Mahmudul H Sumon
Some recent industrial disasters in Bangladesh are not ‘accidents’ but instances of ‘criminal negligence’ leading to death and the destruction of many lives. They amount to criminal offences according to the law of the land. The owner class of business organisations is, however, often audacious enough to defend these events as ‘accidents’, as if no one had a hand in it. In one forum, organised by an international non-governmental organisation in Dhaka for worker’s rights, I had the misfortune of witnessing an appallingly audacious remark made by a business tycoon, who claimed not only that ‘accidents’ will happen no matter how good the inspection regimes were (the forum was held precisely at a time when the Bangladesh Accord was newly introduced) but also emphasised the need for ‘self-governance’. The business tycoon in question, it is not a coincidence perhaps, owned one of the largest garment industry groups of the country.
Legal scholars often talk about different types of justice. Commonly, they are: distributive, procedural, retributive, and restorative (remedial). Retributive justice appeals to the idea that people deserve to be treated in the same way they treat others. It justifies punishment as a response to past injustice or wrongdoing. Immediately after the Tazreen fire in 2012 and the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, some remedial initiatives were taken up by various actors including government bodies, non-governmental organisations, brands and retailers. Several lawsuits bringing specific charges against factory owners and the building owner may fall within the ambit of retributive justice. In the wake of these initiatives, as activists and researchers we often wondered how hegemonic narratives of compensation, which may fall within the realm of restorative justice, replaced the idea of retributive justice (ie, the justice usually sought through prosecution and punishment).
At the first hearing of a public interest litigation writ petition filed by Activist Anthropologist, a research and activist collective, Delwar Hossain, the owner of the Tazreen factory, remarked outside the courtroom that he was hopeful the case would not be able to do anything to him. ‘I have given money to all the affected workers,’ he said on that occasion. The factory owner thought that since he had paid the compensation amount stipulated by the national law — that is Tk 100,000 (close to $1200) for each death (the amount has been doubled recently) — he and his management were done with their responsibilities. As if there was no need to ask about the circumstances in which all those workers died, went missing or wounded themselves. As if there was no need to ask why the collapsible gates were closed or why there were no fire exits in the first place. Activist voices also often get caught up with discourses of compensation, to the neglect of broader structural issues and questions of criminal negligence. Such narrowing down and depoliticising are troubling as they expose the dominance of compensation discourses in a post-industrial disaster situation at the cost of other pressing voices, concerns and demands.
It is very saddening to note that most factory fires and building collapses that took place in Bangladesh throughout the last three decades have a recurrent pattern. In most of them, systemic negligence was found, faulty structures and carelessness of building owners and/or factory owners were reported, and gates were closed. In the case of Rana Plaza, for example, the news of cracks in the building was reported on television. With the latest Hashem Foods Limited fire, which killed 52 workers including children, a shockingly similar story has now emerged. True, Hashem Foods Limited in Narayanganj was not an apparel factory, as the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association and its associates were quick to point out (the body being very susceptible to the idea that activists spread false propaganda against them). But, what about the government? What is their official reaction to the situation? Can they get away so easily?
A quick look back at the period after the collapse of Rana Plaza reveals that the Bangladesh government (ie, the ministry of commerce and the ministry of labour and employment) at that time was busy responding to different demands of the European Union and the United States. Curiously, the US embassy in Dhaka made a lot of noises. It called to bring in changes in the labour law for classical issues of labour unionism such as freedom of association of the workers and to ease the rules for the export processing zones so that worker’s rights could be protected. The government in the face of pressure seemed to have responded to these demands. It was reflected in some of the amendments brought to the labour law in 2013. According to government documents, the main areas of concern for the amendments have been workers’ safety, welfare, rights and the promotion of trade unionism and collective bargaining. During the amendment of the labour law, the government reported a total of 76 section amendments and the incorporation of eight new sections. It also brought changes to the laws for the export processing zones, introducing the concept of unionisation at such production sites, which previously remained ignored. Transnational rights groups involved with global garments production were also instrumental in introducing the issue of safety and structural integrity of factories through the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance in the aftermath of Rana Plaza. When it comes to regulations in the sector, some of the initiatives were seen as a transition from the previous voluntary to binding standards.
A Berlin conference in 2015 titled ‘Strategies for the Improvement of Working Conditions Within Global Supply Chains’ had a session titled ‘From voluntary to binding standards’ fully dedicated to discussing the safety accord in Bangladesh. As a participant of that conference, I recall an enormous level of enthusiasm surrounding the Bangladesh Accord amongst its transnational organisers. The level of enthusiasm, however, was not matched by the conference’s other participants from South Asia. Although initially lauded by all quarters, with time elapsing and memory fading, the situation changed for the Bangladesh Accord. The remediation requirements enforced by the Accord were not eventually welcomed by the owners and trade bodies, particularly the BGMEA. ‘Voices’, often in the form of writing or other mediums (ie, discussion sessions or workshops, for example) organised by the factory owning elite in Dhaka, appeared to be increasingly critical of the effort at a time when the Accord was well into its operation in the country.
Lately, the factory regulatory bodies of Bangladesh are dealing with a parallelism unknown before the development in the apparel sector that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. Although technically under the government, garments factories in recent years have been exposed to transnational organising and multi-stakeholder initiatives with a heavy emphasis on what is often called ‘hybrid’ governance in global production network literature. Worker’s voices and representation in such processes have been kept to a minimum. When it comes to garments production, the government’s ability to stick to a decision on simple things like declaring holidays for the workers of the garments industry along with all other workers of the country was tested several times during the pandemic and on several other occasions. It was blatantly clear that business interests and demands prevailed over government policies and decisions. Frictions between business interests and the government, while being classic examples of the effect of neoliberal policy, also reveals what it means for citizen’s rights and worker’s rights, and how citizen’s rights are withdrawn in the current state we live in (the list of citizen’s rights being denied is getting longer and longer with the passing of each day in today’s Bangladesh, the draconian Digital Security Act and helmets being just two much talked about tools among many others). It calls into question the very functionality of the state in the traditional sense of the term. The latest factory fire, in a local food factory, exposed the cracks in the system and the need for a state-based solution once again. It showed, first and foremost, the need for political will and the need for the enforcement of relevant laws and for creating an environment of justice. (Of course, I am fully aware that such calls may sound unfashionable to some. What is ‘political will’ after all in neoliberalism? It is all business, some may say.) Otherwise, familiar scenes of the ‘structure of negligence’ in Bangladeshi industries will continue year after year.
After receiving the compensation for his sister who died in the Tazreen fire, Matiqul Islam, a young man in his 30s at the time said, ‘I have received the money, but haven’t abandoned my demand for Delwar [Hossain]’s punishment [owner of the Tazreen factory]. The struggle for compensation has ended, but I will continue to fight’ (cited in Sumon, Shifa and Gulrukh 2017). Such calls for justice are not hard to find amongst the survivors of the collapse of Rana Plaza amongst whom we have conducted interviews in recent months. What is worrying is that sometimes they get lost in an overwhelming discourse of compensation. To change this discourse, democratisation is needed and our activist and research practices should make sure that the ‘small voices’ crying for retributive justice are heard in the upper echelons of power.
Mahmudul H Sumon teaches at the Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University. The current piece was first published in the Daily New Age’s anniversary supplement.