By Ramzy Baroud
As they spoke to a BBC correspondent in their run-down room which they call home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a man sobbed as his 12-year-old daughter sat close to him.
His face, wrinkled before its time, was a picture of utter anguish. It could only be understood by a parent whose child was dying under giant slabs of concrete where nothing could be done.
“If she is dead,” he said, “I just want to bury her with my own hands, so at least in my mind I know that I have finally found my daughter.”
Then the despairing man succumbed to his uncontrollable tears.
His daughter Hamida had been working right along his other young daughter who had miraculously escaped the collapse of several factories in the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka on April 24.
Hundreds of dead bodies were retrieved, most of whom were women and young girls who made a living working under the harshest of conditions in the country’s many sweatshops.
Hundreds more were still trapped and presumed dead. Many of those who were freed had to sacrifice a limb as it was the only way to freedom.
Images of the devastation dominated the news for days after the eight-storey building collapsed on top of nearly 3,000 cheap laborers who were already trapped in another sense – in the endless poverty and exploitation of factory owners.
Over 3.5 million people work in the country’s estimated 4,000 factories, generating about 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s total exports.
Some estimates put the monthly salary of a garment worker in Bangladesh at $70 (£45) to $100 (£64).
Other estimates are lower, considering that the country’s monthly minimum wage hovers above $38 (£24).
Quoted by the BBC last August, Rosa Dada of Four Seasons Fashion Limited found the business logic simple and convincing.
“In Bangladesh the average monthly salary for garments workers is only around $70 to $100. If I produce here, [the] price is much more competitive.”
Competitiveness is key, even if it is at the expense of impoverished people who have no other option but to accept miserable pay and highly dangerous work conditions.
Of course a Four Seasons executive would not accept work for a $70 a month.
Dada must be aware that most of the garment industry laborers in Bangladesh are women.
When one calculates the long-term loss brought on by the death of a mother working under inhumane conditions, no numbers, no statistics, no charts and certainly not Dada’s quest to stay above the competition, could possibly do this tragedy any justice.
The story of Bangladesh’s pain is dotted with tragedy, government corruption and unmitigated greed.
It also involves many companies and garment distributors in Western countries, China, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Moreover, it would not be an exaggeration to say that in some way, our constant hankering for cheap prices, untamable desire for “good deals” and lust after brand names is happening at the expense of the sweat, blood, tears and in some cases, the crushed bones of cheap laborers like 13-year-old Hamida.
Walmart, Gap, JCP, Abercrombie, Kohl’s and many more are very much part and parcel of this story. Some of these companies still refuse to take any real action to avoid future tragedies.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building was not the first of such disasters and is unlikely to be last, especially since government action has been so lacking, to say the least.
As for most Western companies, they merely resort to public relations tactics to circumvent their direct and indirect responsibility, as opposed to rethinking their negligent approach altogether.
True, there has been much media coverage of the tragedy, which even by the country’s poor work conditions standard is unprecedented.
But there has been ample evidence for many years that Bangladeshi laborers are being abused, humiliated and sacrificed in the name of profit.
Abusive business owners often lock and bolt exit doors to ensure that workers can’t go out.
They build without permits and authorities turn a blind eye to their many illegal practices.
According to Human Rights Watch, the government has a workforce of 18 inspectors who are supposed to oversee and prevent illegal practices in thousands of factories in the Shaka district, which is the heart of the garment industry.
Workers’ rights activists contend that officials are paid handsomely for their silence.
Human Rights Watch said that “factory owners – a powerful force in Bangladesh, with ties to government officials – are usually given advanced notice before an inspection.”
Just five months ago, 112 workers died in a Tazreen Fashions garment factory near Dhaka.
Some workers jumped to their death from high windows to escape the fire because the doors were bolted.
The complicity of international companies was also found in the traces of the burnt building.
The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) said recently that “Walmart-labeled product was found in Tazreen and now one of the factories in the Rana complex, Ether-Tex, had listed Walmart-Canada as a buyer on their website.”
Predictably, “Walmart has yet to contribute to the worker compensation fund for Tazreen victims.”
But there is more that Walmart and others haven’t done. It is yet to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement which, according to ILRF, is a legally “binding agreement that has (only) been endorsed by two global brands, (and if implemented) would create rigorous inspections, transparency and oversight and ensure that workers and their organizations are an integral part of the solution.”
To avoid the “hassle” of accountability, some companies have decided to carry out their own inspections and of course made sure that the international media knows of their supposedly grand effort.
The two companies that signed the agreement are German retailer Tchibo and PVH Corp, which owns the brands Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.
But two more need to sign for the agreement to take effect. Walmart, along with other large companies, is yet to sign.
Considering the rampant corruption and Bangladeshi’s dire need for foreign funds which are partly secured through the $20 billion (£13bn) per year industry, expectations are low that the government will do much to right this ongoing injustice.
Attempts at unionizing garment factory workers have not been successful. Respected workers’ rights activist Aminul Islam was reportedly harassed by the police, had his phone tapped and “domestic intelligence agents once abducted and beat him,” reported the New York Times last September.
When he disappeared for few days on April 4 last year there was a general understanding of who might have been the culprit.
Days later his body was discovered. He had been tortured to death. His small office once stood amid towering buildings – some surely constructed without permit.
With his murder, Dhaka’s workers have lost a great friend, an ally. Now they have lost hundreds of their equally poor colleagues whose entire monthly salary is barely enough to purchase one Tommy Hilfiger item.
Writing in Spiegel International online, German journalist Hasnain Kazim and others wrote that “the disaster … created sights and sounds that many will find hard to forget. Rezaul, for example, vividly remembers a woman with disheveled hair and a blood-encrusted face whose right leg was pinned down by a concrete pillar. ‘She begged me to saw off her leg and free her,’ he says. ‘I just happened to be there’.”
The main photo of the article was that of a head barely rising above a heap of concrete, while the entire body, apart from an arm was submerged.
It was of a handsome young man’s face, with eyes so peacefully closed, and his barely free left arm, resting gently over the debris.
The most painful part of this tragedy is that it was completely preventable, but perhaps neither the government, nor Walmart and many others find the issue urgent enough for decisive action to spare poor people a horrible death.
– Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father Was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).