Terrible tales from the factory collapses and fires of Dhaka

In the brutal and long history of industrialism, there has perhaps never been such appalling contempt for human life.

Dhaka, a temporary settlement
I would have begun with the fires in the garment factories that have claimed the lives of many garment workers, but the death of more than 1,100 people in the building collapse on the edge of Dhaka in April 2013 was a story of such appalling contempt for human life that it must rank among the most callous in the brutal history of industrialism. Even after the structure had been declared unsafe, workers were coerced into entering the factories under threat of loss of wages. In the tangle of metal and concrete that followed, bolts of cloth had to be used as improvised chutes for bringing people to safety; workers – more skinny and sinuous than police or medical personnel – made their way into pockets where people were trapped, and had to amputate limbs with a saw. The bodies laid out in front of the ruins stretched hundreds of metres in the dust and debris.

Anyone looking at Dhaka and its hundreds of garment factories, its tens of thousands of cycle rickshaws, its construction workers provisionally living in the shells of apartments they will never own, its maidservants, faces patterned by grilles on the verandahs which keep them captive, can only wonder at the bleakness of alternatives that has driven people to find a precarious sanctuary in this place. For Dhaka – this constricted camp for the evicted of development – scarcely merits the name of ‘city’. Is it the poverty of ancient fishponds and rice fields, fallen orchards and abandoned homesteads that has sent people here, or the promise of wages which are eaten up in advance by the price of rent and food that rises as fast as the greedy floodwaters that have chased them from home?

It is difficult to conceive that the humiliations which young women and men endure in the scanty choices for their labour in this labour camp masquerading as city can be more bearable than the indignities of villages they called home until only the day before yesterday: the woman transplanting rice seedlings, miming the gestures of her drowned sister in the waters of the paddy field; the woman beating sheaves of rice against the threshing stone; the man carrying his implements over his shoulder at the end of a long day hoeing and weeding on land he will never own; the family contemplating the eroded fields that will be deposited elsewhere as someone else’s fertile silt; the woman for whom the charity of the mosque is the only thing that stands between her children and destitution.

Hope is inscribed in the ugly landscapes of the city, in the white light of its factories that shed their radiance on the slums below, in the market with its pyramids of scarlet and green vegetables, in the rented shelter shared with strangers – hope that has been chased from places where land is lost to the Padma, the moneylender or the shifting topography of the country, where fields can no longer provide sustenance and the ties of kinship have become fetters.

It is not only daily working conditions, an income that limps behind prices, the demands of the home place for remittances that make life in the city appear intolerable. There are sleepless nights under burning tin roofs, the absence of water, the darkness of electricity outages, the airless tenements; to all this is added the harassment from overseers and foremen, compulsory overtime when orders have to be finished, sexual advances by those who exercise power over them, and even worse, periodic catastrophes – explosions, fires and the collapse of buildings that leave scores or hundreds of bodies wrapped in white cerements, where their loved ones can barely recognize them through their disfigurement.

The position of Bangladesh in the division of labour of globalism today is not to clothe the nakedness of the world, but to provide it with limitless cheap garments. The workers are disposable, rags of humanity, as it were, used up like any other raw material in the cause of production for export. Dhaka is criss-crossed with vehicles stamped in red with the words ‘On Emergency Export Duty’, as though it were the highest priority of Bangladesh to send out of the country as quickly as possible all it can produce.

Fire remains the single greatest hazard to workers in the garment industry. The most recent – and deadly – fire in Bangladesh occurred in Dhaka on 24 November 2012, in the industrial suburb of Ashulia. Over one hundred people died in the inferno at the Tazreen factory. In the past ten years, at least five hundred garment workers, mostly young women, have been killed in factory fires. In most cases, doors were locked to prevent pilfering of goods or unauthorized absence from work, especially during night shifts when supervision is less stringent. This event, which threw the light of its flames upon many transnational importers of Bangladesh’s ready-made garments, including Walmart, was described by the owners, by the government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) as ‘sabotage’. The supply broker had moved orders to Tazreen from the official supplier, without permission from Walmart. Corruption, as well as chains of middlemen, brokers and intermediaries, creates a maze of subcontractors, which permits unauthorized factories to fulfil orders. These are often unsafe, ramshackle and negligent.

As in the Tazreen conflagration, most of the twenty-seven who died by fire in December 2010 at the sadly named That’s-It sportswear factory, also in Ashulia, perished, not from suffocation, but from injuries sustained when they jumped from the tenth floor of the building where the factory was located.

Fire and the fear of fire have haunted the garment workers of Bangladesh ever since the garment sector became a major employer of labour thirty years ago. Twenty-three died in a fire at Macro Knitwear in Dhaka in 2000, twelve at Globe Knitting, also in 2000. In January 2005, twenty-eight were incinerated at the Shan Knitwear factory in Narayanganj. In February 2005, three disasters struck Bangladesh factories. Fire destroyed the four-storey KTS Textile Industries building in Chittagong, with the loss of at least fifty-four lives. On the same day, fifty-seven workers at the Imam Textile Group in Chittagong were injured in a stampede following the explosion of a transformer. A few days later, nineteen people were reported dead when a nine-storey building collapsed in Dhaka. Forty-five workers, including ten children, were killed at the Chowdhury Garment factory in Shibpur, east of Dhaka, in November 2006. In February 2010, twenty-one workers were killed and more than fifty injured in a fire at the Garib & Garib Newaj factory in Gazipur. A large stock of synthetic acrylic sweaters burned, producing thick toxic smoke. Exit doors were said to have been locked by management “to prevent theft”.

