Deaths of workers in building
collapse. Why? How to prevent
SINCE its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has increased its real per capita income by more than 130 per cent and cut poverty by more than half. It may be well-positioned to achieve most of its Millennium Development Goals. But it remains a low-income country with substantial poverty, inequality and deprivation.
At least 45 million people in Bangladesh, which is almost one third of the population, live below the poverty line and a significant proportion of them suffer in extreme poverty. Moreover, most of Bangladesh’s labourers are in informal, low-income jobs with limited productivity. Usually, they are employed in factory and construction. These jobs are very risky but they still do it to earn a livelihood. The working condition in most of the factories is neither comfortable nor hygienic. Worst still, their workplaces lack the necessary safety measures.
Bangladesh has had several industrial disasters, including factory fires and collapse of factory buildings. However, the collapse of Rana Plaza at Savar on April 24 was deadliest, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring some 3,000 people; many remain unaccounted for.
The workers who perished were poor and earned a very small income. Export earnings from the readymade garment industry have contributed immensely to the national economy, accounting for 17 per cent of the GDP. Bangladesh is the world’s second largest apparel producer after China.
One of the key drivers behind the industry’s growth has been availability of informal and low-cost labour in Bangladesh. The garment industry employs more than 4.5 million people of which about 80 per cent are women. A large segment of teenage girls works in garment industries.
Dhaka is one of the most densely-populated cities in the world where land is scarce and an expensive resource. Given the scarcity of land, multi-storey buildings that violate building codes are a common feature. Many of these buildings are inadequate in terms of fire escapes, ventilation and sanitation. For the increased number of people they now have to cater, adding illegal floors to buildings has also become a common practice. Moreover, many buildings are residential apartment blocks for families converted into factories. Many factories are often housed in a single building with tenants on different floors.
Over 1,300 workers have been killed in the past five months. Every year Bangladesh has been victims of illegal subcontracting that have resulted in loss of human lives. If we want to prevent these types of tragedy, we need to become aware of workplace safety in factories. Factory owners must follow the building codes. The government should increase its monitoring system and take proper steps. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association the government have to take strong steps to adopt suitable policies to safeguard workers’ rights.
Avit Kumar Saha
On April 24, Rana Plaza, an eight-storey commercial building, collapsed at Savar. The search for the dead ended on May 13 with a death toll of 1,129. Approximately 2,515 injured people were rescued from the building alive. It is one of the deadliest garment-factory accidents in history as well as the deadliest structural failure. The building collapse is the latest in a long series of tragedies. Last November, more than 110 garment workers died in a fire at Tazreen Fashions factory near Dhaka.
Despite Rana Plaza’s death toll, which makes this tragedy by far the worst industrial accident in the country’s history, our finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith told the media that he did not think the collapse would have a ‘really serious’ impact on the garment industry. He’s right: as long as our international demand for cheap goods stays high, we can’t enact significant changes for the workers who suffer to satisfy our needs.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus said in an article published in a local newspaper that the tragedy was a ‘symbol of our failure as a nation’. ‘The crack in Rana Plaza that caused the collapse of the building has only shown us that if we don’t face up to the cracks in our state systems, we as a nation will get lost in the debris of the collapse,’ he said, urging the government and citizens to work together for reforms.
There are many reasons behind this kind of tragedy. The government has launched an investigation to determine the cause of the collapse. As details emerge, it is becoming clear that this tragedy is the product of systemic failure at both the local and international levels. Moreover, Human Rights Watch expressed their concern over the number of factory-building tragedies in Bangladesh and there have been numerous major accidents in the country in the past decade, including the 2012 fire.
We need to step up to take the responsibility to stop such accidents. As we know, the garment industry accounts for almost 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s annual exports and provides employment to about four million people.
The European Union said it was considering ‘appropriate action’ to encourage improvements in working conditions in Bangladeshi factories.
Even if the corporations press on the issue, unless it gets enforced by the government and unless it is taken seriously by the local manufacturers who own the factories in most cases, these tragedies will keep happening. Without the co-operation of the government in Bangladesh, it will be difficult to take any decision.
We do not agree with a boycott of the garment industry by the global brands. We think it is a very bad idea. The labours fear that a boycott campaign would mean they would lose their jobs. As we know most of them come from rural areas and poverty, so the already poor workers would be hard hit and our industrial sector would collapse.
