The anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster inevitably leads to a renewed focus on the ongoing conversation on labour rights in Bangladesh.
While there has been a certain level of progress, it is a cause for concern that the lives of more than 1,100 workers had to be lost in so cruel a manner to kickstart a debate on the rights of workers.
We have already read about the long battle over compensation, and how long it has taken (and is still taking) for adequate compensation to reach the right quarters, despite the setting up of the Rana Plaza Trust Fund.
Internationally, there are still ongoing efforts to demand compensation, and most of what has been given was on a voluntary basis.
In terms of punishment for those who have been held responsible, four years on, it is equally frustrating to see such little progress in the trial proceedings.
But what is most frustrating is the level of condescension and callousness that continues to mar the views of those who, directly or indirectly, are responsible for the rights and well-being of workers in Bangladesh.
One of the immediate aftermaths of the Rana Plaza disaster was a focus on the globalised nature of the industry, and a “wake-up call” for conscientious consumers.
What Rana Plaza taught us
Rana Plaza not only shined a light on the low-wage, flexible labour of garments workers, earning a few cents only on a pair of jeans that is eventually priced at $75 at a Gap store in the US, but at an entire system of supply chains that are unjust and exploitative.
For example, around that time H&M came under a lot of heat for sourcing cotton for factories in Bangladesh and China from Uzbekistan, where children as young as nine work in the fields and the charity Anti-Slavery International has described many instances of forced labour under appalling conditions.
But while large corporations such as these have created many alliances and accords and pledged to weed out wage slavery from their factories and sweatshops, they continue to bypass accountability and shift responsibility to the factory owners they sub-contract to, and the governments that regulate said factories.
Well-meaning as their intentions might be, no amount of signing MoUs and agreeing to codes of conduct can have any real impact without any legal responsibility on the part of these corporations -- something that they refuse to accept at any cost.
The fact that the US has excluded the Bangladeshi RMG industry from the GSP, and the EU has threatened to take similar actions, is only one example of the way of the neoliberal world -- it’s OK to buy goods built on exploitation when no one is looking, but when they do, it’s time to take the high road and swear off those products altogether.
And what of the responsibilities at the national level?
We now have a strong building law and a national building code, but we are yet to have a national building authority who will actually enforce this code.
In terms of safety and other infrastructure, measures have also been taken to ensure such tragedies do not occur again, but if it did, we would still be in the dark on whose job it is to actually ensure building safety.
And in terms of the general rights of workers, we have been playing the same game of “not my problem” year in and year out. Almost no stake-holder in the RMG sector is willing to admit that workers are allowed to claim their rights.
Too many of them will argue that our competitiveness is in cheap labour, and workers are not efficient enough to deserve more wages, with no plan whatsoever on how to train them and improve efficiency.
And then there are the claims that workers are not educated and thus easy to rile up, and it is only certain quarters (including, of course, India) who are trying to ruin our competitive edge by upsetting the RMG sector.
As if it is not ludicrous enough to claim that our neighbours are infiltrating our unions and organising strikes (what exactly can that achieve in the long run?), with it comes a healthy dose of condescension for workers who are stupid enough to risk their livelihoods -- and even their lives, as was the case of trade unionist Aminul Islam who was killed in 2012 -- because they just don’t know any better.
While on paper it might seem like RMG workers earned a great victory after Rana Plaza, with a 76% rise in minimum wage and a five-yearly review in place, if you dig a little deeper, the numbers are not what they seem.
It’s OK to buy goods built on exploitation when no one is looking, but when they do, it’s time to take the high road and swear off those products altogether
Cracks in the agreement
According to labour leaders, the minimum wage is still at least $30 less than what was being demanded by workers at the time and not considered by many to be a proper living wage, and while the wage settlement includes a yearly increase of 5%, with inflation running at 6-8% recently and going up as high as 12%, there is actually a long-term decline in real income.
On top of that, it is only the basic salary that is subject to the increase and not the full minimum wage, making the rise even more inconsequential.
The recent protests by RMG workers in Ashulia, which led to over 1,600 workers losing their jobs, is just one example of the cracks that are surfacing in these agreements between workers and factory owners.
We all know how important the RMG sector is in the development of Bangladesh, but we cannot continue to ignore the voices of those who actually contribute to the economy and expect to reap the gains of progress at the same time.
This applies not just to the RMG industry, but almost all sectors in Bangladesh where workers have even less power to claim their rights.
The only reason we are even talking about this today is because so many lives were lost in Rana Plaza.
How many construction workers will have to die, how many domestic workers will have to be abused, and how many migrant workers will have to be reduced to slavery, before we start to talk about them too?
Shuprova Tasneem is Deputy Magazine Editor, Dhaka Tribune.