The latest number of casualty from the Savar Massacre of 2013 due to the collapse of a 9-story building known as Rana Plaza (owned by Sohel Rana, a stalwart of the local branch of the Jubo League, an affiliate of Awami League which heads the current ruling coalition) exceeds 700 as of this writing! It is likely to go up, as many still remain unaccounted, their relatives desperately hoping for miracles. List of injured had passed 1,000 mark soon after the collapse; not sure any one is keeping tabs on that any longer. The rising toll keeps pushing our sense towards numbness and our patience to breaking the point.
Communist Party of Bangladesh Chairman Mujahidul Islam Selim in an article published in the (Bengali) Daily Itefaq on May 6, 2013, argues that this should be treated as a massacre, which subsumes deliberateness of the act/incident that is the proximate cause of this horrific tragedy. This characterization, widely accepted by the public, implicates Mr. Sohel as the responsible party for probably the biggest single event of killing in Bangladesh, not including the many lives claimed by natural disaster such as cyclone, flood, etc. For non-legal persons, not familiar with all the arguments that most likely be made by Mr. Rana’s legal team to save his neck when this case arrives in front of a judge (hope it does so at a faster pace), Selim’s contention seems very reasonable. However, the culpability-net actually is spread much wider.
One indication that indeed it is so is the spectacle of the vigorous blame avoidance game that has started. There is the remarks by the Home Minister (“…the building collapsed because some hartal supporters were shaking the pillars…”), the Finance Minister ( “… it is not really that serious…”), and other such utterances, fatalism at best, excuses at worst. But the most remarkable avoidance of responsibility was by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself during her interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN International. Looking like a deer caught in the head-lights, under Amanpour’s tough questioning, Mrs. Hasina looked baffled, and as often happens, tried to cover her failures with arrogance. Perhaps PM did not realize that even if her government was successful in keeping CNN out of Bangladesh, these veteran journalists are used to dealing with governments and leaders trying to obstruct information gathering, and know that they do so to save their behinds. CNN had their sources, and figured out the net-work & nexus of politicians, parties, pimps and principals involved in the crime. So, it did not impress Amapour or anyone else that PM very proudly mentioned some ‘labor policy’ she has crafted; clearly it did not save the lives of 700(+) people, nor those who died in fire at the Tarzin Factory in November 2012. From comments such as ‘accidents happen’, ‘these things happen in America, too’, etc., one has to wonder if she is aware how blatant and bloody minded she is in her refusal to take responsibilities of the basic duties of a government in a modern society (even if it is hard to designate Bangladesh as ‘modern’, having to live in a modern world, the expectations are the same). She also vehemently denied, as she often does, any association of Mr. Rana with Awami League (while according to newspaper report, immediately after the collapse, Savar Jubo League unit quickly disbanded itself!); she seems to have this unique gift of being able to deny that the sun is not out, while it is shining directly on her! Her lack of contrition was remarkably brutal; instead of mumbling ‘I am so sorry’, one expected her to take the full responsibility for the tragedy, since that is supposed to be her Job No. 1, protecting the people, from external attacks as well as internal ones. Even in a starkly class divided society, the state is supposed to protect workers and citizens from unscrupulous, bloody-minded, criminality prone, goonda protected low-lifers known as garment industry owners in Bangladesh. These are the people who consider the workers ‘beggar women’ who do not deserve any better than the pittance they get as wages, so that they and their multi-national masters can extract super profits from the blood and sweat of the ‘beggar women’.
Hasina and her counterpart in BNP Khaleda Zia, are constitutionally incapable of contrition, such is the girth of their egos, and so brazen are they in protecting the financiers of their political ambitions and hunger for power. It does not help being surrounded by sycophants, who would not advise her to speak in Bengali (what happened to the pride in Bangla, Ekushe February, etc.?) instead of English and to use an interpreter, as most world leaders who are non-native speakers of English, do. Or was it a deliberate decision to do the interview in English, knowing full well her limited ability in it, but hoping it would give her cover and help hide her and her government’s massive failure? Given the deviousness that permeates Bangladesh’s political culture, nothing can be ruled out! Notable was also the foolishness of Amanpour invoking the observation of the Pope (that garment industry employs slave-workers) to a Muslim woman, who is trying her damndest to be on the good side of Bangladesh Taliban, and the PM having no clue of the importance of the pontiff in world public opinion, crated surreal moment during the interview! A propos, it is important to notice how disengaged the so called protectors of Islam are from the miseries of the working people: but that is not is not surprising, given that they are more concerned about the afterlife, that they have no concern about how one gets there, crushed under a building or otherwise. They are too busy trying to impose Sharia law by killing police, burning vehicles and causing mayhem all-around the country.