To sum up, the solution to this is very complex. It is about people at all stages of the supply chain waking up to the problems and trying to take responsibility for it. The government needs to ensure that factory owners are taking adequate measures to ensure the safety of the workers. This way we can stop further tragedies and deaths of workers.
University of Development Alternative
DEATHS of workers in building collapse have become a major concern since the Rana Plaza tragedy in April this year. The industrial accident claiming the lives of hundreds of workers shocked the world. The tragedy has been the talk around the world for a while. As the death toll increased, people from all walks of lives started to think about the safety of workers. So many industrial accidents have occurred and all the time, it is the workers who suffered. They have no guarantee of safety for their lives.
The occupants of Rana Plaza were mostly workers in different garment factories. They were compelled to continue to work in the risky building. The building authorities or the factory owners did not care about the safety of the workers. They only think about their profits. They didn’t want to stop even for a day even though it was risky for the workers. If the authorities did not compel the workers to enter the building, the large number of deaths could have been prevented.
The workers remain behind the scene of all progress. They are the main makers and earners of this country but they are given no dignity and assured no safety in their workplaces. There are many culprits like Rana who is only greedy about personal profits even at the expenses of workers’ lives. The government should be prompt in taking legal action to uproot the corruption in the industrial sector and take stringent measures against garment company owners who have not adopted safety policies in the factories for workers. Even after this tragic incident, there are many factories that are remarkably risky to be occupied by the workers. These buildings may collapse anytime just like Rana Plaza did. The relevant government authority, that is Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, should ban these dangerous buildings so that the nation does not have to witness another Savar tragedy again.
Not a single building should be permitted to be constructed in a land that has been recently created through the filled of a pond. Rajuk should take down all illegal buildings. They should monitor the factory buildings all the time whether they are at risks or not. There are government bodies and officials for monitoring this sort of problem. There are also laws regarding the construction of illegal buildings. But these laws are hardly enforced. Garment factory owners who fail to provide a safe working place for the workers should be charged and penalised to set examples.
Moreover, the civil engineer who designs the building should be honest and ensure the structure from the beginning till its final stage is stable; adding extra floors which are not approved in original plan must be strictly prohibited. When they approve some illegal multi storey buildings, accidents occur. It is high time to take necessary steps to save our workers because. We urge the government to make sure that the workers are safe at their working places and they do not lose their lives in factory fires or collapses.
Bangladesh University of Textiles
IN THIS present age, no country can make progress alone; every country has to take cooperation from other countries. Import and export of goods, services and technology are indispensable for sustainable development that needs foreign currencies. The garment and knit industry in Bangladesh is a major foreign currency earner. It has tremendous potential to develop further.
Garment and knitting factories have been contributing large employment to unskilled and semi-skilled, poor women and men. Mentionable small and medium enterprises got the opportunity to supply inputs to the industry. A good number of buying houses have developed that have contributed to employment generation.
But recent devastating factory fire and building collapses have created a situation that threatens the sustenance of the industry. Most factory buildings of garment and knit industry have not been designed and constructed by professional architects and civil engineers. The multi-storey factory buildings are not suitable to take load and vibration of power generators and other equipment and load of production inputs and labours. Fire safety is totally ignored in designing and constructing these factories.
The workers in the factories must be provided with safe environment at their workplaces. Factory buildings are to be designed and constructed by professional architects and engineers following government approved building codes and fire safety guidelines. Otherwise, devastating loss of valuable lives will keep happening as we saw in Rana Plaza collapse, Tazreen Fashions factory fire and in several other tragic mishaps. Issuance of export license should be subjected to production of architect and engineer’s certificate that the factory building has been designed and constructed following approved building codes and production of fire safety clearance certificate from government’s fire and civil defence department.
It is common that a factory building has a single narrow stair case. All the windows are blocked by steel grails to prevent workers from throwing garment material through windows illegally and collecting them later evading the eyes of management. As a result, during a fire accident, workers cannot escape.
When safe and properly designed factories buildings need to be constructed at different geographical locations, opportunity of operation, employment to un-skill and skill workers of different areas of people would be created.
After the collapse of Rana Plaza, the government formed a body to recommend re-fixation of wages of garment and knit industry workers. The government must also order its relevant department to impose safety regulations on all garment factories and lock down the buildings which violate the building construction codes and lack the necessary safety measures.
Md. Ashraf Hossain