Nothing left about it: Factory fires and the Awami League-Industrial Complex

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tazreem wreckage

 

The deadly Tazreen factory fire last year shocked many but is sadly not an isolated incident. This piece examines the alarming behaviour of a government that proclaims socialism. 

The most deadly factory fire in national history

Fire broke out on 24 November 2012, in the Tazreen Fashion factory in the Ashulia district on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. At least 117 people were confirmed dead in the fire, and at least 200 were injured, making it the deadliest factory fire in the nation’s history. In the month after Tazreen, there were an additional 17 fires in Bangladesh garment factories that killed one worker and injured dozens more. Two months later, on January 26, 2013, there was another fire, which killed seven female workers.

These are not isolated incidents. The neglect of worker’s rights and lack of investigation into sectoral labour conditions by the Bangladeshi government in the wake of such accidents indicates a lack of political will to implement labour laws. Instead of enforcing regulations upon the politically influential factory owners and acknowledging the weakness of the government emergency response, the current administration has been quick to claim these tragic events as acts of sabotage, linking them to opposition groups and tensions around the ongoing international war crimes tribunals.

An export sector in trouble

The garments sector makes up nearly 80% of the country’s export income. The country has more than 5,000 factories employing more than 4 million workers and among them approximately 80% are women, many working in hazardous social conditions. It has been a major source of employment for rural migrant women in a country that has increasingly limited rural livelihood options, and where women migrants have been largely excluded from formal work in the cities.

In the Tazreen factory incident, Associated Press reported that 69 victims were found on the second floor. Witnesses reported that workers had been unable to escape through the narrow exits. Twelve of the victims died leaping from windows to escape the flames. The fire department’s operations manager stated that the factory lacked emergency exits that led out of the building.

There have been claims and counterclaims, carried by local and international media, with factory owners and government officials claiming sabotage and workers claiming negligence. The international linkages of the case drew attention, with the office of the US Trade Representatives using the incident as one trigger to review the preferential access given in the US market to textile goods from Bangladesh. In the media, Tazreen was framed as a sectorally isolated incident, focusing narrowly on the important issues of worker’s rights and building control while not scrutinising the wider connections and impacts in society at large.

Political duck and cover

To better understand the Tazreen fire, we can look at an earlier deadly blaze in the same industrial district of Ashulia. A factory owned by the Hameem Group caught alight in December 2010, killing 26 people. As in Tazreen, there were immediate claims and counterclaims of negligence and sabotage from the factory’s workers and owners.

The Hameem group is an industrial conglomerate making garments for household brands including Next, Tesco, Walmart and Marks and Spencer’s. It also has media subsidiaries such as the Daily Samakal and Channel 24. Its illustrious owner, Abul Kalam Azad, is also the president of Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), the leading trade body in the country.

Prime Minister Hasina Wajid, backed the factory owner’s version of events. She declared the fire an act of sabotage, pointing to an unexplained shadowy ‘vested quarter’. She directed the authorities concerned to examine whether traces of gunpowder could be found among the causes of the fire in Hameem’s factory. If the fire was caused by a short-circuit it would not spread so quickly, she said, before continuing by linking the fire to the pending ICT war crimes tribunals, and the supporters of Jamaat and BNP. Again, in a charged mournful setting, leadership was found to be lacking.

An in-depth investigation and reportby the US-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR), published in March 2011 contested the version of events given by the Hameem Group and supported by the government. The report rejects the notion of sabotage and puts the blame of the fire and deaths squarely at the feet of the factory owners. The report found that security guards were ordered to lock exit gates during a fire to prevent the theft of garments in the chaos. The emergency response was found technically lacking, with fire-fighters’ ladders too short, and unable to reach the 9th, 10th and 11th floors of the building. Disturbingly, the management continues to illegally outlaw unions at the Hameem factory foreclosing the very mechanism by which better working conditions could be negotiated. Despite this the party in government professes socialism, but has no interest in advocating worker’s rights. It is happy to protect the privileges of its corporate backers.

Two years on from 2010, nothing had been learned and the same mistakes were being made, leading to the tragedy of Tazreen. Just like in 2010, the authorities, instead of looking for facts on the ground and interviewing workers, instinctively reacted with the stock answers of sabotage, linked to Jamaat bogeymen and the war crimes tribunals. The IGLHR published a rejection of Tazreen’s sabotage defence, determining the cause of the fire as criminal negligence on the part of the factory owners.

The business of ensuring no opposition

The current regime has consistently refused to implement the EPZ Labour Law that allows workers to establish “welfare councils” to negotiate with employers in Export Processing Zones. Instead of addressing workers safety and conditions, the government uses security forces to suppress workers demonstrations using the spectre of Jamaat sabotage to legitimise the use of security forces to intervene harshly in labour disputes.

A typical example of security force brutality was on 25th March 2012 when over 100 people were injured as workers of two garment factories at the Ishwardi EPZ clashed with law enforcers. Police in riot gear fired over 100 rubber bullets at the angry crowd and lobbed several canisters of tear gas to scare away the workers, said witnesses.

This indifferent attitude of the government and its leadership towards the deteriorating workers conditions, has been picked up by the New York Times, Here the government is reported to have resisted expanding labour rights in a country where the owners of about 5,000 garment factories wield enormous influence. Factory owners are major party donors and have moved into news media, buying newspapers and television stations. Roughly two-thirds of MPs belong to the country’s three biggest business associations. At least 30 factory owners or their family members hold seats in Parliament, about 10 percent of the total. “Politics and business is so enmeshed that one is kin to the other,” said Iftekharuzzaman, director of Transparency International Bangladesh. “There is a coalition between the sector and people in positions of power. The negotiating position of the workers is very, very limited.”

In return for providing political cover, the government receives uncritical support from their corporate textile partners, through their media subsidiaries and trade bodies. In the case of the Hameem group and its owner A K Azad’s media subsidiaries, the Daily Samakal and Channel 24, it has provided that support for the government and its political programmes. This is a trend replicated by other private TV channel owners who also have an interest in the textile industry and private industry in general.

In his capacity as chair of the FBCCI, Mr A K Azad has even led the trade body to take the unusual step of supporting the Awami League’s move to proscribe its political opponents, calling the Jamaat a terrorist group, a particularly partisan position.

There is no comfortable explanation for this attitude of wilful neglect of worker’s rights and conditions, particularly by an Awami League with the founding principles of socialism and social justice. The convergence of the political interests of the government and corporate interests that dominate the country’s textile industry is a daunting yet necessary complex to challenge and reform.

Beyond cynical Socialism

The traditional, if Eurocentric, dichotomy of left and right needs to be abandoned when analysing and addressing social justice in Bangladesh. The party in government professes socialism but has no interest in anything other than protecting the privileges of its corporate backers.  The work of improving the lot of the working poor should go beyond the tired slogans of the political elite. Slogans are just another means of integrating people into the logic of industrial malpractice and bringing about conformity with that system.

A grounded approach targets the means by which people deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. This was the approach of the late labour leader Aminul Islam, and remains that of many other, who risk their lives on a daily basis to help workers affect change in their working lives and environments. For all of us interested in social justice, our support should extend to those on the front line rather than the ideologues and gatekeepers that occupy the airwaves and corridors of power.

To quote Paulo Freire, “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”

Source: The Khichuri