Counting the Cost: The Savar Tragedy and the Search for Blame

Source: The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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.

Source: The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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.

And pray.

And cry.

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.

 

Source: Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh

This April 26 photo shows a woman wails for her missing person near the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar.

Source: The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Source: Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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28 Responses to Counting the Cost: The Savar Tragedy and the Search for Blame

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  7. This is a deeply shocking news, which I have been following since it was aired here in the UK. I’m aware that some brands and mainstream shops sell products and clothing wear made in Bangladesh. It sickens me that the companies who sell these products do nothing to measure how the product is made, how conditions workers are in and how much they get paid. It maybe because these UK brands rely on the government of Bangladesh to worry about it, thus walking out of the responsibility – but as a consumer its confusing in what to do. I mean, don’t get me wrong and I know this is a very sensitive area and discussion but if we simply boycott buy products sold by the high street chains simply because of working condition – we are impacting the economy from where they were made – and if we do, we may be supporting the economy but also supporting the conditions under which they are made.

    It is a devastating news and I pray for those affected.

    Like

    • I think your point is a very fair one and one I feel myself. It is a case of “between a rock and a hard place” for all with the losers being – in every scenario – the Bangladeshi garment factory girls. I quite seriously don’t know the answer. I just know people need to know what the issues are.

      It is, as you say, devastating news and it still continues to get worse, day by day.😦

      Like

  8. renxkyoko says:

    The Philippines used to be another country where clothes were made for export . But these companies have all left the Philippines and moved to even cheaper places like Indonesia, and Bangaladesh. Why so? becaused the Philippines is the only country in Asia that is highly unionized. It[‘s the law that workers have the right to organize and form a union. They demanded better wages and better working conditions.

    We can still see clothes Made in the Philippines at high end shops here in the US , but not at WalMart.

    The government should not have tolerated these horrible, dangerous working condtions for more profits. But understandly, they couldn’t afford to lose the business.

    Like

    • Thank you for sharing this even though you confirm, in many ways, my worst fears. It is good that the Philippines stood up for the rights of workers but sad that the businesses left the country. In many ways this is what I think will happen in Bangladesh except it will be the pressure from the West that will force the companies like Walmart out. It will mean thousands out of work and this, in many cases will mean starvation. Meanwhile, the factory owners will carry on making business, using their contacts and exploiting the weak and innocent for their own greed…

      Like

  9. Bill Hayes says:

    Today there were large demonstrations outside the main Primark Shop on Oxford Street. Primark are one of the largest customers for companies ithin this colapsed building. These companies are very sensitive on the issue. They have already been through a tough time 3, 4 years back on the wages and the age of the workers after a TV companie did an expose of a sweat shop there, using 12 year old children. When the facts are laid before the British public, they do care. The companies know this and will respond accordingly. Some good will come of this tradegy.

    Like

    • I hope you’re right Bill though I think it problem with shops like Primark is one of complacency about these issues rather than not doing something about it. I’m not sure, other than putting pressure on the garment factories, just how much they can do about it. When the officials come to visit they will see clean, wonderful working conditions with happy smiling girls…for they know they will be beaten if they let on what conditions are really like. The are many problems in the infrastructure of the country itself that need dealing with. My personal opinion is that it is not one thing that needs to change but many and several different areas. Alas, that makes it all the more difficult for real changes to actually occur…

      Like

      • Bill Hayes says:

        Yes – Primark et al have been complacent, but consumer power has become quite a factor in the minds of those running businesses. They can see what happened with Starbucks when it recently became clear that afetr 13 years of trading in the UK they had never made a Penny Profit and therefore paid no corporation Tax. Eevryone knew what they were up to and with ther financial squeeze on they objeted. The Social media pages of Starbucks was swamped with messages “pay your taxes!” It hit them hard PR-wise and now they have offered the government £20m in tax “contributions”

        Pictures of crushed garment workers on posters outside the shops will make them sit up and do something. If they don’t the shop down the road will advertise that their clothes are ethically made and attract the concerned shoppers away.

        Social media! That’s what will hurt them.

        Like

        • I think you are right – at least to an extent – and it is one of the great achievements of social media that it has been capable of creating great change. The revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East are testament to this as is the current Shahbhag movement here in Bangladesh.

