Report on the rubble

 Published in: The Daily Star on February 3, 2014
Report on the rubble

THE pretty 25 year-old Moina from Potia thana still reminisces about her lovely lunchtime with her colleagues, who stayed trapped for three days; 25 year-old Sonia from Gaibandha, who a team of eighteen people rescued after her leg was finally chopped off after the third try…still smiles; 23 year- old Laboni from Gaibandha, who lost her leg, today just wants to just go home and continue with sewing. There are many more amputees who have lived through hell; there are many stories that still need to be told. Amidst memory, recollection, interviews and records, how does this nation of ours heal collectively?
The global news on textiles isn’t encouraging. Chinese companies are investing heavily in Punjab, where a new garments industrial zone is being set up. An MOU between the Punjab government and a Chinese group for a $2 billion dollar investment is only a starting point, while other Chinese companies are now set to eye the region’s textile sector. According to the Union Textile Minister of India, Kavuru Sambasiva Rao, India’s annual production of textile goods is expected to increase to $220 billion by 2020.
Cambodia is the only country that seems to be faring as poorly as ourselves, where on January 26, eight people were injured at a rally organised by nine unions and associations asking the government to free 23 arrested workers.
So, do we have any good news at all at our end? Yes, we do. An International Trade Expo on Building and Fire safety, organised by BGMEA and alliance and supported by Accord, IFC, Elevate, C&A Foundation, is taking place in February. And yes, we have moved forward by recruiting 41 new labour inspectors. In spite of “tumbling backwards” falling “far short of international standards,” as per Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, and notwithstanding HRW’s observations on trade unions not having made progress, post-Rana plaza scene not being too satisfactory and their observation on “toxic” working conditions, Bangladesh has actually made substantial progress starting from May 2013 till date.
In a recent report, questions have been raised on why only 777 workers out of 1,135 received Tk.1.5 lakh from PM’s fund; why ‘insignificant’ compensation was being offered to the 1,800 injured; why the PM’s fund had disbursed only Tk.18.85 crore from a fund which probably had more than Tk.100 crore; why only 40 have received the Tk.15 lakh fund that the government had promised to the seriously injured. There are reports on how out of 25 steps only 12 have taken shape and how the rest have failed. Really? How feasible was it to have set such a long-term expectation based on the ground realities, which involve procedural formalities and norms that bind the national and international organisations?
Questions were also raised about why only 70 workers out of 100 were given jobs by BGMEA. Out of 3,572 victims, according to the report, BGMEA had given Tk.7.06 crore whereas in reality, when one adds up the figure rests at Tk.13.58 crore. There were orphans and pregnant women being helped out as well. Requests were made to be transparent about funds being received from the international entities whereas, in reality, not a dime has been received by the sector. However, as manufacturers, we continue receiving regular notices from BGMEA on what more could be done for the victims of Rana Plaza and their families. So, things have changed. Not only are we on our toes trying to get a positive audit rating of all our factories by fixing our cracks and closing our fault lines, most of us are actually taking a hard look at ourselves and at our CSR levels and thinking about what more could be done at this point of time.
I often wonder about the level of aggression and lack of empathy. While donations from local partners are being referred to in reports, the contribution from BGMEA ends up sounding like a contribution from the Rich Boys’ Club instead of the manufacturers’ donations. While routine dissections are done on the sector, a lot is spoken about what has not been done and not so much about what has been done so far.
While all this is being weighed, as a member of the manufacturing sector, I can only appeal to the judgment of the civil society and ask them to kindly consider that most of us do not leave our phones on silent mode at night. We breathe and sleep in fear. In case there’s a call late at night, we know that darkness is courting disaster and by the crack of dawn our factories may end up in ash. Even mornings end up with mixed messages. Desks aren’t that busy anymore. Most of us are pursuing clients with new samples and new prices. The race to the bottom is far from over. With fewer clients coming in, and fewer orders being placed, it’s time for us to chase the rainbow, yet once again.
There are just too many fingers being pointed towards the RMG sector. Including our own. It’s almost as if we are using boomerangs to kill ourselves. Let’s not talk about conspiracy theory anymore. Let’s just call it plain and simple harakiri. We are slitting our own bellies open and inviting a feast at the expense of a critically injured sector. Question is, what do we do next? Where do we go from here?

The writer is MD, Mohammadi Group.