I cry, you cry: A manufacturer’s perspective

 Published in: The Daily Star on April 25, 2005
I cry, you cry: A manufacturer’s perspective

History may say “alas” but cannot help or pardon…my very favourite line from W H Auden’s ‘Spain 1937’ haunts me at 39 minutes past midnight on the first day of Baishakh. I lack what it takes tonight to call a dear one up and wish him or her a very happy new year. In plain words, I don’t think the city can afford to wear a festive look this night as a harrowing incident which happened three days back at a factory in Savar, ought to be sending shivers down our spine.

Yet are we architects or qualified engineers , equipped with sufficient knowledge to challenge what our chosen consultants advise us and load us with? Are our architects, consultants accountable to RAJUK or the government? Are there measures taken against them if they go wrong somewhere? What is the case here today? An aggrieved or a negligent client or a sloppy contractor turned engineer?

My visit to the site of Spectrum Sweaters today was riddled with grief, shock, tears, and wrath. As allergic as I am towards spotlight and the high profile concept, I happen to see cameras everywhere, reporters in every corner trying to capture the winning moment — a single close up shot of a grief stricken mother and gradually trying to stretch the thread of the story from there. I was quietly touching such a woman’s shoulders this afternoon, who was wailing about having lost her son in the disaster. She probably has lost him as there were no more bodies recovered today. My camera failed me, I stashed my pen away and looked at her pain closely and felt hapless and helpless at the same time. No sooner had I done this, a reporter had rushed towards this woman and was photographing her , taking the closest of shots that were capturing the lines on her face that bore the inevitable traces of an incomparable tragedy. I hold no grievance against that journalistic brilliance, but what disappointed me was when the reporter, who belongs to the same media world which is responsible for so many good pieces that make and change lives for the better, moves away from the scene as soon as the shot has been captured and not a word has been said to the woman and not even a hug has been spared to give her some solace.

It’s often easy to blame manufacturers for lack of compliance and, of course, it’s always easy to blame wealth and comfort as the evil twins of the manufacturing world. Stories of garment manufacturers making it from the supervisor level upto the position of a CEO of a company and the hard work, the sweat invested behind it all go unheard. All that is in focus today is how “greedy” these manufacturers are and how quickly can a few organisations move to drum up enough propaganda to make the headlines and that, too, at the cost of a genuine suffering of a few hundred people, capitalising the ordeal and the pain of the working class and by creating sensation around the globe, shattering our every possible chance of any free trade agreement utopia that we may have been nurturing and have been working at for quite some time now!

I say with regret today that very few concrete suggestions have been made to the manufacturers as to how to overcome and face infrastructural challenges that the public sector should be taking care of. I know not of any single exporter of garments who has the time or the experience to study his structural design of his building. The premises, therefore, that serve as our factory units should bear the safety seal of the building inspectors who should be appointed by the establishment so that some of our responsibilities are shared by relevant quarters.

The exporter who has to abide by the local labour laws, listen and act according to the buyers’ requirements, keep the best interest of the workers on mind, and at the same time ensure timely salary and overtime packets within the 7th day of every month also lives in fear lest another negative coverage crops up along the way. I wonder which specie on earth gets critiqued and scrutinised this way as much as we exporters are. With WTO spirit of free trade unleashed on the globe, with China and its 1500-1700 per cent growth in exports in two major categories, as much as we are trying to survive by our own merits and capabilities, we also need the help of media, the public sector and the understanding of our partners who are in trade with us for the last couple of years .Little pieces of news which carry the threat of buyers withdrawing or placing less quantities in Bangladesh because of an accident like that happened in Savar upset our better judgement. Therefore, partners placed in Dhaka, representing foreign retailers need to kindly look at scenario like this from all angles. Labour organisations can play a major role beyond the general complaint approach and rather help the industry form a meaningful code of conduct. Media can search for happy trade stories and can launch campaigns like a couple of dailies have done in social and health areas. Every bit will help, I know.

