‘An extra 10 cents might have saved hundreds of workers’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

I was at the hospital with my ailing father when I saw Rana Plaza collapse on TV. While the doctor was writing his prescription, I quickly went to Shahbag (Mancha), just in front of the hospital. Hundreds had gathered to donate blood for the victims. Even then, I couldn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the accident. The following morning, I went online for the latest update on the Savar tragedy and what I saw was gut-wrenching. My husband, Sufi, and I rushed to the Savar locality, on the outskirts of Dhaka, to assess the situation and help plan immediate relief for the victims.

We had to park our car near Enam Hospital, where the rescued workers were being treated, almost a mile from ground zero. The sun was at its worst and made it difficult just to walk. When we reached Rana Plaza all we saw was rubble: bricks, slabs and pillars stacked on top of each other. Clothes lay unspooled and thread was scattered everywhere. I walked towards the back of the building for a closer view and almost fell over a woman on the ground, her head facing the rubble. Her lower body was trapped under a big slab and people were trying to pull her corpse from the rubble. She continues to haunt me. Her blue printed kameez and curly hair give me the shivers every night. I have given her a name — Mohamaya, who saved me from the misery of seeing her bleeding, mutilated face.

Later, I went to the school playground where they were keeping the dead bodies. I met a lady who was walking from one corpse to the next, removing the cover from each face. She was looking for her daughter. She said, “I let my baby girl come to Dhaka to earn for our entire family. My little, innocent daughter… the last time I saw her was eight months back, during Eid.” She breathed a sigh of relief each time she saw a face that was not her daughter’s. But fate was not kind after all. Eventually, she uncovered a body and closed her eyes. I saw, on her wrinkled dark skin, pearl drops travelling south. “At least I found her,” she said, pulling the corpse close to her chest. She kissed her daughter’s forehead and wailed loudly. I wanted to run away. The field reeked of rotting flesh and blood. There were hundreds of dead bodies, lined up to be claimed.

Even now, after a week, I hesitate to breathe deep. I fear I might again breathe in the stench of the rotten corpses. I might again see Mohamaya; I might have to face the old lady looking for her daughter in the queue of the dead.

Bangladesh’s readymade garment industry is the country’s biggest moneymaker. Since the 1970s, garment factory owners have generated employment for the poor and given a much-needed lift to the entire economy. The industry also, with caveats, empowers women by giving them a measure of economic freedom; 80 percent of the workers are female. The workers are skilled and the labour is cheaper than anywhere else. After the Savar tragedy, Robert Reich, an American political economist, professor, author, and political commentator, said, “Walmart buys more than $1 billion worth of apparel from Bangladesh each year, making it the second-largest global purchaser. In April 2011, after the Tazreen fire, major global retailers considered requiring their Bangladesh suppliers to make safety improvements in a system they knew to be highly dangerous; the retailers would have to pay 10 cents more per garment to ensure factory safety. Two participants in the meeting told the New York Times that Walmart played the lead role in rejecting the effort on the grounds that it was not ‘financially feasible’. Walmart’s profit that year was $15 billion.”

I guess, at the end of the day, each dollar counts. An extra 10 cents might have saved hundreds of workers becoming corpses. But does anyone care?

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