          But I can tell you from my experiences here that there is a limit to just what the big corporations can do physically here and in similar countries. They can throw money at the Garment factories to build secure buildings – it will line the pockets of politicians and they’ll never know as they are shown fake documents and shoddy buildings made to look good. They can insist workers are treated fairly and paid properly and they will come and inspect factories and see all this happening – except it will all be faked. They can take their trade elsewhere – but then thousands of girls will lose their income and the whole thing will simply happen in another country.

          In short, even with huge social media pressure (and that MUST come, please God) there is a limit to just how much the corporations can make sure change happens where it matters: in the factories themselves.

          Like

  10. Rinth says:

    There’s a debate show that airs late at night on Channel I where they discussed this topic today. It was very interesting and you got more perspective on the matter. In the end, they all agreed on how important the textile industry is for Bangladesh and they’re afraid of its continuance as international media has been covering this tragedy. After all, so many young women work there supporting their families…

    They were also discussing the politics around it and one of the debaters asked why everything always has to be attached to politics. I ask that myself although I know it’s a rather stupid question when it comes to Bangladesh. Of course political parties are going to use this tragedy to their advantage. Have you seen the footages where people are attacking places because of their “rage”? Those people, among which many are young boys, look like they’re celebrating and laughing. My mom says they’re paid by the opposing party to do those things. I don’t know what to believe. I just wonder how many more tragedies have to occur for people to actually take action and change things.

    Like

    • It’s a tricky one Rinth – the girls certainly bring home an income and the Garment industry is vital to Bangladesh’s economy. In a way it has replaced the Jute industry of so many decades ago. But the nature of the industry is one that necessitates slavery conditions (or all but) and I really don’t know any easy solutions to stopping this. Better conditions will mean more expenditure which means the garments will cost more, which means the wealthy clothes industries lose profit, which means they go elsewhere for producers of cheap clothes, which means the girls lose their jobs. It seems to me, potentially, a lose-lose situation.

      Yes, everything is surrounded and deeply linked to politics here. It has been the garment workers who have been attacking the city because of their rage and undoubtedly they have been encouraged to do so by the opposition. Whether that makes it all ‘fake’ though, is another matter. I’m not sure of the answer to that, to be honest.

      Your very last sentence fills me with great sadness because I rather believe that the answer is “many, many more”. I really hope I’m wrong.

      Like

      • Rinth says:

        Yeah, my brother asked that question today as well and mom said they will not learn by this tragedy and that tragedies will keep happening. I don’t think they will ever learn to be honest. I just hope more young, educated people who will fight for the poor will rise up. Maybe someday. One has to have hope.

        Like

        • Indeed we do. One day, I believe, things will change. I just don’t know how many will die before they do.

          Like

          • Rinth says:

            I keep feeling that the reason my parents are from Bangladesh but I am from here is because there is something I have to do for those people… maybe not all of them, maybe just one single person… but still I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do.

            Like

          • There are so many possible responses I could give to your comment there Rinth, not least of which is the gratitude I have for the support you give me working out here. That, indirectly, is a form of helping even though it wasn’t quite what you had in mind, I think!

            My other main response is that you are young yet and there is still plenty of time yet (Inshallah, 60 years or more!) for you to do so much good. What I see from reporting about tragedies like Savar is people like you caring and showing compassion and that is vital, ultimately, for people like the garment workers in Bangladesh. Compassion leads to action; complacency leads to nothing. Believe me, you are one of a small minority who fall firmly into the former.

            Like

          • Rinth says:

            Thank you Ken. And yeah, I also think that I should wait and gather more experience until I have the resources to actually do something. I mean what good would I do if I just went out there right now… without any plans? But I don’t wanna keep thinking that ten or 20 years from now when I actually do have the power to do something.

            Like

          • Sounds like a good plan to me😉

            Like

  11. Tim Naylor says:

    Such a powerful blog, Ken. You’ve made me sit up and think! I didn’t want to click the ‘like’ button on this one – I can’t bring myself to ‘like’ a tragedy such as this, even tho i know it’s the writing I’m ‘liking’

    Like

    • Thanks Tim – it’s always good to hear from you mate. I understand what you mean and I think we all understand what people mean when they DO press that “like” button but your point is valid. Thanks for writing and supporting that way. It is good to know that people in the West are reading things like this and taking note. Maybe pressure on companies like Primark and similar will force a change here? I hope so…

      Like

  12. Bindu says:

    This is really heartrending. Here we get Made in Bangladesh clothes for cheap and I have often wondered about the plight of the poor workers who make it possible. I pray for the families and hope the workers’ lives would not be considered as cheap as the clothes they make.

    Like

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