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Culture of impunity behind series of grisly events

  • Published at 12:13 pm April 24th, 2013
Culture of impunity behind series of grisly events

The death of nearly a hundred garment workers in this morning’s building collapse came amid increasing international pressure to improve working condition in Bangladeshi factories. The fact that this morning’s death toll included a workforce which belonged to four different garment factories only added salt to the injury of the Tazreen fire that our nation is still recovering from. Yet, somehow, we will move past this – as we have so often done.

List of eight building-collapse incidents

April 5, 2013

Two workers were killed and eight others injured after an under-construction structure of a fuel station collapsed on them at the Dinajpur-Dhaka highway around Mahasatti village under Sadar upazila of Dinajpur.

October 2, 2012

Two injured and nearly 50 residents were trapped inside three multi-storey buildings after a five-story building collapsed while being demolished on Kailash Bose Lane at Shakhari Bazar in Old Dhaka.

May 1, 2011

Four tin-shed houses and a stretch of a street collapsed at Nakhalpara of Tejgaon during pilings of Impulse Medical College and Hospital building.

October 16, 2010

Two female garment workers were killed in roof collapse of a building at Chitrashail in Ashulia.

November 7, 2010

An eight-storey building in capital’s Kathalbagan tilted to one side towards another 16-storey building leading to scores of people from adjacent buildings rushing out to the street in fear.

June 1, 2010

At least 16 people died in the city’s Begunbari area after a five-storey building fell off its base onto the tin-shed shanties of an adjacent slum.

April 11, 2005

At least 60 people were killed in the collapse of the nine-storey building of Spectrum Garment in Baipail of Ashulia.

October 15, 1985

The roof of Dhaka University’s Jagannath hall assembly building (now October Smiriti Bhaban) collapsed on students and employees who were watching television, claiming 39 lives

While there is an appalling consistency in all these cases of the factory/building owners’ negligence, there is further concern in the lack of accountability of these owners. As the timeline shows, there have been scores of deaths in just the last decade, due to dire working conditions, defiance of building regulations etc., and yet there has rarely been justice. The owners have rarely been held accountable for their actions – or lack thereof. It is disturbing how these cases have become a part of the normalcy of living – surviving – in Bangladesh. These incidents take place, the government gives a statement, so does the BGMEA president, we observe a national mourning day, and, just as though in a scheduled part of this process, the factory owners are relieved of their responsibility and walk scot free. In Bangladesh, where the legal system is seldom efficient and there is a general lack of accountability, we see justice in few cases anyway. However in such tragedies as the Savar collapse, why could accountability and justice, even amid international pressure and local widespread protests, be difficult to confirm?

The lack of owners’ accountability may not entirely be a result of the nation’s ignorance. There are other factors to be considered. It appears that in three of such cases in the past decade, including today’s, the owners were connected to the government. In the 2005 shopping mall collapse in Shyamoli,the owner was a leader of Jubo Dal, the youth-wing of BNP, which was in office at that time. In the 2010 building collapse in Dhaka which saw the death of 14 people, it was soon revealed that the four-storey building was owned by a former government official who, defying building regulations and warnings, had added additional floors. The building that collapsed this morning belonged to MdSohelRana, the Awami League youth front Juba League’s leader.

Such glaring trends are difficult to ignore, especially when mishaps like these occur at this frequency, claiming scores of lives. Day by day, our factory owners and building owners have prioritised possible gains from an extra layer of floor, an extra day of work, an extra troop of workers in rooms too small – all at the cost of our workers’ lives. Workers who had families to feed and who, at the very least, served our nation as one of the most crucial elements of our economy. If we cannot ensure the rights and safety of these workers by holding the owners accountable, then the very owners who capitalise on the cheap labour and low wages and long work hours, will soon have to pay a difficult price as Bangaldesh slowly loses its workforce to such grave incidents.