(We reproduce here an article by Indo-Pak journalist Sonya Fatah, which appeared in the Times of India, September 17)
Bangladesh, India and Pakistan may well be separate nations with independent flags, anthems and identities but the kind of human tragedy they offer the world is distinctly South Asian. There must be some deep-rooted web somewhere under the surface that reveals how wonderfully we treat our own citizens, especially if they happen to be struggling to survive.
Take for instance, the recent news out of Karachi that a clothing factory in the industrial part of town was engulfed in fire. The manager on duty, fearing the worst from his team of X hundred workers (we don’t know exactly how many), decided that it was in the best interest of his bosses to lock up the steel doors, just in case the fire gave anyone an idea to loot piles of stone-washed jeans ready for shipment to Europe, where the orders obtained would earn our manager’s sensible owners, a lucrative pile of Euros. Oh well, it was not to be. The manager, while ensuring his bosses’ safety and security, didn’t realize that there was a human pen inside that would have to die to protect inflammable material. Trapped inside - some three hundred people (or who knows) died, most of them of asphyxiation.
Only one news report casually - at its very bottom - revealed the names of the factory owners - a father and his two sons; Shahid, Ali and Arshad Bhela who ran a garment factory. Everywhere else it was simply reported that the ‘owners’ were on the lam. There was no mention of the factory address, the name of the business or those who would necessarily have to be held accountable for providing little to no basic security for the people working long shifts to maintain the health of the business.
A social activist in Pakistan, Sarwar Bari, writes in the Express Tribune, “How many factory owners belong to ruling parties and how many political parties are controlled by industrialists, who not only violate labour laws but also safety and hygiene standards. They blatantly violate rights of the workers who generate profits for them. They neither allow independent unions to function in their factories, nor do they fulfill their legal duty on their own.”
Bari has been fighting for the rights of power loom workers in Faisalabad, Jhang and Toba Tek Singh since 2003. In recent months, 25 workers have been electrocuted. Most likely all deaths could have been prevented had safety standards had been in place. Bari’s cynicism is not misplaced when he assumes that most of us, angered about the deaths of the Karachi 300+ will soon forget about it.
As I read about this tragedy I was reminded about the Amri Hospital fire in Kolkatta last December. Most of the 90 deaths there were a result of asphyxiation, which is normally what happens when there is a fire. But if the hospital authorities had called for an evacuation earlier, considering the basement housed a wide range of inflammable materials in its pharmacy, storeroom and biomedical department, many of those deaths could have been avoided.
Two years ago, Dhaka had its own garment factory tragedy when fire swept through a workroom of one floor. Workers trapped inside by sealed emergency exits, jumped to their deaths from the 10th floor windows. Some 27 people died and more than 100 were injured, months after another 25 people died in a sweater factory.
I’m not sure what’s happened in any of these places post these incidents.
Have workers rights improved? Given various power structures, the nexus between government and business, we can be proud that while we have our differences there are certain realities that still bind us together - reasons to fly those flags high.
In the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York City, the hundreds of women employees could not escape because all exits save one were locked. Women jumped to their death from high windows. In the enquiry that followed, the employees escaped unscathed.
That horrific fire seems to have become a template for industrial accidents of future years. Certainly, the Sivakasi fire in India, and fires in Pakistan’s and Bangladesh’s garment industry, have proved how employees get away again and again with murder: violating safety and labour laws with impunity, and displaying utter callousness in endangering the lives of the workers.