For the last 45 days, at least 40 (former) workers of Tazreen Fashions Limited have been staging a protest on the sidewalks outside the Press Club, unnoticed, for the most part, by the media. Each night, they make beds out of flimsy blankets and hang mosquito nets on the club's fence for yet another troubled night's sleep. Each morning, they beg the Press Club authorities to allow them to use the restroom facilities, although most are turned away and forced to find repulsive alternatives (as a result, most do not drink more than a glass of water throughout the day). They eat maybe one full meal and tit bits throughout the day brought by well-wishers and a handful of leftist activists who try their best to boost the protestors' morale. When it rains, as it did two nights ago, they have no choice but to let it wash over them and wait for the chilly air to dry their clothes. Almost all are in considerable physical pain, which has only aggravated over the past month from having to sit on the hard grout for such long stretches of time. But they are adamant they won't leave the streets until their demands of dignified compensation, rehabilitation and justice are met.
Most were permanently disabled when they jumped from the upper floors of Tazreen Fashions Ltd to escape the fire that killed over 117 workers eight years ago on November 24. There were no fire exists in the factory, the staircases and exits were obstructed in most of the floors and the main door was locked from outside, while the nine-storey building only had permission for constructing three floors. Although they were spared their lives, the injured workers have been living an unbelievable nightmare ever since, unable to find work or retain their jobs for long. They were breadwinners of their families prior to the fire, but have had to live off of people's charities and loans for the last eight years. With Covid-19, the charities and loans have dried up, and even the shops won't sell food on credit anymore.
"If I knew of the debt and hardship that awaited me—that I would be reduced to a beggar outside the Press Club—I wouldn't have tried to save myself by jumping off the third floor," says Jorina Begum, stretched uncomfortably on the footpath, her feet swollen from sitting on the ground for over a month. Three rods had pierced her bones and flesh during the fall and her spine was permanently damaged. Multiple surgeries, countless visits to the physiotherapist and a lifetime's worth of painkillers later, Jorina still cannot sit still, or stand on her feet, for too long. The pain in her spine is relentless. Her husband packed up and left years ago, and since then, it has been her elderly mother who has supported her and her two children—eight and 10, respectively—with her measly income as a domestic worker. But with Covid, her mother's income took a dip as well and now they are being threatened with eviction since they have not been able to pay rent for the last three months.
"Whatever we received as alms four years ago was spent almost immediately paying off the loans from the first four years—loans which I took for the surgeries, medicines and to simply feed my children. I still owe at least five lakh taka and no one will lend me any money anymore. And honestly, how am I to pay back the loans anyway? My mother is becoming older and sicker, and I should be the one supporting her, but after feeding us, she doesn't even have any money left to go see a doctor. I was an active member of the workforce. I don't want to be a beggar forever. I want rehabilitation."
Labour activists have long argued that permanently disabled workers should be given compensation equal to at least their lifetime's earnings, taking into consideration the bonuses and increments they would have earned till their retirement. Under our labour laws, however, a deceased worker's life is still worth Tk 1 lakh and that of a permanently disabled worker is Tk 1.25 lakh. Eight years since Tazreen, there have been no attempts by the government to amend the provisions for compensation, which remains one of the lowest in the world. In fact, subsequent demands by labour activists and workers to amend the law have been dismissed as untenable for the industry. Yet, our main competitor in the garments sector, China, is able to offer compensation to workers worth about Tk 78 lakhs, according to China Labour Bulletin.
One of the key demands of the protestors is amendment to compensation laws and provision of "dignified" compensation to permanently disabled workers. As Aleya Begum, another former Tazreen worker, says, "We want what is our right. It is not our fault that we lost our ability to work. We were robbed of this ability. Both my husband and I were injured in the fire, and now neither of us can work. If we were both working, we would be in senior positions, earning about Tk 30,000 per month with overtime and benefits. Even if we earned only Tk 10,000 each, we would earn Tk 2,40,000 each year. If the government wants to hand out Tk 1.25 lakh and call it a day, for how long will it help us?"
Workers protesting outside the Press Club say they were not even offered this meagre amount by the government. About 12 permanently disabled workers were given Tk 50,000 from the Prime Minister's Welfare Fund. They did, however, receive varying amounts from the Tazreen Claims Administration (TCA) Trust, established in 2015 following an agreement signed by C&A, C&A Foundation, IndustriALL Global Union, and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). The TCA followed a similar mechanism as that developed by the Rana Plaza Arrangement to calculate and distribute payments to Tazreen workers and their families. What needs to be noted is that this was in not a binding agreement, but rather a voluntary donation from brands who were themselves implicated in the fire. Despite a protracted international campaign to shame the buyers into taking responsibility for the workers' plight, big brands sourcing from Tazreen, such as Walmart, Kik, El Corte Ingles, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Piazza Italia, Disney, Sears, Dickies, Delta Apparel and Sean John, either simply refused to pay into the trust or only paid negligible amounts. Grievously injured and permanently disabled workers say they received between Tk 1.5-5 lakh each, even though victims were promised the minimum standard of compensation specified in the ILO Convention 121. As Jorina and Aleya apa point out, this lump sum helped them at the time to pay back some of their loans, but how could it possibly help them lead a dignified life with their dependants?
Workers are also angry that while they rot on the streets, Delwar Hossain, the owner of Tazreen, is free on bail, with no progress over the last eight years on the case filed against him and 12 others for murder under Section 302 of the Penal Code, culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304, causing death by negligence under Section 304A, and voluntarily causing hurt under Section 323. The culpability of the owners and management of Tazreen have been well documented over the years by researchers, activists and journalists—even a Home Ministry investigation following the fire declared that the negligence of the owners was to blame for the huge death toll at Tazreen. Yet, over the last five years, the prosecution has moved at a snail's pace, failing to even produce witnesses before the court—so far only eight out of 104 witnesses have been deposed. According to court sources and activists closely following the trial, of the 38 hearings scheduled so far, the prosecution was able to produce witnesses on only six occasions! It ought to be a matter of national shame that the prosecution has failed so miserably to discharge their duties in such a high-profile case as Tazreen, where the evidence overwhelmingly supports that the factory was built violating multiple safety codes and that workers were not allowed to leave the burning building despite fire alarms going off as soon as the fire broke out. With a prosecution like this, who even needs defence lawyers?
The protestors are adamant that they don't need any more alms—they want a dignified life, rehabilitation and justice for the crimes committed against them. But no one seems to care about their demands—not the government, not the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, not the buyers, not the media and not even us. About 10 days ago, representatives from the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) came and made a list of the aggrieved workers but then left without making any assurances. The workers are tired of waiting, and of leading a life of uncertainty, insults, pain and indignity. The least they deserve is some respect from the state for the sacrifices they made for the economic boon of this nation.
Sushmita S Preetha is a journalist and researcher.
The protestors do not want charity, but if you would like to donate food, medicines, blankets etc. so they may continue their demonstration, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org