The Rana Plaza Disaster: Self-portrait of The Nation

Collapsed Rana Plaza
Image source: A M Ahad/AP

by Jamuna

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajiun

Surely we belong to God, and surely to Him we return

The tragedy that has befallen the unfortunate souls of the Dhaka garment factory is shocking and betrays the human conscience. Much mourning is under way, as is the clamour for answers, recrimination, justice and transformation. For the record, it is important to outline here what is known so far, but also to make strategic observations that speak to the system as well as our different, active roles in maintaining that system.

At 9 in the morning of Wednesday 24th April, an eight story tower block in Savar, a short drive from Dhaka collapsed over the heads of more than 3000 people.  This has caused the deaths of officially 400, but potentially more than 1000, nearly all of whom were garments workers, the lions share of which are expected to be women. This, Bangladesh’s largest industrial disaster, came just five months to the day after the Tazreen factory fire which killed more than 117, and little more than a year after the torture and killing of garments worker organiser Aminul Islam. The episode provides a deadly and vivid self-portrait of the dangerous conditions, and the underlying structural causes of suffering that greet the working poor in plutocratic Bangladesh every day.

Apparently built upon a filled-in canal, as much of the first grade land in Bangladesh has already been built upon, the Rana Plaza building occupied a prime location in Savar, and was always going to have problems, especially as it was built three storeys over its building permit. The owner, against whom there are many allegations ranging from murder to smuggling and land theft, is said to have been warned a day before the disaster of the danger posed by cracks in the building, but shrugged them off. Further down the power chain, workers at the five garments factories were physically intimidated into work that day.

Wider society, both inside Bangladesh and outside, mourn in various ways, most through prayer, a few with the odd minute of silenceand perhaps all with not just a renewed sense of mortality, but also indignation and justice. What marks this time are the widespread sleepless nights experienced by fellow citizens connecting with the last moments, or days, of the powerless women and men lying under the mangled steel and concrete of the Rana Plaza. It would be irresponsible not to also mention that post-Shahbag and Long March, middle class guilt and political restlessness are at a local peak.

The mortality connection becomes deeper as the clear risk of Dhaka being wiped out by an earthquake lurks in the corner of the collective mind. The intention and efficacy of the millions spent on technocratic disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation to date should be examined, in light of the political, moral and institutional failures that The Rana Plaza Disaster represents. There is generally a serious lack of appreciation, even amongst the educated urban class, of health and safety in the built environment. Many building owners themselves live in blocks in breach of building regulations. They see building regulations and engineering constraints as unnecessary obstacles with little positive value.

Mirror mirror on the wall

While many optimistically see the spectacle of the deadly building collapse in Savar as an opportunity to change our collective ways, I see evidence, in the actions, inactions and excuse making, that the event is entrenching the worst in our nature.  From the Home Minister’s instinctive theorisation that the collapse was caused by opposition activists shaking the building’s pillars, to the columns of social media narcissists proffering ‘advice’ to the emergent and desperate rescue operation, from the photographers copyrighting images of the dead, to technocrats depoliticising the situation with words like compliance. The disaster response reinforces the causes of the disaster itself.

Although dominant in our politics, terrorism and gangsterism are surprisingly under-acknowledged, sanitised and self-censored in the corporate press. To understand this disaster, it’s not just building physics, or blame-storming the buyers in the West, but the gangster politics, land-theft and torture support infrastructure of the governing party that must be unpicked as well as the perennial issue of class segregation. Materialistic terrorism is the biggest problem that Bangladesh has faced and is likely to ever face, but about which we seldom talk, for self-defeating lack of back-up. Materialistic terrorism denies the poor their rights and paralyses the fed, housed and educated into meek wrecks of humanity.