“An accident cannot certainly be a crime” was a statement that was aptly put together by a long time architect friend, Iqbal Habib of Vitti. We were all discussing ‘today’ and strangely my friend and I had visited the site on the same day, on the last day of the old Bengali year. Both of us agreed that what follows the accident must be carefully handled or else that has all the possibility to turn into a crime. Shahriyar, the owner of the building and the business had allotted taka six lac to be spent for the workers on pohela baishakh this time..Every year, Shahriyar, apparently follows the same routine, keeps close contact with his workers, pays their salary packets on time. To top it all, the workers of the day shift were quick to tell me that their owner was a great guy and lacked no sincerity or good intent. I believed them completely simply because they could not have been lying on the face of such a tragedy where they had lost their long time co-workers/comrades and above all, one supervisor was also in tears complaining to me about a dryer that had been damaged by the army who were carrying out the rescue operations. Little did he seem to understand that it was the same army team that was risking health and courage and was fighting its way through the debris, just to save lives.

These innocent surviving workers are still bleeding for the owner who had provided them their food and security for the last couple of years. Then where did Shahriyar go wrong? By perhaps not providing the structural plan immediately after the accident for the fear of being incriminated on accounts of unauthorised construction? This is where most of us go wrong. By trying to cover a mistake, we put more piles on top of that rubbish and try and live with that error..hoping that time, money, clout and power will be sufficient to cover our traces of a bad conscience. A simple architectural dig revealed that the building had collapsed from the foundation level where the columns have been joined to the flat slabs and were not secured by beams. As a result, the columns have skidded off their original position and have remained intact where as the flat slabs have come crashing in from the lower levels and therefore the ruin wears a slope towards the north eastern direction of the site. The upper floors , at that point, turned to being a load itself and fell on the lower levels and hence the disaster.

The much talked about boiler explosion took place much later after the floors came crashing in, snapping the steam line. Moreover, the building was at the mercy of the canal on which it was built. There were options like shore piling which could have been used for the construction and was not. There must have been a couple of slips between the cup and the lip and some of them are direct results of the negligence of the owner, but there are other people, other agencies who are also majorly responsible for this tragedy and may they never escape the wrath of the affected families.

A simple statistics will give a worthy jolt to all our sensibilities and understanding.

China has an unofficial record of 144000 industrial deaths over 2003-2004 whereas the official figure stands at an untrue 14000. These deaths are mostly happenings at the coal mines and the local textile units. How many times have we heard these stats? Not very many times at all ! Yet, Bangladesh, over a period of last 15 years(1990-2005),with 115 factories suffering fire incidents, with number of deceased workers standing at 155,with total compensation given to successors being taka 61,09000.00,with compensation given by BGMEA being taka 33,09,000 and the compensation given by the factory authority being taka 28,00,000.00 is not really a pathetic picture. I dare say this, risking the anger and brutal criticism of those who are , anyway, very critical of our apparently ‘money rich’ existence. But let’s face it…

which public or private sector in Bangladesh can boast of an expensive price tag attached to the lives of their workers? Which developing economy has ever cared for those at the bottom and has ever bled?

But, most certainly, the argument above does not serve as a plea for pardon.

The lives lost, the families distressed definitely deserve a closer call. Question is : who is to take the responsibility to raise awareness amongst the owner class?

A humble suggestion of mine made to the president of BGMEA was simply to have at least a couple of hundred manufacturers visit the site and pay respect to the departed souls. At this he responded saying that it was difficult to even get so many owners to get to the site.

Another suggestion of mine was to form a fund which could take in donations from all factories and I suggested that the charity may kindly begin at home by offering a meager sum myself. To this he replied saying that raising funds on a voluntary basis could be very difficult.

All of it is true. As much as the media focuses on scoops that are negative and easy to live by, as much as the private sector finds its love affair with the establishment fading, as much as the organisations that issue statements with only the intent of incriminating the owner side..we owners too, have not done justice to ourselves or our own credibility. By risking our reputation while avoiding small safety issues, by trying to make our kill at the cost of excessive hours of work, we have endangered our fair rights to appreciation and respect.

Was it not this garment trade which gave rise to a special class of entrepreneurs who have, for the last thirty years fought and positively faced all challenges?

A little bit of awareness and a little bit of focus on the compliance issues combined with a little humanism will certainly do magic for our sector. I carefully choose the word “little” as I cannot afford a dream of being too optimistic.

Let Spectrum sweaters be a lesson learnt for all of us.

And most importantly, may the 12:30 explosion on the early hours of the 11th of April along with the cries of the hundreds of lives trapped inside, trouble our spirit long enough to take all measures to protect, value and respect lives which directly contribute to our existence.

These workers ,for us, are next to God.

Let neither God, nor this lesson be ever forgotten and let caution, prudence, and care for these workers bless our lives and livelihood.

Rubana Huq is managing director, Mohammadi group, exporter of ready made garments.

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