Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ground Zero (Rana Plaza, Bangladesh)

We approach the first anniversary of a mass murder (of people by people whom they had trusted with their lives). May all their souls rest in peace. The living victims are another matter altogether- no justice for them even after all this time.

Incidentally, why was this picture not voted as #1 (for 2013)? Sad to believe there are many more (too may) horrors scattered around the globe. But still...this picture will live for-ever.

Please do consider buying the book. The authors have not specifically mentioned how the proceedings may help some charity involved with Rana Plaza victims but even so it is worthy of your hard earned dollars.

It is 24 April. The previous day, shortly after work started, three cracks were found in the reinforced concrete pillars that support the eight-storey building. An engineer sent by the Savar municipality declared the building unsafe, work in the five factories was halted and everyone was sent home.

If an order is delivered late, accepted practice in much of the industry is for the buyer to deduct 5% for each week of delay. The buyers already have political unrest, wildcat strikes and blockades to deal with; they cannot afford to risk losing further days of production.

Which may explain how, somehow, overnight, the cracks that shut the factory the day before have become less dangerous and the management has called in the workforce. The building has been inspected once more and is safe, they say. Monthly salaries are due in 10 days, but overtime, which increases most employees' salaries by between a third and a half, and means being able to pay the rent or eat properly, will be paid in the next day or so. Many of the workers are told by their managers that unless they work, they will not receive the money. What choice have we got, the workers are saying to each other. We are here to work, after all.

The managers know this. They know, too, that, as a female supervisor, Shapla is trusted more than her male counterparts, and not just by "her girls". So when they want the workers to stop shouting and calm down, and to enter the building, take their places at their machines and finish the big orders the factories are currently under pressure to complete on time, several come to her, telling her again how the building is safe, how the girls trust her, how if she doesn't go in, the girls won't either. She is uncertain, reluctant, but because at that moment it is the easiest thing to do, she gives way and goes in. And her girls follow.

Similar pressure has been put on other supervisors. They, too, reluctantly head into the building. Soon all the workers are flowing up the stairs. Mahmuda leaves her husband in the stairwell. He carries on up to his factory. She makes her way to her desk and machine on the third floor. On the fifth floor, in the Ether Tex factory, 15-year-old Preity, her mother and her sister are working by 8.30am. Preity is on her feet, moving up and down the line, clearing offcuts, bringing new needles or thread; her mother is nearby, her sister working at a sewing machine on the same line but at the opposite end of the room.

Mahmuda has time to stitch maybe two or three pieces before the lights go out, the old fans, which barely dent the heat in the factory, slow and the sewing machines stop. A power cut, frequent enough and no cause for alarm. The workers wait in the gloom, talking quietly, worried, waiting for the powerful, heavy generators installed on the roof to start up.

Moments after the generators start, sending vibrations through the building, a pillar in one corner of the Rana Plaza gives way with a loud, explosive bang. Then each storey slides sideways, tips and splits, falling in on the one below. On the third floor, the collapse is almost instantaneous, but the workers of Phantom Apparels still have time to realise what is happening.

The floor starts shaking and it is clear the building is coming down. Mahmuda starts reciting verses of the Qur'an. She staggers, falls and crawls beneath her sewing machine.

Shapla is walking down her line when the building starts to collapse. She starts running. She, too, seeks protection under a sewing machine and then everything gives way around her. She is in darkness, gasping for breath.

Two floors above, the floor inclines slowly like the deck of a sinking ship. Panicked workers rush to the two narrow exits. It is dark, there is much dust and noise. Runarini has managed to find her youngest daughter, Preity, and is now trying to get to the other end of her line where Shamapati, her eldest, was working at her machine. But the force of bodies pushes her towards the exit. She cannot hold on to Preity and fight the crowd to find Shamapati. The floor lurches, tips again and everything falls.

In the darkness after the collapse there are many voices: sobs, sustained screaming, calls for help and water, moans of pain, prayers, howls of grief. Some are trapped in total darkness, others can make out some light. Many are pinned down by huge blocks of concrete, bent iron girders, machinery. Others are entombed in small cavities. Some are alone, others with colleagues or strangers from other floors. Shapla can move her hand but nothing else. Mahmuda can see the sky through a gap in the wall several yards away. Runarini and Preity are trapped together and they can hear voices, but not Shamapati's. They shout her name, but there is no response.

