Sometimes, being an observer of life in a culture foreign to your own just isn’t enough.
On Wednesday morning I arrived in Dhaka for a single day of ‘bachelor life’. I had to pick up my laptop (which had suddenly died a couple of weeks earlier and needed ‘open heart surgery’ to bring it back to life) and pay bills but otherwise the day was free and I was ready to enjoy a little free time.
And then a nine storey Garment Factory building collapsed just ‘up the road’ in Savar, a northern district in the city.
Instead of enjoying a drink by the pool of my club, I stood transfixed watching the TV screen as live images of the carnage and chaos etched themselves into my brain. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I felt desperately depressed and worried for what I thought would be hundreds of young girls working in the building which was now about the height of just over two storeys. As the days went by it became clear it was not hundreds: it was thousands.
I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to take a taxi straight to Savar and start helping to dig out the survivors but on the TV I was saddened to see some Bangladeshi ‘boro loks’ (VIPs) – politicians, I’m guessing – come and sit on a verandah opposite to watch the proceedings. It was like a day out to watch the cricket and they were being looked after by a small army of run-arounds getting everything they could possibly need for comfort.
Even if I could make it there at all, I thought, I would just become another ‘boro lok’, another VIP to look after and treat like royalty. Worse, with the Press being there, if I managed to help at all then it would quickly descend into a false photo shoot. There can’t be too many ‘bideshis’ helping out there I would think. I would have been lucky to lift more than a handful of bricks.
And so, all I did was watch.
Which, overall, was pretty pitiful to be honest. Sometimes observing what’s going on really just isn’t good enough but I can’t think what else I could have done. Horrifically, they are still digging people out four days later as I write. At the time of writing there were 340 (mostly girls) dead. Four days on, the smell of decaying flesh suggests there are still many more to be found. Thousands have been rescued, amazingly found alive, but there could have been as many as 4,000 in there when the building collapsed. Every day the figures go up. No one really knows for certain.
Over the last few days, the Press and Social media have been all over this with one simple question demanding to be answered:
Whose fault is this?
Many are looking to the Government for justice and finding it wanting. The PM seemed little interested in finding the owners of the building (identified as politically linked to the ruling party) and accusations that they had been helped to attempt fleeing the country abound. My understanding is they have now been arrested but the Government have not come out smelling of roses.
The owners have been blamed for many reasons not least that cracks appeared in the building the day before causing everyone to evacuate at speed but they were then forced to go back to work resulting in what some are now saying should not be called ‘an accident’ but ‘murder’ instead. What’s more, the building was never safe and largely, if not wholly built illegally. The two owners involved here represent, in many ways, the 2,500 girls who have died since 2008 in accidents involving garment factories in Bangladesh. That’s 2,500 too many. No wonder garment factory workers ran riot through the streets of Dhaka yesterday. They’ve had enough and I don’t blame them.
Still others are blaming the West. So many of our clothes are made in Bangladesh making the garment industry one of the principal export earners for the country. But the cheap price of our clothes does not come out of the pockets of the shops on the UK high street nor that of the garment factory owners. Instead it comes out of the poor conditions for the young girls who work night and day in the factories so rich kids like me can wear our favourite T-shirts at a price we want to pay.
Both of these complaints maybe true and valid, yet there is a third place I believe we need to direct our anger and our accusations but I’ve yet to see anyone voice it: The Hartals.
I’ve written at length in previous posts about the political unrest in Bangladesh right now. I’ve also sung my praises for the Shahbhag movement – despite not agreeing with everything they stand for – because of their admirable demonstration that it is possible to have a voice in Bangladesh without need for violence and endless strikes. Never more has this been more relevant.
After weeks and weeks of endless hartal days, businesses are on their knees trying to get work done and produce exported. Many have been badly crippled by the relentless need of the BNP to oust the Government ‘in the name of democracy’. Is it any wonder that the garment factory owners have pressed their girls to work under unsafe conditions all the more?
In an industry already not known for its compassion towards employees, is it any surprise that harassed owners and managers pressed the girls back into that building, unknowingly sending them to their doom? More girls can always be found but orders must be met. Rich people must be clothed.
This week, I’ve truly learned that life is cheap. God help us.