Bangladesh has long been a byword for calamity in the rest of the world, a punch line, a metonymy for doom and disaster. It is only when something catastrophic occurs that the world pays attention to our small delta nation on the Bay of Bengal. A quick search for "Bangladesh" on the New York Times or another publication's website uncovers a litany of chaos and misery: labour unrest, murder, pitched street battles between police and political protesters, flash floods, landslides, death and destruction. Tragedy in Bangladesh. That’s a story everyone gets.
It’s in this context that we meet last week's tragic fire at Tazreen Fashions, a garment factory just outside the capital Dhaka. At last count, over 120 people perished. They died in the some of the most gruesome ways imaginable, either asphyxiated by smoke, being burned alive or leaping to their deaths in a vain attempt to save themselves. Of the dead, 53 were charred beyond recognition.
But why do these things happen in Bangladesh? Is this just another story illustrating the sufficiency of misery in that benighted country, or is there more to the story that we are missing?
There is more. And it's a familiar narrative of "progress" and globalisation. Today Bangladesh is the second-largest garment manufacturer in the world, lagging behind only China, with garment exports of over $18 billion annually. Check your wardrobe. If you don’t have at least one item made in Bangladesh, I’ll eat the whole damn collection.
And it is this dehumanising, soul-destroying, exploitative trade that has provided employment to over three million impoverished Bangladeshis, the vast majority of them women, and utterly transformed the economic and social landscape of the country. In the 40 years since independence, the poverty rate has plummeted from 80 percent down to less than 30 percent today, GDP growth has averaged around 5-6 percent for over 20 years and the garment industry has had a lot to do with it. Capitalising on wages that were and remain among the lowest in the world, globalisation brought the garment trade to Bangladesh in the 1980s, kicking off decades of growth.
The garment trade is at the forefront of the kind of industrial revolution that we are experiencing in Bangladesh today, which is why, if from the outside, we look like some Dickensian hell-hole of sweatshops and smokestacks, the image is not altogether inapposite. If the Tazreen Fashions story reminds you of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed over 140 garment workers some 100 years ago in New York, it is because we are just now going through the ugly industrialisation that we hope will turn us into a middle-income country within a few decades.
The harsher and even more difficult truth is that, as appalling as they are, these sweatshops are signs of a kind of advancement. In 2012, few Bangladeshi starve to death any more. This wasn’t the case a generation ago when 80 percent of the country subsisted on agriculture, survival being by no means guaranteed.
But burning to death is not an improvement over starving to death, and none of the above should serve to lessen the horror of the deaths at Tazreen Fashions, nor be seen as any kind of explanation let alone justification for the criminal derelictions of responsibility that caused the catastrophe.
There can be no excuse for factories housing thousands of workers without fire escapes. There can be no justification for the chilling reports that, when the fire alarm went off, factory supervisors told the workers that it was a drill, locked the only doors to the outside and pushed them back up the stairs to the higher floors, where, once the stairwells filled with smoke and fire from the ground floor, they were doomed to perish.
There can be no excuse for the authorities’ failure to ensure that the factory was not up to code, and that few of the 4,000-plus garment factories in the country comply with the fire safety laws.
And there can be no excuse for companies such as Walmart – now busy distancing themselves from the tragedy – that did not bother to ensure the rights and safety of workers making their clothes and, in fact, trawl the world looking for the cheapest options to make their clothes, turning a blind eye to the corners that are cut to maintain their margins.
The real tragedy is the utterly unnecessary greed that leads to such misery. The garment trade is so profitable that there is enough to go around for everyone. The factory owners can easily afford to ensure that their factories are not death-traps, the Bangladesh government can easily enforce laws for the protection of workers without hurting the industry and the buyers can easily afford to pay the few pennies more per item that such measures might necessitate, as well as use their bargaining power to follow through and demand compliance, in accordance with US law.
Yes, last week’s fire was just the latest in a long line of similar tragedies that have taken over 400 Bangladeshi lives in the previous decade. And yes, the fire was in some ways a consequence of a global culture where some lives are evidently deemed cheap. Mortality rates in Bangladesh from so-called accidents are among the highest in the world: 85 road deaths a year per 10,000 registered motor vehicles (more than 50 times the US rate), almost 100 deaths due to residential fires in the past three years, at least 140 people drowned this year in ferry capsisings.
But that doesn’t mean that the fire or other similar tragedies are not avoidable. Bangladesh’s economic advancement (and affordable prices for the American consumer) should not come at the cost of ensuring basic worker safety. Anyone trying to tell you so probably has some clothes he wants to sell you.
Zafar Sobhan is a Dhaka-based editor and columnist.