Rana Plaza: A Personal Journey

April 22, 2014

By Litu Kabir

[Reproduced from WORK Literary Magazine on occasion of the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. – Eds]

“50, that’s how many I pulled out”.

This bare fact was stated in an even tone. His sallow face was drawn and he rarely talked unless addressed directly. If he had emotions such as sorrow or anger, they were unrevealed, submerged under others more elemental. Nor was his statement a proud claim to his role, for in his brevity he said that everybody else did more or less the same that day, and to suggest that was a heroic effort would be a perverse affront to people. As everybody knows, before the authorities came and days after, it was the ordinary who had rushed to rescue hundreds with bare hands and the everyday tools they improvised then and there. They rescued survivors and brought out the dead from the precarious darkness of small hidden cavities in the nine story collapsed building in which minutes before five thousand people had toiled. What he and the others did is accepted as the normal human response, not acts of heroism.

Savar, where we sat in a café that morning, has the look of a frontier town. Unsettled and in transition; undefined. Unlike the dense city of Dhaka not very far away, this small town has empty spaces, gardens in dwellings, bright colors of hope amidst fears of the unknown. Unlike the capital, there are residences and shops no more than one story high, the traffic is light and there are empty lots by the side of winding lanes, as they used to be long ago in other cities and, yes, of course also the big buildings, the much talked about garment factories. The café where we sat was only steps away from one of these, or rather what used to be one of these. It is known to the outside world as “Rana Plaza”.

The death toll was over a thousand and four hundred, teenage girls and young women. From some who had been trapped in air bubbles and able to put pen to paper we know their last thoughts – the girl who wrote to her parents of her sorrow that she would no longer be able to help them in their old age, a young women agonizing over who would nurse her new born infant. And some died holding on to one another through their last moments, no doubt because in the fatal darkness another life is the only meaning that exists; of this the world has a photograph, taken after anybody could be of any help to the pair. But photographs are limited, much remain beyond the imagination. Who can understand the desperation of a young girl who had pleaded that her ankle be cut off so that she could escape?

The building at the center of this tragedy, this crime, now exists as a scar on the earth. It is a shallow pond filled with rain water in which remnants of concrete structures and other debris are half submerged. The site is now fenced off with barbed wire because there have been too many vigils and protests on the sidewalk in front. Apparent life goes on now as usual – on the pavements the hawkers sell from their small thatched baskets, buses rush by on the street, colored rickshaws park by the sidewalk.

Dare we say the memory also remains a scar on the living? Perhaps, but that comes later in the story. We in that café had to talk of the prosaic demands of life, for life is a brutal and relentless tyrant, and the survivors in their thousands were still without jobs, promised help and never helped. The wounded have been afraid to leave the hospitals, outside there is be nothing for them, and in this harsh life even the idea of preventing other such “accidents” is far away from the exigencies of many.

A garment factory
In such a garment factory like Rana, the upper limit of a worker’s age will be imposed by the lifetime of lungs that breathe the stifling odor of fine dust from cut fiber. Rarely does someone continue to work in a garment factory past age 45. The supervisors, guards and owners are almost always males. The day for a worker starts from 8 am and end at 10 pm. If a worker is late by ten minutes she will be scolded and her pay for the day docked. If they are seen talking to each other, their pay may be docked. Workers who file the necessary forms to form a union (approved by the post-Rana labor laws) are frequently dismissed, beaten up by the factory owner’s goons, or killed by inspired altercation.

During a visit to a factory a manager in charge of several factories explained how the goal of the young worker is typically to support their parent’s families or have a saving over their entire career for a major expense like an addition to the family cottage.

“They will not like a 40 hour week. At the current wages the income would come to $40/month only. When they work 16 hour days, a worker will get twice that, and then they can save. And that lump sum savings is their goal.”

“No weekends off?” I ask, a naïve visitor from Boston, MA.

“What would they do with a weekend off?” the manager asked back, astonished.

“Sleep, perhaps”.

“No, you don’t understand,”, and this with a shaking of the head, “These girls come from far away, they live six or eight to a room in near shanty town conditions, because of economy and safety, and the factory in fact represents a cleaner and better place to be in. I open the gates half an hour earlier just so they can do their morning bathroom here.”

And the manger points out that it is a good thing there are garment factories, that these girls are “lucky”. And of course in a sense he is right. Poverty drives the women and men from the villages to the couple of big cities where there is work – poverty inherited from a history of colonialism and many other factors, poverty that makes even the minimal pay from a garment factory job better than other options available. And the manager is right too that it has been a good thing for the “country”, with the garments industry providing as much as 80% of export earnings. If the owners are becoming super-rich in the process, are they not doing the entire nation a service? Is this not why people who speak out against the conditions of work are termed the “enemies of the country” by the government?

“Listen,” the manager explains, “I can do something better for the workers if the buyers [in the west] support me. If they insist on safety standards, waste treatment, dormitories, good wages, they will have to pay and I can conform to all requirements that are specified.

“But if I am the only one implementing good practices I will be undercut.”

Indeed, on non-wage costs, such as mandated safety arrangements or effluent treatment, another factory can well undercut him through lax monitoring, for example, , but with minimum wage the workers will monitor and enforce in their own interest. This is even more so as the floor wage is and has always been ridiculously low – and never indexed to inflation. The demand for the raising of the minimum wage is a central one for the workers and it has always been so. Each time there was a raising of the minimum wage, it was after months of demonstrations in the streets often with workers wounded and killed. 1996, 2006, 2010: the campaign of these years respectively resulted in minimum wages per month of $15, $24, $40. These are the minimum wages per month after campaigns that underwent brutal repression by the owners and the government.

Western Retailer’s role
Widely available interviews with garment factory managers and economists show that factory laborer wages are between 1 to 3 % of the final price of the product, more often than not on the lower end of the range. Hence, large increases in labor costs do not require correspondingly large increases in retail price.

A study by Asia Floor Wages concludes: “The labor cost in India and Bangladesh works out to a mere $0.64 on a shirt priced at $22.50. The cost to the brand would go up be just $0.64 if wages are doubled.”

I.e., the increase in the minimum wages workers in the garment industry are asking for represent an inconsequential decrease in profits for Western retailers or prices to consumers.

The minimum wage is determined by the Government of Bangladesh, but the recommendation of the BGMEA is the primary determinant. The question that remains is – what negotiations take place between the BGMEA and the Western buyer?

From the other side of the matter, what ought to be the minimum wage?

Bangladesh, a piece of the world that lies between the planet’s highest mountains in the north and the open ocean to the south, has more wealth than is credited to it – rivers that water it, the land fertile and green, natural gas that has sustained it for many decades, and people who always worked hard in its sun-drenched fields. The causes of its poverty today are not essentially different from those of the ex-colonized countries today known as the Third World. Suffice to say, it need not be so but it is, the people have low income and little surplus. As in neighboring India, till relatively recently the same country, the government defines poverty level in Bangladesh by the income necessary to buy enough food for the minimum caloric intake. That latter figure is set at 2300 calories, which means the poverty level wage is $100/month for a single person.

It is worth repeating – this $100/month minimum allows for only the food consumed by the individual worker. If we are to include other requirements of a family of four, the minimum wage would be over $200/month. Yet given the pressures against them, not the least being the threat that jobs will vanish altogether if costs to the western retailer increase to more than that of the competing countries, the workers’ movement has asked for the modest lower demand of $100/month. The factory owners responded to the demand by an increase of $8, an offer rejected by the workers as an insult by massive strikes the entire week of September 23, 2013. In an editorial in the New York Times of September 25th, 2013, it was reported that as many as 200,000 people were on strike.

It must be kept in mind that there are no unions in the garment factories as they are in the west. The factory owners have their consortium, powerful and well connected, called the BGMEA for “Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association”. When the minimum wages were doubled in 2010, the then BGMEA president threatened closure of hundreds of factories. But – strangely enough? – none of the factories cost themselves out of the business, nor did the price to western buyers go up even marginally.

The Class Divide
In some countries class is more naked than in others. Whereas the two main political parties in Bangladesh, the AL ( Awami League) and the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) have engaged in a fight against each other that increasingly borders on civil war, between these two parties there is total unanimity in their support of the factory owners. Both parties have their members in the consortium. One prime minister, Sheikh Hasina laid the foundation stone of the powerful factory owners’ consortium (the BGMEA) on 28 November 1998; another prime minister, Khaleda Zia inaugurated this complex on 8 October 2006. The shining high rise of the BGMEA was allowed to be constructed on common lands and by the encroachment of a lake. If that is not demonstrative enough of their unambiguous support for the factory owners, there is also an Industrial Police to keep “order” at the factories, as are the regular state police and militia, both of which fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the workers who went on strike for minimum wage in the last week of September 2013.

The End
At the café close to the Rana Plaza ruins where we were sat, our friend was telling his life story in small pieces. He was not a garment worker himself. One day many years ago, no more than a boy of 14, he had left his home in a distant town and, as everybody does, he had come to the big city to seek his future. He had done well, that is to say, he survived. A restaurant helper one day, a street hawker in another, he had in the end married both skills to a livelihood in the processing of offal. These, sold or thrown away from the butchers, he would sort, clean, fry and sell on the street to others much like himself. He did well enough to marry and have a family, and in time had two daughters who got work at Rana Plaza and supplemented his income.

With the hospitality common in rural or small town Bengal, he invited us to visit his house. From our café on the main street we made our way through the interior of the town. Narrow paved lanes separated houses of thin walls stacked next to each other. This is where most people lived today in this town, congregated together as people in the old world had lived through the ages. But our friend did not live there. We went past these modest dwellings to the edge of the town, to abandoned plots of land in which dense foliage of plants and weeds made small jungles, wet from a recent rain. His house appeared unannounced. We had come through the fields to a common courtyard shaded by guava and mango trees where a few people milled about as in a small village.

He opened a door that immediately led to a room. There was a single window in the room, and cracks in the closed shutters let in startlingly bright rays that parted the darkness inside. Two women were cutting up meat, the offal, in large pans placed on the floor, and on the floor in the dimness there were also smaller pans, water jugs, jars. Everything was on the floor, there was not a single piece of other furniture. Only in the adjacent room were there implements of a household – a large wooden bed, frayed red quilts on top, an indoor clothes line of a rope from one end of the room to another, a desk in which were placed the small necessities of life, a comb, a few cosmetics, some broken toys.

“My daughters were 16 and 18”, he had repeated many times.

It was in this house that the little girls had grown up in, laughing and playing, with those unfathomable threads about them, call it love, that brings to all children the happy innocence of the world, in that love that in the end gives to all the final meaning in life. No surfeit of material goods, just the bare minimum, but had not humanity in its heart always valued some impalpables over what one can see and touch?

Too soon the world had overtaken his daughters and their time to play was over. They went to work to help their parents, and all was well, except that one day when the unthinkable happened and one of them did not made it back and the other came back maimed. What frantic clawing through the rubble could undo what had passed that day? What cry loud enough to scale the unknown heights of grief? This then was the end of his story, something that needed to be said that he could not say, the old story repeated endlessly throughout the ages that the uncomprehending father and mother faced that day: the child died.

What can be done
Garment workers and their allies in the civil society and left parties in Bangladesh have come out in the streets numberless times, against severe repression and threats. Citizens’ groups and unions the world over have also undertaken various actions in solidarity internationally. All this support is vital because the essential need of the workers is for a broad front, nationally and globally. Aside from the moral imperative, aside from the redemption of our humanity in a common effort, it brings much needed public scrutiny on the powers-that-be. Secrecy and reclusion are assets in the establishment of a below poverty wage that no data can justify. Global campaigns must sustain a focus on the universal right to fair pay and conditions. The goal is a fair and decent living wage for workers in all countries and industries, not least for the garment workers of Bangladesh.