On 24 April 2013, the eight-storey commercial building, Rana Plaza, collapsed in Savar, a sub-district of Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,127 workers and injuring many of the 2,500 who were rescued from the building alive. I visit the site the deadliest garment factory tragedy in history. There is a gaping hole in the ground; the torn ramparts of neighbouring buildings hung listlessly like broken limbs. It has the haunting look of death.
I am here to pay my respects to the workers and the community. I am talking to the workers’ representatives when a group of mothers comes up, clutching pictures of loved ones and children. Tears pouring down their worn tired faces, I listen to heartrending desperate pleas. “My child is still missing. My daughter is gone. What should I do? My husband perished. We are hungry.”
The officials I am with listen patiently. Nazma Akter, the general secretary of the Sommilito Garments Sramik turns to me, “We need people in the west to understand that there is nothing free. When you buy cheap clothing or buy one and get one free, realise that nothing is free. Someone has to pay. Here it is the workers with their lives. Our lives are cheap.” The building, owned by a politically connected businessman, had days before been visited by government building inspectors who required closure and evacuation. It never happened.
“We have a long struggle ahead, says Nazma. “The garment industry employs four million workers. It is the major foreign exchange earner of our country. It is a big part of our economic growth strategy as a garment exporter, second only to China. We need these jobs but we must stop the killing. We need the bosses to also understand that we are human beings who have basic human rights. This should not have happened if our unions were recognised and we had the right channels to raise our grievances.”
I absolutely agree. As the economic crisis bites deeply, unions are the first target. Language about inflexible labour markets abound. The executives responsible for the financial mismanagement that led to the crisis get golden handshakes. Their institutions are rescued by funds from the public coffers. But social security nets are under attack because of austerity measures and workers lose their jobs.
I feel the anger rising. It is across our TV screens from Turkey to India, South Africa to Brazil. People I meet, across the slums and the villages of the world, increasingly alienated from their leaders globally say, “We do not trust our leaders. They serve the interests of the rich. If you have money, then you can buy what you want. Democracy is on sale to the highest bidder. We are only needed when they want our votes.”
Back in the outskirts of teeming humanity of Dhaka, I visit the local hospital to meet survivors. It is a care facility for those that are physically challenged and they are already overcrowded. I listen to the stories. The cooling fan above, interrupted by the constant electricity cuts, whirrs sluggishly. It brings little relief.
Rozina was a sewing machine operator. She, with her sister, worked for a firm on the third floor. “I heard a huge bang. The roof collapsed. The concrete beam struck me. I could not see my sister. My head hit the sewing machine. I felt the steel rods pierce my back. The table had fallen on my hand, crushing it.
“I felt I had died. I lay there still for the whole day. Then I heard the voices of the rescuers. I tried to shout. After another day they found me. I could hear them speaking to me through a small hole in the rubble. I was now there 48 hours. They could not remove me because my hand was trapped. The rubble was too mangled to remove. I could feel the life leaving me.”
I was transfixed. What incredible courage just reliving that experience. But she was not yet finished. “They asked me whether I could cut my hand. It was the only hope. I took the hacksaw and began cutting. But I was too weak to cut through the bone. They pulled me out. I lost consciousness as I was pulled out and the tendons and cartilage ripped. I am alive but my dreams are shattered. It was my 61 hours of hell. And it will be with me for the rest of my life,” she says sadly, pointing to the stump which used to be her hand.
I sit with Rehana next. She is 18 years old, exquisitely beautiful. But her eyes are mirrors of deep troubled soul. I see the signs of post-traumatic stress. The nursing assistant says its clinical depression. The picture of her lifeless body on the hospital bed reveals her story. She has had both her legs amputated.
“I was working on the seventh floor. There was a huge bang. I went to the staircase. The ceiling collapsed and I fell unconscious. When I woke up I had no legs.” The tears well up. The emotions are a smouldering volcano. But it subsides. Too much has happened. “It would have been better if I died,” she whispers.
I turn to her mother, Shahana, and see the pain in her face. She caresses her child’s hair. “We had such hopes for Rehana. She was intelligent. She had a job. I thought I would never have to worry about her. She would marry well. But I am here for my daughter. As long as she is here, I will be there for her. I cannot separate myself from here. Her pain is my pain.”
Bangladesh has been wounded by the tragedy of Savar. The workers in the sweatshops of Rana Plaza are the martyrs of our human greed. They are the first line soldiers of a manufacturing revolution’s insane race to the bottom. Short cuts in order to save costs had tragic consequences.
At the end of this global production line stand millions of western shoppers and their favourite brands from Benetton and Sears, to Gap and J.C. Penny. They feed a frenzy of consumption stoked by glitzy advertising campaigns that drug us into an addiction that wearing their labels makes us more attractive, better human beings. It is a wake-up call for us the consumers.
We wield the power to hold global brands to account in their insane race to the bottom, recreating the slave labour conditions that we had abolished in much of the world.
This week I have spent time with BRAC, the largest social organisation in the world. They have built a fantastic model of sustainable development that reaches into every village. It empowers women and mothers, creating livelihoods and delivering essential services of health, education and micro-credit to almost every household across this populous state of over 140 million people. It is a model employing hundreds of thousands of workers, but sitting at its heart of its business model is the restoration of human dignity and improving human wellbeing.
Reaching across to eight million members and their families, I have experienced its staff, from senior executives to health care workers in the villages, speak passionately about their model. They wear the BRAC badges as a medal of honour.
Can we contemplate a future where workers in all factories feel the same about their employers, and we can as consumers shop with conscience for our needs? Do we have the political will to build a future where there is morality in wealth creation and where our public office bearers enforce compliance with the basic laws and conventions around the rights of workers?
A failure on our part as labour, civil society, social movements, progressive governments and business to stand up and demand, shape and elaborate a new paradigm of sustainable growth will be a lasting indictment on our humanity. DM
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer