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Savar Tragedy: Accident or Sheer Negligence?

“Anywhere in the world, any accident can take place.”

That was Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s statement on CNN with regards to a dark chapter in the history of industrial operations in Bangladesh.

On the morning of April 24 this year, the world stood numb as the nine-storied Rana Plaza that housed 5 garment factories, a branch of a local bank, and a few shops collapsed, taking down with it over 1,000 lives and injuring over 2,000 others. Just the night before, several deep cracks had appeared on the walls of the building. Yet, the Prime Minister, followed by the Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, had the audacity to call this reasonably predictable and preventable catastrophe an accident. Earlier, the Home Minister MK Alamgir made a comical remark, blaming supporters of nationwide shutdown called by opposition political parties for banging on the pillars and gates of the building, causing it to come crashing down. This political blame-game came at a time when the nation expected united leadership.

Only two months before the disaster, I along with other students of North South University prepared a report for Mr. Shahid Hossain, Senior Lecturer, School of Business, North South University. In the report, we analyzed the effects of sub-par workplace safety on the RMG sector of Bangladesh that “accounts for 77% of Bangladesh's exports – a $20 billion industry for the nation ” and employs mostly impoverished women. Part of the report is reproduced below:

European Union (EU) authorities have expressed grave concerns about the devastating fire at Tazreen Garments Factory in Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on November 24 last year. Some international firms, for example Wal-Mart, are suspending all business ties with Bangladeshi firms.

This has been a source of much worry for Bangladesh government. 22 EU countries are the biggest markets for Bangladeshi RMG exports. Trade prospects, which have already dropped due to European recession, are further aggravated by these fires. Bangladesh exported garment products worth USD 2.64 billion to the EU countries in the first 3 months of the current fiscal year, which is 5% lower than USD 2.88 billion in the same period last fiscal. These fires indicate government’s failure to ensure workplace safety. Therefore, the government has taken certain measures and informed the European Union Trade Commission. A 22-member committee, including representatives from BGMEA and BKMEA, has been formed, that is responsible for safety and other compliance issues in factories.

The government has termed this fire as a stray incident. In reality, 2 more fires have occurred just this month: one at a garments factory in Mohammadpur that killed 7 and another at a foam manufacturing factory in Tejgaon. A pavilion of Partex Plastics at Dhaka International Trade Fair also collapsed this year. Certainly, government has failed to enforce workplace safety.

A quick research reveals:
• Only 18 inspectors are responsible for overseeing safety conditions in more than 100,000 garment factories in and around the capital city.
• Fires in the garment sector during the last 13 years have been occurring at regular intervals.
• Rana Plaza was approved for construction as a five-storied building but four more floors were added to it without any approval from the government agency.
• Architects stressed the risks involved in placing factories inside a building designed only for shops and offices. The government's official investigation suggested that generators placed on the roof to power the factories – along with the vibration of sewing machines used to make garments – all combined to trigger the building's collapse.
• Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said on April 25 that 90% of our buildings have been constructed without following the building code. Many of those 90% buildings are unsafe. The author also points out to any of the following possibilities that caused the building to collapse:
a. It was designed without any consideration for safety
b. The load imposed on the 5 initial stories were beyond the safety benchmark
c. Poor or insufficient construction materials were used
d. The load was higher than estimated or it involved heavier operations
e. The foundation was weak as it was laid on poor soil or without sufficient number of piles.
• New Age reported that the government had rejected offers of international search and rescue assistance, including a formal offer of sending a team of specialists from Britain.
• Labor unions are almost nonexistent in the industry; one labor organizer, Aminul Islam, was brutally killed last year in a case that is still unsolved.
• The Walt Disney Company, considered the world’s largest licenser with sales of nearly $40 billion, in March ordered an end to the production of branded merchandise in Bangladesh.
• As far as emergency response is concerned, we do not have sufficient facilities in the hospitals to provide services to the affected people. We have seen that a coordinated search and rescue operation by the armed forces, Fire Service and Civil Defence Department, and local volunteers was seriously hampered by lack of equipments.
• The country’s minimum wage is now the equivalent of about $ 38 a month. Bangladesh ranked last in minimum wages for factory workers in 2010, according to World Bank data.
• According to a 2011 report by the consulting firm O’Rourke Group Partners, a generic $14 polo shirt sold in Canada and made in Bangladesh actually costs a retailer only $5.67. To get prices that low, workers see just 12 cents a shirt, or 2% of the wholesale cost. For that $14 shirt, the factory owners can expect to earn 58 cents, almost five times a worker’s wage. Toronto-based labour rights activist Kevin Thomas says wages ultimately get squeezed most because businesses can easily control them, unlike the price of cotton or shipping.

The findings above clearly imply deliberate negligence. Within weeks of the Savar tragedy, another clothing factory in Bangladesh caught fire. Every time a factory-disaster occurs, the government downplays the magnitude of the problem. Citizens demand truth and accountability from the government. Citizens expect the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to admit – without hurting “national pride” – the government’s negligence and to announce the steps being taken to improve labour rights, workplace and architectural safety, and disaster management. With 40% of Bangladesh’s parliament being garment factory owners, such irresponsibility is unwarranted.

We must take a collective approach to the problem. Powerful multinational retailers and brands arrive in Bangladesh demanding the lowest possible price forcing local producers to cut costs in building maintenance, safety and wages. Companies like Walmart have refused to sign a far-reaching and legally-binding agreement that requires them to finance fire-safety and building improvements in Bangladeshi factories. Real reform also means consumers paying more than $14 for a shirt.