All such disasters have much in common: faulty fire equipment, no fire escapes, factories stacked in increasingly high-rise buildings, staircases and doorways encumbered by bales of flammable material or finished goods awaiting dispatch – synthetic fabrics which burn readily and release toxic smoke.

In March 2011, eight workers died in a fire that broke out in a shed on the roof of a four-storey garment-dyeing factory, where chemicals were stored. According to witnesses, a huge plume of black smoke was seen in the early hours of the morning of 10 March, and the eight victims “were trapped inside their room”. It is quite common for workers to live on rooftops of factories, or in the same spaces where they perform their daily labour, so that their experience of the capital city is one of confinement, if not incarceration. It is not unusual to meet people who have never left the immediate neighbourhood where they live and work. Three of the five rooms in the shed were occupied by workers, the other two by chemicals. The whole building was served by a  single entrance through which 250 workers passed daily. There was no emergency exit. The family of each dead employee was offered 10,000 taka (about $130) “for burial expenses”. The Daily Star reported that between 2010 and 2011, 155 people died in separate chemical-related incidents in Dhaka alone, including some in the – once again – sadly named ‘Goodnight Mosquito Coil and Spray’ warehouse.

Fear of fire
Fires are not a recent bringer of death to the cities of Bengal. As early as 1837, it was prohibited to build huts with thatched roofs in Calcutta, since in the preceding years, the Black Town – as the area occupied by ‘natives’ was designated – had been periodically ravaged by fires that spread through the slums that stood in the shadow of the mansions of the rich Bengali banias, dewans and landlords; and it was feared that such fires might also spread to the European quarter.

During one of my first visits to Dhaka, February 1995, at M/S Proster Garments, a joint venture between Hong Kong and Bangladesh, panic over an outbreak of fire caused five deaths, as twelve hundred workers tried to flee the building. There had been a minor fire three days earlier, but at that time, the factory was unoccupied, since it was the time of iftar, the breaking of the daily fast in the month of Ramadan.

A rumour quickly spread that the building was on fire. Four young women in their early twenties were trampled to death, while another was killed when she leaped from the roof of the five-storey building. Many others, injured in the crush, were taken to hospital.

When we spoke to people at the site of the accident, we were told not to believe the official casualty figures: at least one hundred had died. This was an exaggeration, but it is well known that industrial accidents are often concealed or played down by the authorities in order to minimize their impact. It is not unknown for hospitals to dispose o f the dead, with the connivance of the police, so that only the grieving relatives know that their loved ones have perished, and no public scandal occurs. I was reminded of the example given by J.L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond (1925) of mining conditions in South Wales in the early nineteenth century: “The Commissioner [of the Children’s Employment Commission] could write as follows of deaths in the mines, ‘When a man dies, the viewer looks at the body and sends for the coroner, and unless a case of suspicion is made out, he does not come, but sends an order to the constable to bury, and frequently, the coroner does not attend until there are five or six cases to clear.’”

The site of the Dhaka fire in 1995 was a four-storey building. We couldn’t go inside, since there was a heavy police presence. Management representatives explained it was simply an unfortunate accident. If the workers had not panicked, the deaths and injuries could have been avoided. In other words, the victims were blamed for their own deaths.

Blaming the victims or ‘outsiders’ or ‘agitators’ has become a common response to such disasters. If disaffected workers are not the culprits, the ‘hidden hand’ of rival countries – usually India – can be detected. The domestic lack of regard for the cheapest garment workers in the world, and the repudiation of responsibility for them by employers and government, both have a long history in Bengal.

On a piece of ground opposite the factory – not, as far as one could tell, an official cemetery – lay the sad red earth mounds of five newly dug graves of the young women. This also evoked the practice in early nineteenth-century Britain, of burying in the factory compound the bodies of pauper apprentices who had died. The community was tense and uneasy. The factory was to remain closed for three days as a mark of respect to the dead. The workers laid off did not expect to be paid for the period of mourning. The factory was making baseball caps. Deaths, caused by the manufacture of such trivial, often throwaway, items, suggest disproportionate sacrifices.

There is a heavy and tragic irony in these burnt offerings to industry, since water has always been the most usual element that brings death to Bangladesh: tidal surges, cyclones and floods have traditionally taken a heavy toll of human life. Perhaps fire is a fitting agent of destruction in the city today; it is, after all, an expression of the modern sector and industrial development. Fire has a cruel resonance – people displaced by water find they have a rendezvous, in their place of safety, with the element which is regarded as the opposite of that they have fled from.

Excerpted with permission from The Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries by Jeremy Seabrook, published by Navayana.
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