In 2014, a year after the deadly Rana Plaza incident, a news bit caught my eye: Unable to bear her excruciating pain, Salma, a young survivor of the building collapse, committed suicide.
The news only gave the basic facts with quotes from her husband whose rather clinical reply seemed to say that he was not shocked.
Don’t blame him, in a vicious social segment, where all of life’s emotions and dynamics revolve around the earning of enough money to carry on living, patience to tolerate any form of financial strain is thin.
For a survivor who was out of work and had no money to pay for better treatment, ending life which was saved just over a year ago, was the only option.
That story not only jolted me but opened many alleys for deeper introspection. How much was needed to reduce her pain and make her want to look forward to life with renewed hope?
Alas, for people like Salma, the top brass does not authorise best medical care or treatment abroad.
Was there any psychological treatment meted out for the traumatised survivors?
For many recalling the tragedy of 2013, the vivid images are of the incident itself and of those unfortunate people who died horrific deaths -- their bodies, discovered during removal of rubble, unknowingly becoming the clicked-on images of human bondage when death came calling.
But I wanted to look at all those who survived, and are still suffering.
For Salma, it was a survival of relentless suffering.
She took her own life; the reports state that but the long tale of unending distress and sleepless nights are not recorded.
Others may not have taken such an extreme action, but, reportedly, many living with wounds from the accident have had their everyday lives curtailed.
Are we doing enough?
It’s been four years since the disaster, these are the people that society needs to seek out and ascertain if avoiding death at a price had given them a better existence.
For the textile sector in general, the accident has paved the way for more effort to ensure better working conditions and, in the last four years, many factories have ramped up their security measures, holding fire and safety drills at regular intervals.
RMG remediation fund support local textile factories to improve structure and fire safety, adding a much-needed sense of security among workers.
Anjuman, a thread cutter in the sprawling garment factory belonging to the Debonair Group, says that work environment has become markedly safer in the last year.
The massive red door, which looked too heavy and cumbersome to her and her fellow workers when they were first fitted, now add to her sense of security.
Once again, the need for union is felt. But while local apathy is a reason, the blame also goes to foreign buyers, who persistently pressure to get products at a lower rate
“Seeing the doors for the first time, I was a little intimidated, but now we all know how to use them and understand that, in case of an accident, these (doors) will help us remain safe,” says the 20-year-old who has also been a witness to a series of other security related changes within the large factory, housing a staggering 4,000 workers.
Debonair is one of the textile companies that carried out safety remediation after taking a loan from City Bank, which received $10 million from International Finance Corporation (IFC) as remediation fund to disburse among factory owners wanting to ramp up safety.
But, the overall situation in the garment sector remains turbulent.
If there is satisfaction among workers in the larger factories, there is also marked disenchantment among those who work in smaller ones.
A few weeks ago, textile workers in Ashulia clashed with police over reported disgruntlement relating to pay and other promised facilities.
A day to remember every day
The Rana Plaza tragedy should always be remembered, but let’s just not turn this into a one-day memorial to be shoved aside the next.
While the campaign for better safety is underway, other issues continue to plague the sector and the most fractious one relates to minimum wage.
In this context, discord is regular, with clashes breaking out often, resulting in a lingering sense of ill will between garment factory owners and the staff.
Once again, the need for union is felt.
But while local apathy is a reason, the blame also goes to foreign buyers, who persistently pressure to get products at a lower rate.
These buyers, who want to get the cheapest rate and sell them at the highest, cannot evade responsibility.
A way out
A long-term solution for worker unrest can be reached, once more special economic zones with clearly laid-out rules about wages and safety are in operation.
Taking issues ranging from safety to wages to worker insurance require a relatively comprehensive approach.
Approaching just a few factories at a time will prove to be time-consuming and ineffective.
Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are the answers and the government must act promptly.
Coming back to Salma’s suicide, I am certain that there are many others who, with severe injuries, continue to face untold hardship.
On this day, let us also find those survivors and try to understand the physical and psychological damage that they are trying to negotiate with every moment.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist currently working in the development sector.