The tale of many, still and now
Anniversaries are scary. They are reminders. While one celebrates life and bonds on anniversaries, in no time one also becomes a chip of a mosaic laced with memory. If one pinpoints losses on particular dates, then one mourns with regrets and tears as maybe an extra day, an extra hour, an extra minute could have made a difference. This is how many differences are not made; this is how we lose many without being able to say our last goodbyes. This is how on April 24, 2013, families of 1,134 people mourned in shock and regret while the entire nation faced the crisis of a collective national tragedy .
As a response to this disaster, many came forward--unions, brands, in fact all actors including, of course, the government. As a result, Accord, Alliance and National Action Plan began to address the fire, electrical and structural integrity issues. As a result, a few thousand factories came under the scanner. Over the last five years, remediation has continued. Actually, in most cases, we have taken the compliance issue beyond the expected level and we now have more green factories than anywhere else in the world. We now can do orders with speed and claim a faster turnaround time. We now have projects with more efficient industrial engineering practices set in place. We have new platforms like Tripartite Consultative Committee, a body which has labour representatives, ministries and the relevant stakeholders to solve any industry related disputes. We now have a Remediation Coordination Cell to take care of ongoing remediation processes. Trade Union registration has also gone up. Labor Law and Export Processing Zone laws are scheduled to go through revisions as well.
This happy evolution has happened over the last five years through toil and tears. While brands pushed us for remediation, while we ran to banks for opening letters of credit to bring in the UL Certified fire-safety-related tools and products, while we kept on hearing about how international financial institutions would help us finance our remediation, in reality, we faced the darkness of the night. Most of the mid-sized factories scrambled for funds and wondered if it made sense for them to remain the same size or whether it was better to shift to bigger spaces, make more investments and just stay in business and bank on customers' loyalty and hope for better days to come. While all of this happened, there was a serious infrastructural support that manufacturers needed to cope with; there were financial hiccups. Many tried running their factories with a generator in new premises and face gas crunch. Many retrofitted and many are still talking to their architects about a new building, in their own lands, if they are lucky enough to have one.
Many have closed down. Many have lost jobs. Many have downsized. But that's unfortunately market reality. Markets aren't things we control from our end of the game. While consumers shift tastes and invest in diversity, while brands' and retailers' margins and sales figures get dominated by the storms, sleet and rain of the season, while we wait for the next order projections to come in, a lot of lives bear the brunt of our uncertainty. It is that fear that I want to write about today.
April 24, 2018: Five years on, Bangladesh is still getting bad press on Rana Plaza. Five years on, New York Times is still publishing unfounded, loose columns on how nothing has changed since 2013. Five years on, international journalists are calling us to get our views on whether anything has changed so far and whether we want to see the exit of Accord or Alliance. Five years on, the collapse of Rana Plaza is a case of one side playing against the other. With time, this tragedy, most unfortunately, has morphed into a part of politics.
Today, we are looking at two platforms, Accord and Alliance, due to exit Bangladesh this year. The transition mechanism is yet to unfold. A national platform is yet to be formed. Even if one took RCC into consideration, we are still having to give brands the RCC start date of July 2018. So in more ways than one, we have been slow in forming our own narrative. I would have defended our pace if I knew that we were actually moving. But we are not. We are still strapped by papers and corrective action plan (CAP) templates of compliance. Detailed engineering plans are still being studied, remediation assessment often is ending up with newer observation with every audit, and we are still left defenseless. So our pace being in question, with articles being written against the industry, not only do we get affected, but so does a worker.
International or national labour representatives continue to raise issues on workers still being treated poorly and do not hesitate to stage protests and start petitioning. Protests continue without solving the core problem. Meanwhile real offenders seek loopholes and seal them with paper trails. If bringing attention to the workers' lives and safety is a real concern, then media-manipulation doesn't help. Headliners and critical opinion editorials may catch the attention of international policy makers, who may just decide to adjust their Bangladesh lens once again, but that does not affect the workers' lives positively. That change can only come through collaboration of all stakeholders and well meaning steps to graduate to the next level of excellence in labour practice.
After having scored substantially well with remediation measures, can we not expect all stakeholders to now sustainably engage with the bigger picture of workers' welfare instead of one side of unions pointing all fingers and the other side of manufacturers engaged in a defensive gait? This war isn't going to be ever won by either side. This war can only lead to a hapless draw and then the only ones to suffer and languish in pain are going to be the workers. But then again, are workers even the real focus of any of our current discourse?
Rubana Huq is the managing director of Mohammadi Group.