*Some pictures included in this article are mildly graphic. However, I don’t believe in sugarcoating reality and I feel that these stark photos are worth seeing.*
You know those moments where you remember exactly where you were when you first learned of a world-changing or life altering event? Most people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first learned of the 9/11 attacks or heard that the Berlin Wall had fallen. For me, today marks the first anniversary of one of those moments.
Exactly one year ago, I was sitting in my Dhaka classroom, marking some papers with a neon-purple pen and drinking coffee from my well-worn coffee thermos when I glimpsed the headline: Scores Dead in Bangladesh Building Collapse on the New York Times website. As I read on and quickly explored other sites, I learned that the collapse had been in Savar, a scruffy industrial town thirteen kilometers from Dhaka that I had explored only a week before. The headlines flashing across my lap-top screen struck closer to home than most major disasters I’d ever seen on the news as I could easily picture the drab concrete block of buildings where Rana Plaza was located.
Initially, casualty estimates were in the dozens and my thoughts immediately turned to the Tazreen Factory fire that had killed over a hundred garment workers a few months earlier. In that case, workers had literally been locked inside the factory, ordered to continue work by their managers and were unable to escape the smoke. Those deaths were easily preventable and directly reflected lax safety standards in Bangladeshi RMG factories.
I was also well aware of the complex backdrop to the unfolding disaster. It has been well documented that safety standards in Bangladeshi factories are lax, factory managers are often abusive thugs and ready-made garment (RMG) workers have no voice and few rights. Working hours are arduous, wages are low and life is hard for the approximately four million people employed in the industry.
But this tragedy was different.
Within a few hours of the collapse appalling details of the catastrophe began to emerge. Large cracks in load-bearing walls had appeared and strange creaking noises had been heard in the building the day before and an engineer had ordered the building vacated. Then, on the morning of April 24th, after being threatened with the loss of their jobs, more than three thousand garment workers entered a building they knew was unsafe and began their work. The pattern of callous disregard for human life was clearly apparent yet again. A few hours later, the cracked walls gave way and the Rana Plaza crumbled.
That night, Dani and I watched the news with horror as more details emerged and more bodies were recovered. As the scale of the disaster increased, I realized that the comfort of my living room was only a few kilometers away from the largest industrial disaster in all of human history.
We also quickly learned that Rana Plaza primarily produced clothing for Loblaw’s low cost clothing line Joe Fresh, a staple among budget shoppers in Atlantic Canada. My wife has Joe Fresh clothing manufactured in Bangladesh and purchased in Halifax hanging in her wardrobe here in Dhaka. My wife and I frequently browsed through Joe Fresh on our way to the check-out at the Fredericton or Sackville Superstores. The knowledge that Rana Plaza was fabricating clothing with such a close connection to my little corner of Canada created an unsettling connection between my two homes and two lives.
As the days and hours ticked by and heartrending images of the rescue effort spread over TV screens and websites around the world, I became emotionally involved with the crisis, albeit on a fairly private level. When I found myself alone, I rejoiced with the discovery of new survivors and literally screamed in rage and cried tears of anger when the Bangladeshi government, a corrupt, bloated entity more concerned with saving face and gorging themselves on the inevitable aid money they knew would flood the country than the well-being of their own people, repeatedly denied offers of help from expert foreign rescue teams and specialized heavy equipment. The reasoning: the deployment of foreign assets would “damage Bangladesh’s national pride.”
In an even more despicable (and relatively unknown) attempt to save face, the government, in perhaps the most blatant exposé of its true character, ordered the ruins bulldozed less than 72 hours after the initial collapse, knowing full well that hundreds of garment workers were struggling for life underneath the rubble. Luckily, locals caught wind of the government scheme and almost lynched the drivers and officials attempting to implement the orders from the highest echelons of the Bangladeshi government.
I cannot begin to describe the raw emotions I felt and continue to feel when I think about the attempted massacre (no I don’t think that is too strong a word) at Rana Plaza. Not only were these workers abused by their employers and ignored by the world prior to the collapse; their own government attempted to murder them after tragedy struck.
Long before the final survivor was pulled from the rubble on May 11, fingers were pointed and the question of who to blame was being aggressively pursued and analyzed across global media outlets. Factory owners blamed western companies and vice versa. The question has yet to be fully resolved and no one has truly accepted the responsibility of rebuilding the lives of injured workers and the families who lost their wives, daughters and mothers in the disaster. Despite reading dozens of articles, blogs and official reports on the tragedy, I still really have no idea who should shoulder the real blame.
As of today, very little compensation has been distributed to the majority of grieving families and those who lost limbs or suffered other injuries in the factory collapse. Several hundred garment workers are still classified as “missing” by the government, and families are therefore ineligible to receive compensation. The human skulls and bones occasionally recovered by street-children playing in the wreckage are quickly confiscated and destroyed by police forces who state that they are not human bones; apparently a cow’s skull looks remarkably similar to that of a human (note the incredibly heavy dose of bitter sarcasm). Once again, the greedy cretins inhabiting the Bangladeshi government have clearly demonstrated an eagerness to avoid spending a few thousand dollars on compensation for the victims of tragedy in order to fill their grotesquely bloated personal coffers just a bit more.
At this point, I will pause and take a few deep breathes to avoid adding some real heat to this rant…………………………………………………………okay I’m good.
I often find myself at a loss for words at the things I hear and see in Bangladesh. One year on, I continue to learn new things about this tragedy that fill me with sadness and anger. However, I believe (and earnestly hope) that some positives will arise from this disaster in the long term. I believe that awareness of labor issues in Bangladesh has been raised internationally and I hope that in turn, retailers will slowly pay more attention and devote more resources to enforcing the labor policies already in place. I hope that the Bangladeshi youth, including many of my students, will see the astounding lack of regard for human life and dignity and will act in their adulthood to change this country from the inside out as they enter the business world and the political system.
Now to wrap up this behemoth-of-a-blog-post.
Elie Weisal said that “the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” Please do not be indifferent to the plight of garment workers in Bangladesh. Please do not ignore the pain experienced by the Rana Plaza victims and their families. Don’t switch the channel, scroll to a different website or immerse yourself in mindless entertainment to avoid the uncomfortable news broadcasts over the next few days. Learn about it, pray about it and if you feel strongly enough, act on it.
Thanks for reading.