Monday, April 15, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Justice for all

Update : 26 Apr 2013, 07:36 PM

In the wake of the tragic events at Savar on April 24 one wonders if the legal framework of our State is really equipped to protect the lives of all its citizens. The Constitution of Bangladesh in article 32 guarantees, as a fundamental right, the right to life. Numerous laws on labour safety aim to prevent such mindless death.

Following a tragic event such as the Savar tragedy, the High Court Division of the Supreme Court customarily issues a rule calling upon the authorities concerned to show cause as to why they should not be directed to take necessary action, as required by law, to effectively investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for the deaths and injuries of the victims.

Pending hearing of the rule, the Court generally directs the concerned authorities to submit an investigation report regarding the cause of the accident and the safety measures adopted. The court may also direct the authorities to submit a report on the amount paid to the victims as compensation. The court may even issue a direction to ensure medical treatment of the victims and further order the formation of a national committee to monitor compliance by garments factories with the applicable laws on safety. The same is likely to be done this time around.

All these laws and directions from the courts are sadly of no use to the next set of victims. Despite the law, it has been our experience that the State repeatedly fails to ensure the most basic of rights, the right to life, to some of its most productive citizens. The problem does not lie with the law but its enforcement and, more fundamentally, with our mindset.

If you are a Bangladeshi reading this article, then chances are you belong to a very privileged class of people. You have either personally benefitted from or, like me, have friends and relatives who have benefitted from the growth of the ready made garments (RMG) sector in Bangladesh. We are all guilty of treating workers as dispensable and replaceable factors of production to be exploited by the factory owners to maximize profits. It is us who should be blamed for letting this happen over and over again.

We glorify the RMG factory owners as visionary entrepreneurs, offer them Commercially Important Person (CIP) statuses, and bestow upon them annual awards for being the highest foreign exchange earners. If you look deeper, the RMG factory owners are neither great innovators nor great humanitarians. In reality it is the availability of cheap labour that helps them earn foreign currency. It is not their unique entrepreneurial skills that have led to the growth of the RMG sector. Yet we hold them in such high esteem and give them so much clout.

Did the BGMEA not build its headquarters in the heart of the capital on illegally occupied wetlands in clear violation of the law? How many of the RMG factory owners have been penalized for the deaths in their factories? Have we not turned a blind eye and refused to hold them accountable? Have we not provided them with undue protection and impunity?

We need a change in perspective. It is the factory workers who need to be protected, if not valued and rewarded. We need to realize that there is something wrong with a system that provides buyers in the developed countries with T-shirts for $5 (about Tk400) while the RMG suppliers, being more than adequately compensated for their work, drive around the city with cars that are worth over Tk15,000,000 ($187,500) each – the latest estimate of the BMW 5 series cars seen on the streets of Dhaka. This is happening while the factory workers are paid only about Tk4,000 ($50) per month; that too after the Government forcefully raising the minimum wage of the workers in the face of strong opposition from RMG factory owners. Obviously for the math to add up someone is being exploited in the process.

While not trying to undermine success and the pursuit of profit by entrepreneurs, the time has come to set up a legal framework which actually penalises exploitation of workers to the extent that even their lives are seen as collateral damage. Garments owners need to be held accountable and exemplary punishments need to be provided. 

Unless we hold these people responsible for their negligence and discharge our responsibility of ensuring the right to life for all citizens of the State, including the workers, justice can never be attained. As the famous American social reformer, Frederick Douglass said: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

Moin Ghani is a Barrister-at-Law.  



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