Outside there is chaos. Dazed survivors stand immobile in a huge, roiling cloud of dust. It takes time for Dhaka's ramshackle emergency services to arrive, so hundreds of locals clamber over and through the rubble, tearing at the concrete blocks and mangled metal with their hands. Soon corpses are lined up on the ground, limbs limp and twisted, as if they had fallen from a great height. Mahmuda crawls towards the light, finds herself only a few metres from the ground and clambers down. She cannot see her husband.

Shapla waits longer for rescue. She can hear sirens and shouts outside. They are hammering and drilling the slab of concrete above her. She finds her throat so dry from screaming that she cannot talk when the rescuers find her. She is unaware that she has made any noise whatsoever. It takes two hours to free her. Runarini and Preity crawl together towards a shaft of light and are lifted from the rubble by mid-afternoon. 

The ruined building is now surrounded by police and soldiers, and heavy lifting equipment is arriving. There are electric saws and jackhammers, and lines of ambulances. There is no sign of Shamapati.

Bangladesh is the original "basket case", a term coined by Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, to describe the country immediately after its violent secession from Pakistan in 1971. Up to 3 million died in that conflict, a civil war that was simultaneously a war of independence, and its wounds remain livid. Famine, flood, a massive programme of nationalisation, political instability and further violence crippled the new nation's economy. But, despite the continual challenges, the textiles and garment industry prospered. Investment and advice from Korean companies helped and, by the end of the 1990s, the industry had somehow weathered destructive storms – political, economic and meteorological.

In 2004, when the protectionist quotas that had been imposed to protect western jobs 30 years earlier expired, many in Bangladesh were apprehensive. But the industry boomed. "Business just took off," says Rubana Huq, now managing director of garment manufacturers the Mohammadi Group. In 2004 there were 2 million workers in Bangladesh's 4,000 factories, with exports worth $6bn. Nine years later, there were twice as many in 5,600 registered establishments, sending $21bn worth of clothes overseas.

Competition from abroad when the quotas disappeared meant "prices dipped", Huq says, but the demand from Europe and the US was so great that she and others "just kept on building". If wages in Bangladesh remained the lowest in the world, land prices in central Dhaka, where most of the garment businesses were based, rose so fast that new investors sought space on the margins of the city where hastily reclaimed wetlands could still be bought relatively cheaply. In Savar, Gazipur, Ashulia and elsewhere around Dhaka, hundreds of factories went up every year. There was little or no planning or regulation.

"People were not much concerned by building codes or quality of material," admits Emdadul Islam, the long-serving chief engineer of Rajuk, Dhaka's development authority. Monitoring of environmental impact, construction quality and permits for the millions flowing in from rural areas were almost nonexistent.

Inevitably, people started to die. In April 2005, a factory in Savar called Spectrum collapsed, killing 64 workers. The dead were making clothes for western retailers. Poor cement was a likely cause – builders often charge for better-quality materials than they deliver – or water from a nearby canal may have washed out foundations. For a short period there was talk of a crackdown on unsafe buildings, but even though a second factory in northern Dhaka collapsed a year later, killing 21, the fuss faded. As the recession hit western economies in 2008 and 2009, brands forced down prices even further as they negotiated with suppliers. Those in Bangladesh who demanded government intervention in one of the country's few economic success stories made little headway when dozens of garment factory owners sat in parliament and powerful industry bodies had the ear of policymakers. The boom continued. Bangladesh, the world's 76th biggest exporter of clothes in 1980, was the eighth biggest in 2006, and by 2013 was second only to China.

Over the decade, prompted by a string of reports of child labour and other abuses in factories around the world, the brands had set up systems to monitor pay and working conditions in their supply chain. Some organised their own inspections, many brought in contractors. But executives did not think to undertake structural surveys of the buildings where their clothes were made. Instead, they relied on the corrupt, poorly paid, underqualified, undermanned local authorities. This, senior executives at major European brands now admit, was a mistake. Others use stronger terms. From 2005 to March 2013, fires killed an estimated 600, but no more buildings collapsed.

