Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How long before we forget the Savar Tragedy?

This is a very relevant and reality based question. It is only natural that the human mind, in its endeavor to look ahead, tries to forget negative incidents. Science may not support this, but the fact is that most of us are going to forget the injustice, pain and the suffering endured by thousands in the Savar tragedy. The fact is that one day, the Savar tragedy will become a frightful phenomenon just represented by the numbers of dead, injured and affected. Such is the flow of things.

The issue is not about how we must hold on to our feelings of dread, hopelessness and pain longer. The issue is how we must change ourselves and our outlook to prevent the onset of another calamity. Yes, before we go on to change the world, we must change ourselves. Here I am not playing the blame game when I try to identify the places where this must and should emanate from.

The first and the most desired place of change must be the legislative and the executive branch of the nation. In this case, the parliament needs to play a leading role. Unfortunately, the parliament hasn’t been up to the mark in this regard. Both the ruling party and the opposition have played their part in denouncing the actions which lead to the collapse of Rana Plaza. The PM has denounced the culprits behind the tragedy, but undermined her statement when she confidently stated that the accused Rana was not from her party, despite clear evidence presented by the media to the contrary. Her ministers have given similar statements and so have her party leaders. In light of such emotional turmoil, the capture of Sohel Rana by the security forces was hailed by some (of the ruling party) to such an extent that it seemed the work of the government was done and dusted and that the people could go back to resuming their normal lives. In effect, the nation was given the message that it was time to forget the Savar tragedy. A statement from the PM has reiterated this. According to bdnews24, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Tuesday urged the readymade garment workers, angered by the Savar multi-storey building collapse, to return to work. “I will tell my worker brothers to keep a cool head during this disaster. We need to keep the industry running,” she said in her concluding speech in the 17th session of Parliament on Tuesday.  Hasina warned the workers of the garment sector, the country’s biggest export earner that “You will lose jobs if the industry is not running. You will have return to your villages”. It is of common knowledge that what Sheikh Hasina says in the Parliament is final. It is law. There goes all hope of any change in the garments industry to ensure the safety of workers from the side of the parliament. I have no qualms about Sheikh Hasina’s comments urging the workers to return to work. What I have qualms about is the fact that the issue of ensuring the safety of workers has been completely disregarded.

On the other hand, the cabinet on Monday decided to form a high-powered committee to physically review the infrastructures and other safety measures in RMG factories across the country. Cabinet Secretary M Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said the members of the committee would be drawn from the Ministry of Home, Labour and Employment, Disaster Management and Relief, Textiles and Jute, Housing and Public Works, Defense, Commerce, Industries and Environment and Forests Ministries, Banking Division, FBCCI, BGMEA and BKMEA. The proposed committee would physically examine the building code and safety measures of the RMG factories, and put forward their recommendations to the existing cabinet committee on garment sector. All seems well until you notice the absence of any move to include representatives of workers trade unions. If the government and the ‘employers’ unions had wanted the best for the workers, then they should have at least included their representation at such an important level, no?  But what do they do? Well, we know that workers have been demonstrating on the roads since the first day of the tragedy, but as usual, the media (many of which are owned by businessmen who own garments factories as well) has tried to ignore them and have instead cast such demonstrations as being calls to arrest and hang Sohel Rana, the owner the collapsed Rana Plaza; not as calls to improve working conditions or safety standards. This is in the hope that the workers will eventually go back to their workstations when the need for a living overrides the concern for their own safety.

Let us go on to the ‘birodhi dol’, i.e., the opposition 18 party alliance. Madam Zia shelved/cancelled the general strike called for the 2nd May. It had been called in order to ask for the capture of those responsible for the tragedy, especially Sohel Rana, who has since been captured. Opposition BNP on Monday also demanded the government file a murder case against all those, including Rana Plaza owner Sohel Rana, responsible for the Savar tragedy. They also called upon the government to allocate Tk 20 lakh for each of the family of those killed and injured in the building crash. All is well and fine, but where is the call to ensure safety of workers so that such an incident does not occur in the future?   

Absent from the scene as well are the human rights groups such as ones spearheaded by Dr. Mizanur Rahman and Sultana Kamal who have all but disappeared from sight in light of the Savar tragedy. I shall not contemplate on their absence but hope that they do view human rights as something beyond criticizing other people for their view on the westernized version of women’s rights.  

All this seems to be for a single reason. The reason seems to be the need to satisfy the foreign buyers who simply want cheap goods. As a recent report shows, big brands last year rejected a plan to improve the factory safety standards in Bangladesh. It is however, important to keep in mind that the forces which fuel any economy stem from a supply of cheap goods which are sold elsewhere at a higher price. This dilemma is highlighted in a recent article on forbes entitled, “Sadly, Bangladesh simply can’t afford rich world safety and working standards”.  The article highlights the bitter truth that we still live in an age of economic colonialism.

I really have become depressed the more I have delved into writing this article. But these are the harsh facts that cannot be ignored. The death penalty of one Sohel Rana may bring about temporary joy for thousands, but the fact will remain that unless and until safety standards are regulated more strictly, we will not have to wait long before (God forbid) we are hit again with a similar calamity.

Let us remember that we are all in fact human beings and that money is after all, bits and pieces of paper.

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