly expect to move forward?
The writer is a journalist and activist.