It is grating to see countries around the world offer condolences and aid to the Bangladeshi government. It is this government and its corporate friends who bear primary responsibility for the rise of alleged thugs like Sohel Rahman, the Rana Plaza’s owner, and many like him created by a thuggish system, of political patrons like Murad Jang of the Awami League and no doubt their equivalents in the Bangladesh National Party. The thuggish system is a joint production with compliance-talk from high street retailers in the West participating in transactions of globalised capital. Unfortunately for the dead and the harmed, it remains unchallenged by a national justice system that has become an international laughing stock, and a selectively indignant local human rights industry.

White collar exceptionalism

We are encouraged to believe that the branch manager of the bank renting the bottom two floors is a hero for keeping staff out of the building on that fateful day. Yet for years, the bank was essentially renting from a landlord who was occupying the land of a dispossessed Hindu gentleman, scared witless and driven mad by the loss. It is a pity that the workers upstairs were not the beneficiaries of the banks concern for human welfare. This class segregation of white and blue bloused workers and the lack of solidarities between them is the vital missing link in our society.

On 30th April Sir Fazle Abed, the founder of megaNGO BRAC wrote in the New York Times urging the core of the global economy that unionisation in Bangladesh, rather than overseas pressure was the solution. This seems to be in line with the extraordinary refusal of international rescue assistance by the Bangladeshi government and the defensive image-focused response of the industry. BRAC has not got where it is today by ever rocking the establishments’ boat. Needless to say the torture and murder of garments worker organiser Aminul Islam was not mentioned, neither was BRAC Bank’s decision to rent its premium Savar branch premises from Sohel Rana.

Moreover, the owner of the building is known for his questionable acts in the locality including the grabbing of the land on which the complex was built. It is utterly puzzling that the bank in question, aligned with one of world’s respected NGOs, felt no qualms about basing itself in such building. Furthermore, one would have expected the bank to investigate the legality, safety and security of the premises before selecting it for their local branch. This is particularly the case given how normal it is in Bangladesh to erect regulation-flouting buildings. The facilities management lessons for corporate entities are glaring.

Transforming the industrial-political context

The Ready-Made Garments (RMG) sector is the largest slice in Bangladesh’s GDP pizza, worth in excess of $20 billion. Of this, 87% comes from the EU, Canada and the USA. Bangladesh is thus over-dependent on the RMG sector and should this sector struggle, the country as a whole will struggle. The RMG sector is far more important to Bangladesh’s economy than the service sector is to the UK’s, which gives the aforementioned troika a lot of power and the capacity to demand change which the government of Bangladesh and industrial backers cannot but heed.

From the perspective of industrial policy, because of the RMG sector’s sensitivity and liability, a key lesson for Bangladesh is to diversify its economic activity so that no one sector is too big in comparison with the others. This would provide a more vital economy and nurture a more humane environment for creative labour. Benefits in social stability, enhanced national pride and confidence would then ensue. As political parties write their election manifestos, and industrialists mull over the future, will we demand the translation of this spectacle, into prioritised political values and facts on the ground?

The shameful working conditions in much of the garments sector has been the subject of much campaigning, and some humane documentary work, yet the garments factory owner’s association, the notorious BGMEA, has proved time and time again that is an image-orientated, anti-social powerhouse.

As we scratch our heads and move our bodies for a systemic solution, it becomes clearer that we will see limited protest, followed by business-as-usual, unless meaningful solidarities are made between classes and groups on this issue. The propagation of cracks in the lived as well as the built environment must be understood to be addressed. Socio-political creativity and synergy is the demand of the times and a challenge to the stagnating but now energised intellectually gated communities of Bangladesh.

For a start, the anti-religious element of the Left should stop ridiculing observant Muslims,  many of whom are part of the labour force, and the Cold Warrior parts of political Islam and the Right must stop dismissing union activism as communist. Rather than passive descriptions of workers running amok and breaking their cars while the police shoot at them, the mediating class could be humane, listen and help amplify their voices, not simply reflect the defensive PR values of their corporate backers.

Source: The Khichuri