There is an age-old proverb, “Out of sight out of mind”. This, I fear, is what is happening to the 1,134 workers who died in Rana Plaza, and the thousands who have been injured and are barely surviving.
It has been only fours years since the horrific and tragic deaths of garment workers when the Rana Plaza building collapsed, and it seems that the workers are fading from our collective memory.
We have become anesthesised to human tragedy, and so I can understand why many many in Bangladesh and the world may not know about Rana Plaza or would want to forget; that would be a shortsighted mistake.
In the United States, since 2008, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition (RTFC) has been educating the public about the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory fire in New York City that occurred on March 25, 1911. It was the deadliest industrial accident in the history of the city, and one of the deadliest in US history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers– 123 women and 23 men. They died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were immigrant women aged 16 to 23. A little over a century later, Rana Plaza witnessed deaths tenfold. We have not progressed, but we have moved backwards.
Not surprisingly, the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is often mentioned together with the Rana Plaza building collapse as an indication of how workers' safety is jeopardised in the name of industrialisation and economic progress. Following the Triangle Fire, there was an outpour of labour movement activism, which led to the passage of labour laws protecting workers' rights. The Rana Plaza tragedy also witnessed a global movement for workers' rights and activism. It led to some positive developments for workers, but much more remains to be done.
The work of the Triangle Fire Coalition reminds us that in addition to our present activism, we have to educate the public about the history of these tragedies, so that they are not repeated. They, too, have called for a memorial at the site of the factory fire with these goals in mind: (1) To honour the memory of those who died from the fire; (2) To affirm the dignity of all workers; (3) To value women's work; (4) To remember the movement for worker safety and social justice stirred by this tragedy; and (5) To inspire future generations of activists. “One of the reasons for the RTFC's push for a memorial is because people pass by the building where the fire occurred every day and do not recognize it as the site of the "fire that changed America," shares Joel Sosinsky, Board Member of RTFC. He continues: “People must be reminded that out of the ashes of the Triangle Fire the public outrage forced things to change for workers.”
In 2013, immediately after the Rana Plaza tragedy, I called for a Workers' Memorial on the site of the disaster. The goals of the Triangle Fire Coalition can help guide us here.
Memorials serve as powerful remembrances for lives lost and as constant physical reminders to not allow such tragedies to repeat themselves. Memorials also create for workers and their families a respectful space to collectively mourn the senseless deaths. In addition, for families who have not been able to locate bodies, memorials can serve as the site where they can at least find some peace.
They serve as phsyical reminders that we should not let this tragedy happen again. It insists that we do not make Rana Plaza out of sight and out of our minds.
Bangladesh has a positive history of remembering those who have been killed or died for our nation including our Shaheed Minar, and sculptures of freedom fighters who fought for our liberation. Garment workers whose labour generates revenue and foreign currency for the economic health of the country should be remembered with equal prestige.
In addition to a Memorial, there must be a National Labour Research Institute that focuses solely on the lives of workers and labour conditions in Bangladesh, and has a mission to remember the workers who suffer in workplace accidents. In an interview for my documentary Sramik Awaaz: Workers Voices, Babul Akter, president of Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers' Federation (BGIWF), called for a similar institute of this type. He commented that while there are scattered NGOs focused on labour issues, the research is not at the scale that reflects the nuanced realities of the sector and workers' lives.
From my own research in Bangladesh from 2014 to 2015, I met with countless labour scholars and activists who are already doing this work, and could form a part of this Institute. I also observed the range of research and policy issues that should be focused upon. In many ways, my documentary is a small attempt to document the lives and organising of Bangladeshi garment workers. But my project should not be the only one; the Research Institute could produce more projects on workers in Bangladesh in all sectors. Such an institute would not only benefit Bangladesh, but it could be a vanguard institute globally connecting with similar labour institutes around the world.
The Rana Plaza site, which lays fallow, is a great location on which to build this memorial and research institute. The logistics of how to get this completed can be figured out by committed minds. With all the developers and construction companies building in Dhaka, and skilled architects and designers, surely we can marshal our resources towards workers. What we need is the political will and the mobilisation of worker groups to demand this. On this fourth anniversary of Rana Plaza, I call on us to pledge to make this Memorial and National Labour Research Institute a reality.
Chaumtoli Huq is an attorney/founder of Law@theMargins, a law and media organisation focused on social justice, and an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School. She produced the first documentary to fully explore the lives, work, and organising efforts of Bangladesh's garment workers called Sramik Awaaz: Workers Voices.