H&M's Gedda says: "The best way for the country is for brands like H&M to stay there." This is something one hears frequently: from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, senior ministers, international trade unionists, independent economists and urban development specialists in Dhaka. It's also what all the workers say. Everyone agrees that the Rana Plaza collapse was a "wake-up call" that will be "a turning point", but they all say the industry and the brands must remain. "If there is a pull-out, it will be a catastrophe for Dhaka," says Professor Nazrul Islam, of the local Centre for Urban Studies.

The result, after a series of fairly acrimonious meetings in Geneva and Paris last year, is three separate initiatives: the Accord, which involves more than 150 largely European brands; the Alliance, set up by US brands; and a joint effort by the UN and the Bangladeshi government. Between them, these three are meant to bring all the factories in Bangladesh into a system of auditing and inspection that will enforce agreed standards. They will also, theoretically, ensure structural surveys. The brands will help pay for improvements needed by their suppliers to meet the new standards – through grants in the case of the legally binding Accord and soft loans for the less constraining Alliance – and there are also provisions for strengthening the country's underdeveloped and highly politicised unions. There is a separate process designed to establish how much compensation will be paid – the total could be more than $40m – to the Rana Plaza victims.   

Mahmuda eventually found her husband's body, intact but for a broken nose, laid out in the makeshift morgue set up in the grounds of a local school. It took some days for her to realise that her husband was not going to walk through the door of their small home in Savar. She returned to her village to bury him, but life was as hard there as it had ever been and she was soon back in Savar. Eight months later, Mahmuda started work at another garment factory, less than 300m from where the Rana Plaza complex stood. She passes the site of the collapse – the rubble scraped away, a trough of filthy water, scattered bolts of filthy cloth, a stench of decayed matter – every day. "I tell myself if one building has collapsed, it doesn't mean they all will," she says. "I can't be scared. If I am scared, how will I feed my family? I tell myself if one building has collapsed, it doesn't mean they all will."

Runarini, however, has still not fully understood that her daughter will not come home. Shamapati's remains have never been found. It is possible that the 18-year-old's corpse may have been buried with 250 others, all unidentified, in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse. There is even a chance that, unrecognisable and untested, it may have been given to the wrong family. Bangladesh's only DNA testing facility was unable to cope with so many dead, and officials admit mistakes were made.

Preity still dreams of her village and misses her friends and school. Now she hopes to set up a tailoring shop when she is older, with help from an NGO. "My mum cries all the time," she says. She misses her sister, too, and Shonjit, who sometimes walked her back from the factory. He was killed, too.

When Shonjit's father, Satyadip, who still works as a loader in a nearby factory, heard of the collapse, he ran to the site. "I was crazy. I tried to tear away the stones with my hands. For 13 days I went there, round all the hospitals, to find him, to find my son. I held on to my hope, but then we found him and he was not with us any more."

Rubana Huq, managing director of the Mohammadi Group, travelled to the site of the collapse when she heard what had happened, though she has no link to the factories there. She set up a small relief operation and spent days handing out water and food to rescue workers. "It made me think differently about the workers; that it is another life, like mine," she says.

Shapla has seen only one of the 20 girls she watched over since the day of the tragedy. She saw her, fleetingly, at a bus stop. She has heard news of a second. The rest she believes are dead. Now, when she sees their children, she feels "like a criminal". "I was the one who got them to go in. I was the one they followed. I think about it all the time."

• We Are What We Wear: Unravelling Fast Fashion And The Collapse Of Rana Plaza by Lucy Siegle and Jason Burke is published by Guardian Shorts (ebook, £1.99/$2.99). Visit guardianshorts.com to read an extract and buy your copy. The Shirts On Our Backs, an interactive documentary about Rana Plaza and the textile industry, is on theguardian.com/rana.
Link: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/19/rana-plaza-bangladesh-one-year-on

No comments:

Post a Comment