Hasina’s interview demonstrated how miserably the state and government of Bangladesh failed the garment workers in Savar. What did not come up is that these poor souls have been treated the same by BNP & AL governments, because both having been financed by different segment of the same cabal, are bough-up by the capitalists. The garment industry is well represented in the Parliament (30 to 35 are associated with the garment industry as owners or their agents) making sure no steps are taken that may reduce the profit margin). It is safe to say that capitalism, in its crudest form, is well entrenched in Bangladesh; that it is indeed the ruling class; and that the state is a wholly owned subsidiary of the ruling class. Along with Rana Sohel & the garment industry owners, Hasina, Khaleda, the minions that cow-tow to them, the bureaucrats, all have on their hands the blood of those who were smashed under that building.
Though not directly responsible, the so called civil society failed miserably as well. It is not unknown to them the contradictory aspects of the lives of the garment workers: that their labor-power produce the surplus that brings major portion of the hard currency, while they are denied sufficient wages to feed themselves enough so that they can reproduce their ability to do the same next day. No, they do not die off immediately, but they are depleted as human beings; some resort to other professions, including prostitution, to make ends meet. Yet the guardians of civility could find no way to influence the government policy, impress upon owners that the workers should be treated humanely, that they need and deserve more than the equivalent of $38.50 a month wages (on the average) to live on. I suppose these are not the “revolutionary intellectuals” Marx’s had hoped for to take the side of the working class! The intellectual community used to have an independent critical role in the society, but then, they used to be hungry a lot more; it seems in full stomach, independence is harder. Given the ambient political-economy, it is safer to attach oneself to one or the other centers of power and sources of funding and remain neutral, workers and the poor be damned.
The failure of a subgroup, the professional organization of engineers, is particularly disturbing. These entities are supposed to establish standards, specifications, inspection, reporting protocols, and above all enforcement requirements for ensuring safety and integrity in the construction industry. They are supposed to raise hell when authorities fail to enforce fundamental rules of engineering, supposed to bring to the attention of the public, and more so to the workers, the risk involved in flouting laws of physics, e.g., of the dangers of working in shoddily built buildings. The engineering professional organizations in Bangladesh can not absolve themselves of their failure in the death of those who worked in Rana Plaza.
In the aftermath of this disaster, the need for unions have been talked about, curiously enough, even by defenders of capitalist economy. Everyone seems to agree that unions could ‘bargain’ a better deal for the workers. Even Amanpour brought up the issue, challenging Hasina on the treatment of trade unions, pointing to the abduction and killing of garment industry labor leader. Hasina proudly pointed out that her government found his dead body: it did not look good; you do not take credit for the easy job of finding a dead body, while fail to protect people from being assassinated in the first place!
The failure of the trade unions is very disturbing and exposes a sad reality of the working poor. While the World Bank and other such self-serving institutions extol the great economic achievement of Bangladesh, they have nothing in their toolbox to reflect the miserable condition of the poor in Bangladesh under which they are forced to work, and make the statistics look good. Majority of today’s workers in Bangladesh, especially the female workers, are in the true sense, proletariats: they have literally nothing but their labor power to sell to who will buy it from them. And in view of the multitude that are in the same boat, with the help of a state that is under their thumb, the capitalist class can and do keep the wages as low as it enable them to attract global capitalists in search of slave-labor, and guarantee of super profit in return. Such an environment helps to create a great sense of insecurity, which in turn helps to make the workers shun the unions. And then there is the kidnapping and assassination of anyone who tries to organize the workers in spite of the road blocks put up by the owners and their hired guns, the state apparatus. Perhaps in more tragic way than usual, the female garment workers of Bangladesh are the real faces of global finance capital’s ‘success story’.
This has to change. Most importantly, the working class in Bangladesh has to organize itself, and do so beyond traditional trade unionism. They must be involved in national politics, must learn how to manage factories, affairs of the state, the economy, society and culture, so that when the time comes, and hope they push for it to be sooner rather than later, they can lead the society transition to a socialist country, as was the promise of the Liberation of 1971. But they need help: and you know who you are, about your historical role in that transition. Please step forward!