Collapse of safety

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Rana Plaza, the collapsed building, housed five garment factories and some 300 shops. Photo: A.M. Ahad/AP

Bodies trapped under the rubble. Photo: REUTERS

Relatives trying to identify the bodies of victims. Photo: Ashraful Alam Tito/AP

Sohel Rana, the owner of the nine-storey building that collapsed at Savar near Dhaka on April 24. Photo: Palash Khan/AP

Portraits of missing garment workers posted on the walls of a school in Savar. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP

A firefighter carries an injured garment worker. Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Garment workers help evacuate a survivor using a long piece of textile as a slide. Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

A protest demanding the death penalty for those responsible for the building collapse. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP

In a garment factory in Dhaka on April 29. The sector accounts for 80 per cent of the country's exports. Photo: Bloomberg

A building collapses, killing 500 people and leaving several maimed for life and, in the process, bringing to the world’s notice the horrible working conditions in the country’s garment industry.

“Tragedy” is the word the media used to describe the death of Shaheena, a victim of the Rana Plaza building collapse at Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka. Shaheena had clung to dear life, lying under tonnes of debris, for more than 100 hours. Rescue workers bored a narrow tunnel through the wreckage and provided her with saline water and oxygen. However, they could not pull her out as her body could not slip through the narrow space. Moreover, a fire broke out inside the sandwiched floors, making rescue efforts impossible. Shaheena was recovered dead.

The official death toll in the nine-storey commercial complex collapse is 500. Some 2,000-odd garment workers employed in five factories located in the building either escaped when the floors started slipping or were pulled out from under the dislocated concrete and mortar in the days following the crash in a mammoth rescue operation. At the time of the disaster, 3,500 workers were supposed to have been present in the building. The ones who were rescued have horrid tales to recount of the worst tragedy to strike the $20-billion garment industry of Bangladesh. Shapla, the 22-year-old garment worker whose one forearm was crushed under a concrete pillar, laments, “I have lost everything.” Doctors had to amputate her arm in order to save her life. The hapless woman rues the fact that she did not heed her neighbours’ advice not to go to work on April 24. She and her husband, Mehedi Hasan, were working as machine operators on the second floor of the building. When the building began to fall, the two were separated, never to meet again. Rescue workers found Shapla in an unconscious state. Her husband has not been traced.

Shapla’s first concern when she regained consciousness was about her six-year-old son, Morsalin, whom she had left in northern Dinajpur. “Who will take care of my son now? I wanted him to get educated,” she says.

Amena Begum, a 35-year-old sewing machine helper on the third floor of the building, is badly wounded. She spent three days under the rubble surrounded by bodies of fellow workers. Still in a state of shock, she refuses to remain under a concrete roof. Her 17-year-old daughter, Elina, who was a helper in the factory, is still missing. Amena blames the owners of the building and the factory for forcing them to go to work on that day, knowing full well about the impending danger. Cracks had been noticed in the building the previous day.

Sujan Roy, a 22-year-old packaging worker, was rescued five hours after the building collapsed. His leg was pinned under a fallen pillar. As gangrene had set in, doctors had to amputate his leg. Sujan was the sole breadwinner of his family. The youth, from a northern village, wants another job so that he can educate his younger sisters, but asks dejectedly: “Who will give me a job now? I don’t have a leg.”

The plight of Pakhi Begum, 25, who was a machine operator’s helper on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza, is even more pathetic. She was rescued from the rubble and rushed to Enam Medical College and Hospital in Savar (the institution that has already drawn national attention by rendering extraordinary services to the rescued workers), but without her two legs.

“I came close to death. I was lying amid blood and rubble. Bodies of many dead co-workers were lying around. I shouted for help when I saw some light coming through a hole,” Pakhi Begum says. Rescue workers worked frantically for hours to extricate her legs but failed in their efforts. The woman then pleaded with them to cut off her legs. Having no alternative, the workers severed her legs using machetes.

Lovely Akhter, another injured worker, has been admitted to the same hospital. Her hand was crushed under a collapsed wall. The 25-year-old now worries about her children and her ailing husband, who is a rickshaw-puller. Like all the other survivors, Lovely Akhter wants the owners of the building and the factories prosecuted for making them work under dangerous working conditions.

A group of rescuers found Rikta under the rubble 45 hours after the collapse. Her right hand was trapped under a sewing machine. The rescuers tried to pull her out. When all their attempts failed, they brought a hand saw, tied her hands and legs to keep her still and cut off her right forearm.

The 25-year-old sewing machine operator was working on the third floor when the building crumbled. As mortar and cement crashed, the air was thick with dust and Rikta was suffocating. As the day wore on, she thought her heart would stop beating for want of oxygen. The mother of a nine-year-old boy thanked the rescuers for bringing her back to her son and her husband, a car driver. She said their immediate bosses forced them to go to work that day even though the building had developed cracks and was considered unsafe. She said she had been forced to work until late in the night every day without a weekly holiday for the past one month. She used to earn taka 4,700 a month.