Before another disaster strikes, I would urge the government of Bangladesh to pay heed to the following statistics:
Dhaka is recognized as the most unplanned city in the world, but what makes it more vulnerable is that it is located in a high-risk zone for earthquake, and a massive disaster might hit this city anytime even if there is a moderate earthquake. A study shows that about 78,323 buildings will be completely destroyed if an earthquake of 6 magnitude shakes Dhaka.

How many more deaths, how many more warnings before the government finally takes notice?

Sources of information:
Bangladesh's prime minister: ‘Accidents happen.’ CNN Amanpour Blog. 2 May 2013.
Bangladesh's prime minister: ‘Accidents happen.’ CNN Amanpour Blog. 2 May 2013.
Sheikh Hasina talks to CNN on Rana Plaza disaster. Shahabuddin Ahmad. The Daily Star. 8 May 2013.
Ibid.
Bangladesh: Rana Plaza architect says building was never meant for factories. David Bergman and David Blair. The Telegraph. 3 May 2013.
Are 90% of our buildings unsafe? M. Inamul Haque. The Daily Star. 13 May 2013.
UN offered expert rescue team within hours after building collapse. David Bergman. New Age. 30 April 2013.
Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh. JULFIKAR ALI MANIK, STEVEN GREENHOUSE, and JIM YARDLEY. The New York Times. 25 April 2013.
Some Retailers Rethink Role in Bangladesh. STEVEN GREENHOUSE. The New York Times. 1 May 2013.
Building collapse: Accountability in question. Niger Dil Nahar and Mohammad Simon Rahman. The Daily Star. 13 May 2013.
Toll in Bangladesh building collapse climbs to 275. USA Today. 25 April 2013.
How textile kings weave a hold on Bangladesh. John Chalmers. Reuters. 2 May 2013.
What does that $14 shirt really cost? Rosemary Westwood. Maclean’s. 1 May 2013.
May Day: Reflecting on Bangladesh factory disaster and corporate terror. Paula Chakravartty and Stephanie Luce. 3 May 2013.

Comments

Y's picture

Well researched and written!

Well researched and written! I'd like to see a hook of what we call "human interest." Do you have access to some of the women who have worked for these factories? Can you compare their mothers' and grandmothers' lives before the factories came into their lives? And what of their lives after the collapses and fires?

I believe that the more we can tell the progression of history in telling our stories and comparing our own nation's histories to those of people in countries that have made some progress in addressing the same issues, the more we will appeal to a world audience. I used to do fundraising for families who were newly homeless because of a sudden loss in income. When I did this work, my children were grown and I had a very stable financial life, but I, too, had been a divorced mother one paycheck away from poverty in years past. By contrasting both sides of my story, I was able to appeal to a wide audience for support.

Yvette

Monica09's picture

Human Interest

Dear Ms. Yvette,

Thank you for that excellent piece of advice! I shall try to incorporate human interest in my next articles.

Warmly,
Monica

Y's picture

Well researched and written!

Well researched and written! I'd like to see a hook of what we call "human interest." Do you have access to some of the women who have worked for these factories? Can you compare their mothers' and grandmothers' lives before the factories came into their lives? And what of their lives after the collapses and fires?

I believe that the more we can tell the progression of history in telling our stories and comparing our own nation's histories to those of people in countries that have made some progress in addressing the same issues, the more we will appeal to a world audience. I used to do fundraising for families who were newly homeless because of a sudden loss in income. When I did this work, my children were grown and I had a very stable financial life, but I, too, had been a divorced mother one paycheck away from poverty in years past. By contrasting both sides of my story, I was able to appeal to a wide audience for support.

Yvette

JaniceW's picture

Tragic

Monica, as always you provide great context and background information around the topic. It seems that given the history of tragedies and lack of action by the government, it may be that international pressure will be the only thing to prompt the government to address these conditions. After all, if large organizations such as Walmart withdraw from Bangladesh and take their business elsewhere, the economy will suffer which impacts who citizens elect to office.

Therefore, perhaps the target of these campaigns needs to be international, not local. If enough media coverage highlights that the workers were producing garments for Walmart, Target, etc, those companies will be more likely to either enforce better conditions in their factories or relocate their business as no US company wants to be seen as condoning or endorsing unsafe conditions for their workers.

Monica09's picture

Boycotting is counterproductive

Dear Ms. Janice,

Thank you for your kind words! You are always encouraging.

Withdrawing from Bangladesh will do more harm than good to the livelihoods of many, mostly women, who depend on the garments industry. Ultimately, it will be the extremely poor -- and not the politicians/wealthier citizens -- who will face the brunt. They must first survive in order to be able to vote.

A better solution would be for large companies to sign a far-reaching and legally-binding agreement that requires them to finance fire-safety and building improvements in Bangladeshi factories. Walmart, for example, would have to pay $500,000 a year for 2 years to fund such a programme, about 2% of their CEO salary in 2012. Such safety programme would cost only about 10 cents per garment.

From a micro-perspective, it is best to rehabilitate someone than to abandon him/her thinking it would indirectly push him/her to recover.

Warmly,
Monica

JaniceW's picture

Thank you

Thank you for your thoughtful response. You make some very good points and I agree that making the companies accountable for ensuring safer conditions would be a better solution. Given the corruption at the political level, I wonder how you can ensure that the agreements are adhered to?

Dear Ms. Janice,

I hope you have been well. I am sorry it took me so long to reply. I got caught up with the rest of the VOF training modules! I have another challenging module related to multimedia coming up!

It is true that we do not have a strong political and legal system. However, I put my faith in the civil society in Bangladesh which is growing stronger with time. I feel accountability can be ensured through collective action of media agencies, non-governmental organizations, and independent audit firms. Many other agreements are being pursued diligently so there is no reason I should doubt that this particular agreement will not be adhered to, especially if multiple parties/checks are in place.

Warmly,
Monica

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