Every year, some 80 countries including Bangladesh officially observe the historic May Day in commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, in which many working people sacrificed their lives to establish their basic rights as workers.
But this year, the day was observed amid despair and tearful demonstrations, just one week after 400 lives were lost in an eight-storey building collapse in Savar.
Following the tragedy, thousands of garment workers took to the streets and demanded exemplary punishment for the people who forced labourers to continue working in the risky building despite prior warning.
The workers termed the incident “murder,” and vowed to secure better working conditions and security. People are hopeful, but this may prove unrealistic. The country may forget the incident and move on.
Statistics show that Bangladesh has lost thousands of garment workers in the last couple decades due to the negligence of garment factory authorities.
The export-oriented readymade garments (RMG) industry of Bangladesh began in the late 1970s, and has witnessed phenomenal growth since the early 1980s. It is now a colossal industry, earning the lion’s share of the country’s foreign exchange and providing formal employment the greatest number of the nation’s women.
Though the industry is more than 30 years old, sufficient policies have not been established to ensure worker security. They receive neither good work conditions nor expected wages.
As per Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, it is mandatory for employers to provide workers with appointment letters. However, most do not issue these letters in order to escape the wage rules.
The law states that no child under 14 is permitted to work in any industry. But many factories recruit underage children because they are cheaper labourers.
The law says a pregnant worker who has been employed for more than six months shall be entitled to maternity benefits from the employer: eight weeks paid leave before delivery and eight weeks paid leave after delivery.
But allegations were raised that factory owners only allowed workers one month for paid maternity leave and another month unpaid, or even less.
Former garment factory worker Hasina said: “When I asked for maternity leave, they issued me only one month. Later, they asked me to leave the job when I requested one more month of leave with pay and benefits. I finally left the job in order to take care of my baby.”
She did not want to disclose the name of the factory, concerned that they may not allow her to rejoin.
Wishing anonymity, a high official of a garment factory said: “We only issue one-month maternity leave to a female worker, as the factory owners think that a four-month leave with salary makes no sense.”
“But we sometimes allow them to bring their babies with them to work, despite not having day care centres in the factories,” he said.
While talking to the Dhaka Tribune, Munir Hossain, director of the buying house Pacific Tex, said: “Only some big factories can maintain Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and other worker-friendly policies, as they do not have financial problems.
But the owners of medium and small factories [cannot afford to] implement the policies.”
Munir said foreign buyers were always trying to squeeze the middle and small factory owners, knowing they did not have adequate financial support and had to compromise on prices in order to survive in the industry.
“Sometimes [buyers] refuse to increase the price of a product by only five or six cents. This may bar the factory owners from implementing CSR for their workers,” he added.
Despite these issues, workers are compelled to accept the tough situation, as they need these jobs to support their families. But what should we do when incidents like the recent Savar collapse occur? Often, no building codes are followed while constructing these factories.
Asif Iqbal, national-level coordinator of Social and Economic Enhancement Programme (Seep) said: “Bangladesh is one of the top at-risk countries for earthquakes, and risk factors like unplanned urbanisation increases the number of causalities beyond our estimate. Many industries and factories in urban areas, especially in the capital, were built violating the law and structure codes. Some 400 garment factories were marked as risky for their infrastructural flaws.”
“Thousands of workers may be trapped if a strong earthquake hits the country, and as the authorities do not take adequate safety measures, the casualty number will be 20 times higher than the Savar incident,” he said.
That situation can be averted only if the government and the factory owners jointly take proper measures to ensure the safety of the workers, said Asif.
Ashraf, a part-time quality controller, said: “We lost 500 of our fellow workers. Dozens lost [arms and legs] and became disabled. I am not worried for my future, but for my present. I may die and my family will be on the street. But I have nothing to do except continue my job.”
“The fate and hope of workers are always trapped under the rubble,” he said. “They die every day.