What disaster means to garment workers in Bangladesh

2020-06-05 | Supriti Dhar padlock


57 percent survivors of Rana Plaza tragedy have remained unemployed, and the pandemic is now taking a heavy toll on Bangladesh, especially on garment industry, which is the world’s second-largest garment exporter. Supriti Dhar recalls a disaster with long-term consequences.

Supriti Dhar is a journalist and activist from Bangladesh. This article is published in cooperation between Feminist perspective, PEN/Opp and Norrköpings kommun.

It was 24 April, 2013. Seven years ago the world’s worst industrial disaster Rana Plaza tragedy struck Bangladesh and killed over 1,100 workers and injured over two thousands, most of them were women. Just women.

Why am I telling this story? All of you know the name ’Bangladesh’ as it is branded with garment industries. How many of you know how this sector helps women of a developing country to became empowered? And how this sector is exploiting these poor workers with their wages?

Just one example. 57 percent survivors of Rana Plaza tragedy have remained unemployed for these years as most of them are yet to recover from the physical and mental trauma of the factory collapse. Among the survivors, approximately 200 suffered severe injuries, and 60 people’s limbs were amputated.

Nightmarish days

The families of the thousands of casualties are awaiting justice, but no one could say when the trial might begin. The disaster hit global headlines, highlighting concerns about the safety of Bangladesh’s factories and their working conditions and forcing the government and factory owners to adopt new measures which led to much better labor conditions.

But how much measures have been taken till today? Is there any regular inspection? Why the garment worker’s lives are so cheap when they bring foreign currency for the country?

I can clearly remember the day, I can recall how I felt, how I rushed to the spot and inhaled the smell of deceased human bodies and how all of us were trying to reach the people with needs who were digging the rubbles and trying to save thousands of humans when the whole state system failed. The system failed because of its unlimited voracity, audacity and immeasurable corruption.

I also don’t want to remember those nightmarish days. Some of us cannot even bear that memory, some of us are still dealing with the trauma. One of our activist co-workers has committed suicide on the same date and same place last year. He was one of those persons who helped garment workers to come out from ruins, who had to cut their hands or legs and those ghastly memories always haunted him till death. We don’t know the actual number of people who have committed suicide. I can still remember those days when I ran from one hospital to another, and witnessed people suffering, some of them were without legs or hands or became paralyzed, I cried, I screamed, I suffered as I watched them suffer.

I saw women workers lying on the hospital bed with their wounds, asking everyone about their children. During that disaster I met many men who were so-called husbands of these workers who came back to their wives just to get money and then they vanished. They were just men.

During the outbreak of covid-19 pandemic we are witnesses of how the garment owners association has been playing with thousands of workers’ lives.

More frightening than the virus

When the whole country was under lockdown the association did not comply. Among massive controversy, they ordered to close factories but without any further direction. So these poor workers left the cities, their workplace. Again after some days, the owners association asked to open the factories and issued orders that if someone failed to join on the asked date, they would lose their jobs. These poor-fated people started rushing back to the cities, unfortunately they could not find any transportation, so they started walking under the scorching sunshine, and we all watched this ridiculous march from our comfortable and air-conditioned rooms.

Again we started criticizing the leaders, which we do very well. So they were bound to withdraw their decision. Interestingly, the people, who were in the middle of their journey or end of the journey, were stuck. This time, they could not go back where they resided before. Just imagine a situation where workers, mostly women, some of them are in their very young age, some of them with children stuck in the middle of nowhere at night in a country that is extremely unsafe for women.

For our every leaders, these people are nothing but guinea pigs. One of the garment workers, who was forced to come back to work in the factory in spite of countrywide lockdown, said: ”Losing a job is much more frightening than the virus. If we don’t join, we will lose the job. If we lose the job, we will die of hunger. We are poor, so we don’t have a choice.”

But we know that the garment industry of Bangladesh has been the key export division and a main source of foreign exchange for the last 25 years. At present, the country generates about $5 billion worth of products each year by exporting garment. This sector accounts for around 80 percent of the country's manufacturing income, with at least 4 million workers depending on it, of whom 90 percent are women.

Once again a myth

In the absence of a well-functioning labour inspection system and of appropriate enforcement mechanisms, decent work and life in dignity are still far from reality for the vast majority of workers in the garment industry and their families.

Moreover, the pandemic is now taking a heavy toll on Bangladesh, especially on garment industry, which is the world’s second-largest garment exporter. It is rapidly losing orders, and millions of jobs are at stake. Some 4.1 million workers will go hungry if no one takes any initiative to their welfare.

Owners have opened their factories to protect themselves from potential damage despite the huge threat of contamination. Nevertheless to secure the job has become a more powerful ’option’ for workers than the virus threat or death.

So the situation is dire. If it continues then I think it is only a matter of time now, thousands of thousands worker will be jobless which will add another anarchy in the society, especially women’s lives will be in great danger. And the empowerment of women will become a myth again.


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