How much is a life worth? Not much, if you happen to be in a developing over-populated region, where high unemployment pushes citizens, specially the unskilled and lowly skilled, to accept any jobs ignoring the perils embodied in these jobs. They do not have the option to pick and choose. They would be lucky if they can earn an income, however meagre, through dignified means. Their hunger and haplessness help them to tolerate abuse. They remain vulnerable: unable to negotiate wages, working hours, hardship of work, benefits or risk to life and health, since, without even these jobs, they will be forced to beg or to perish. Such is the reality.
Business is a vital part of an economy. No region can exist without business and trade. It is insane to imagine life without the goods and services provided by business. For a developing country, businesses and particularly thriving businesses such as the Ready Made Garment sector are a reason to be proud as they employ large number of people and contribute to the economic development of the country (the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association estimates that in 2010-11 about $18 billion was earned from exports, employing 3.6 million people).
Yet all businesses are tempted to cut corners due to their instinctive urge to maximise profit. A gross generalisation would be wrong, but it is fair to say that, like individuals, businesses will use loopholes, if they can get away with it.
The recent catastrophe in Nishchintapur, Savar which took over a hundred lives, mostly those of poor women, is not the first or only incident. Nor it is the only issue: these poor souls have been fighting forever for a minimum wage and a regular payment on time. The minimum wage regulation for the RMG sector only came into effect in or around 2010. There have been numerous reports of maltreatment of RMG workers, especially in relation to withholding their pay. What can be worse than cheating the destitute?
The irony is compounded when my RMG owner friends and family members tell me about their hardship. Their profit is slimming, unlike their body mass, due to the increasing cost of labour, operational costs and the implementation of work-safety regulations (imposed by the western buyers). I refute – but you have enough, why can’t you guys pay them a fair wage on time and give them decent conditions? I receive revolting sarcasm, that I am too naïve, idealistic, impractical and have no understanding of how businesses are run there.
So to expect work-safety from these businesses beggars belief. Can then our European and US buyers help to enforce it? Well, I assume you are familiar with the Bangladeshi version of the Fox and Crocodile fable, where the Fox eats away the baby crocodiles under its guard. Big buyers such as Walmart themselves do not particularly enjoy good reputation when it comes to paying a fair wage.
Besides, work-safety regulations enforced even in the developed world need constant update, monitoring and enforcement through hefty fines and revoked licenses for non-compliance. Still, many cases of non-compliance are found there.
And in a ‘lawless’ region, regulations would prove to be toothless. Buildings and bridges are being built there without adherence to regulations. Last week the collapse of a fly-over under construction in Chittagong city killed about 12 people, mostly poor vendors. Apparently the construction company ignored Chittagong Development Authority’s prior warning. Will we be able to punish the firm, supervising engineers or administrators? And even if we do will this stop building shonky infrastructures?
Change will be very difficult as we are chained and enslaved to a supply and demand principle. Consider the hazardous yet important ship-breaking industry, coincidently also in Chittagong. According to a World Bank study it employs directly or indirectly about 200,000 people and produces 50% of Bangladesh’s steel. But environmental and occupational health and safety hazards causing injuries, or fumes and asbestos handling, are grave problems. Amid pressures from NGOs and activists a ban on ship-breaking not meeting the standard was achieved in 2009, only for the government to relax the regulation under pressure from the industry (The Economist, 27 October 2012).
We are in a tough situation. We need to create jobs fast. But there aren’t many, and those there are, are premised on the exploitation of cheap labour. When this remains the main game no amount of regulation will help.
The sad part is just that when a poor servant girl from the country side thought that, with the emergence of the thriving RMG industry she has escaped the slavery of the housemaid’s work thrust upon her, in which she suffered severely, now faces dangers of another kind. Though the exigency of her situation needs urgent remedy, it seems she just has to endure it, like her mother and grandmother before her.
Meanwhile newspaper columns, discussions in talk shows, mourning and compensation will fill in the milieu. Periodically there will be reports of her immense contribution to the development of the nation in the national and international media, testifying the validity of her progress, which also creates an illusory comfort for the lucky ones (who do not have to burn as she does).
Irfan Chowdhury writes from Canberra, Australia.