Habibur Rahman, a college student from a northern district, found himself in the hospital with broken limbs when he regained consciousness. He had joined one of the factories in Rana Plaza. He tried to escape when the building started to fall but was buried under piles of concrete. “I will never be able to do heavy work again. How will I feed my family?” he asks.

Bangladesh is prone to natural disasters such as floods and storms in which thousands of people perish. The Rana Plaza crash is the first man-made disaster to claim so many lives, that too, the lives of mostly low-paid village women. The garment factories were packed to capacity with workers at the time of the disaster. The incident focusses attention not only on the poor working conditions in the garment factories but the blatant violation of building norms.

The disaster galvanised ordinary citizens, business establishments, students and women to help the army, the police and firefighters in the largest rescue operation the country has ever seen.

As cries for help rang out through the gaps in the debris, rescue workers struggled with concrete and rod cutters and cranes to break through the rubble to reach the survivors. Whenever someone was found trapped, people waiting around would pass bottled water and small oxygen cylinders to be sent up to them.

The first eight days of the rescue campaign were the most crucial. The second phase of operation began on May 1, using heavy equipment. Though chances of finding any more survivors were diminished, relatives of the missing workers still crowded at the site of the building and in hospital morgues, hoping against hope. Neither the police personnel nor the army men could pacify the wailing relatives clutching photographs of their missing family members.

The coordinator of the rescue work, Major General Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardi, refuted charges that decomposed bodies were being concealed. He said 149 people were still not traceable. But this announcement did not console the relatives who believed that more bodies lay still buried under the rubble.

At the two government hospital morgues and the Adharchandra High School, where the bodies of the dead were first brought for identification, distraught family members were seen searching the rows of decomposing bodies even nine days after the disaster. At the high school, the air was heavy with the stench of decaying corpses. On May 1, the authorities buried 32 unclaimed bodies at Dhaka’s Jurain graveyard.

Apart from the five crowded garment factories, Rana Plaza also housed 300 shops and a branch of a private bank. The ready-made garment industry is Bangladesh’s highest foreign exchange earner.

The tragedy could have been avoided had preventive measures been taken early. Industrial police had confirmed that the owners had decided to operate the factories ignoring warnings. The building was allegedly constructed violating building norms. Its owner, Sohel Rana, is a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth front. He got permission from the city corporation to construct a six-storey building but went on to build three more floors.

Violation of safety norms

Building collapses are not uncommon in Bangladesh, where construction laws are seldom enforced. In 2005, some 73 people, mostly garment factory workers, died and hundreds were injured when a factory building collapsed at Savar. In November 2012, a fire in a garment factory at Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka claimed the lives of 112 workers and left hundreds of others with severe burns. Violation of fire safety regulations was said to be the reason for that accident. After the Rana Plaza disaster, many garment factories in Dhaka and its suburbs suspended operations as angry workers staged violent protests. They were armed with sticks and threw brickbats at several factories, broke the window panes of the head office of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), and blocked highways, demanding the death penalty for Sohel Rana and the owners of the factories. Rana and the five factory owners are now in policy custody and are facing multiple charges.

In Bangladesh, the ready-made garment industry is a thriving sector, mainly due to the availability of “cheap labour”. Some four million people, including 3.2 million women, are employed in 4,500 textile factories that make clothes for Western retailers, and they earn $38 a month on average. The industry generates 80 per cent of the country’s annual exports, making Bangladesh the world’s second largest garment exporter after China. But neither the owners of the factories nor their powerful association, the BGMEA, has bothered about the safety of their workers.

In many factories, there are no trade unions to protect the workers’ rights. The Savar tragedy showed that the right to organise under a union in the garment sector was not just a matter of fair wages but a matter of life and death, a trade union leader and rights activist remarked.

The building collapse has not only brought the plight of the garment workers under international spotlight but shaken the nation’s conscience.

In the Vatican, Pope Francis condemned the working conditions of Bangladesh’s garment units and described the workers as “slave labour”. Some Western countries that import garments made in Bangladesh have expressed shock at the casualty figures and started exerting pressure on big retail buyers to protect the workers’ right to decent wages and safe working conditions.

While it must be said that the garment industry has changed the lives of millions of uneducated rural women from poor backgrounds by empowering them financially, it has sought to exploit them by making them work for long hours at low wages in abysmal working conditions. Most of the dead and injured workers were the sole breadwinners earners of their families.

Doctors treating the injured workers said that even if they survived, they were likely to face serious health problems such as paralysis.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina assured the surviving workers that the government would re-employ all of them and give full compensation to the victims. She said the government would provide artificial limbs to those who had lost their limbs in the tragedy.

What emerged from the disaster and its aftermath is the fact that the lives of Bangladesh’s garment workers remain cheap like the labour they provide. What collapsed at Savar was a monument of greed. The incident has forced society to ask why a section of the people continues to die in order to live, while others are allowed to kill them in order to become rich.