Friday, April 19, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

How many deaths will it take till we know?

The time has come for Bangladesh to prove that we truly value all human life

Update : 01 Sep 2023, 02:50 AM

We have been here before. It has not been five months since a tragedy in the garment industry had us all wringing our hands and vowing that enough was enough.

Then it was a fire that broke out in Ashulia, killing at least 120. Yesterday it was the collapse of a building that housed five garment factories, and the death toll has already reached 80. With hundreds trapped under the rubble the only grim certainty is that it will continue to rise.

The most noteworthy common denominator in these two tragedies is not that they happened in garment factories or the fact that the buildings were not up to code (in one case fire safety rules were flouted, in the second official directives, to say nothing of the building code, were contemptuously dismissed).

Both of these are sobering enough, and in and of themselves are worthy of condemnation.

But the real outrage is the human callousness that underpinned both tragedies, and how easily they might have been averted with but a modicum of humanity and good sense. What is striking is the absence of even basic decency on the part of those who were culpable, and how cheaply they held the lives of those who worked for them or occupied their buildings.

There will be time enough to ponder why it is so often garment factories where these tragedies occur, and whether there is something endemic to the industry that makes it vulnerable to these kinds of atrocities and abuse. Sheer coincidence? I don’t think so. With the regularity of these deaths, the industry needs to take a long look at itself, and ask the question why it is in the garment industry that a disproportionate number of tragedies occur.

Equally important will be to scrutinise the government’s role in enforcing simple regulations meant for the safety of workers. We already know that decades of incompetence and inaction have led us to a truly sorry state of affairs when it comes to building safety, with many residential buildings being little more than death-traps, to say nothing of the sweat-shops housing thousands of low wage workers.

The question is: what has the government been doing about it. The government may try to argue, as it always does, that the problem is too big to solve. But that does not absolve the government from the responsibility for at least trying. This should be on the front burner. It should be a major agenda item for the government, and it is clear that it is not. So the government cannot hide behind the excuse of doing the best that it could under the circumstances.

No one is asking for or expecting perfection. But a certain basic level of concern and competence is the very least the public can demand. It is abundantly clear that the government has other priorities (in fairness, so does the opposition) and that building safety, let alone building safety for garment factories, is simply not one of them.

But today, even all this pales in comparison, and any outrage we might feel against the garment industry and the government must take second place so that we can focus our outrage on those who are truly deserving of our ire: the owner of the building and the owners of the factories that were housed in it. We cannot let the excuse of collective responsibility or government inaction let them off the hook.

Because, just like Tazreen, where the principal cause of death was the human factor, so it was again yesterday. In Tazreen, the fire alarms went off and the workers were streaming out when they were told to go back inside and the gates were locked behind them. If not for the almost unbelievable actions of the factory supervisors, the tragedy might have been averted.

Similarly, yesterday, there was plenty of advance warning of the problem. The structural defects had been identified clearly the night before, and Brac Bank, which also had a branch in the building had taken the decision to pull its workers out.

Even the garment factories pulled their workers out the night before. But yesterday morning they were ordered back to work, with horrific consequences.This is beyond mere indifference to the safety of workers.

This callous disregard, this putting profits ahead of people shows that there is something very wrong inside the parties responsible, and by extension, inside all of us. We live in a country where life is cheap and too may people simply do not value the life of anyone except their own kith and kin.

At first, I could not believe that anyone could actually take such a risk with thousands of lives in the balance. But it all makes perfect sense when we realise that for the owners, it wasn’t their lives at stake, it was only the lives of people they evidently think of as expendable and beneath their concern.

The actions of both the building owner and the factory owners have shamed all of us Bangladeshis. To hold human life so cheap is the unforgivable sin. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

This was no accident, this was no misfortune. It wasn’t even the product of negligence, simple or gross, or even reckless disregard for human life. This was worse than that. This was murder in the first degree.

Zafar Sobhan is Acting Editor, Dhaka Tribune.  

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