There is every sign that the investigation probe of the Rana Plaza tragedy would soon enter into a no-man’s land. That means we’ll never learn the host of failures that led to this unimaginable disaster.
In the wake of Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster, public anger has justifiably been focused on Sohel Rana, who deserves the most severe punishment for what would qualify as “crimes against humanity.”
But it was not too difficult to see that an exclusive focus on prosecuting the building owner and a few corrupt officials would not solve the systemic problems that lead to industrial catastrophes in Bangladesh.
There is no conclusive victory in capturing and parading the prime accused in front of the media, unless a hawkish investigation of the disaster itself is undertaken. Exactly how and why it happened—from human faults to administrative negligence to the building’s structural failure—followed by a concrete set of factory safety recommendations. This is, and should be, a standard practice in any functional society.
This leads us to consider the culture of tadonto (probe) committees typically formed in the wake of manmade disasters in Bangladesh. These committees ride on the passion of popular anger. But they routinely disappear from the public view as soon as the anger subsides.
As we have seen in the past, serious probes often do not provide lucrative political dividends or financial rewards. So there is very little genuine interest in the truthful examination of a disaster. Thus, the public rarely see any objective and dispassionate postmortem of industrial mishaps. Till today we do not know why workers could not be saved during the Tazreen fire last November and what safety measures were undertaken to avoid Tazreen-type infernos. The Spectrum collapse in 2005, too, remains a big question mark.
The tadonto committee scenario after the Rana Plaza tragedy was all too predictable. The Home Ministry, the Ministry of Commerce and the Dhaka District Administration formed three separate probe committees. In addition, Bangladesh’s Cabinet also created a high-profile committee to inspect factory safety measures in the country.
But all the committees were led by “insiders.” For instance, the Cabinet-mandated inspection committee was chaired by a State Minister. The Home Ministry’s five member panel was headed by an Additional Secretary. An Additional District Magistrate led the Dhaka District Administration-formed seven-member panel. Why so many committees? Did they collaborate? Where are the reports they promised to publish within weeks?
And, excuse me, have you heard about something called the conflict of interest? Why should we believe the officials who themselves are part of the systemic problems in industrial regulation, oversight, and workplace safety enforcement? And, what autonomy do these government-appointed probe bodies have to deviate from the convenient official narrative of how the disaster happened?
Given our political culture, the tadonto committees are expected to produce stories convenient for the unholy alliance of the political mafia, government officials, and influential garment factory owners.
The Tazreen fire was sabotage, we were told. Was it? The tadonto committees are generally expected not to jeopardize the profit-at-any-cost arrangements within the RMG industry because many factory owners are members of the parliament or politically influential.
It is immensely lucrative not to perturb the national cash cow.
In the interim, today’s poor dies, tomorrow’s poor fills in the factory’s vacancy. So, there’s no real pressure on tadonto committees.
We demand one INDEPENDENT probe committee for the Rana Plaza disaster. It should consist of a trustworthy civil-society member, an independent technical expert on industrial safety standards and building codes, a legal expert on industrial workplace, an historian knowledgeable about landmark industrial disasters, and an acceptable member of the concerned urban administration. Also include an international expert, recommended by global labour rights organizations. Make the report available online within a month.
Laws, if any, pertaining to rental spaces should be revisited. How come the BRAC Bank rented space at Rana Plaza? Given its international reputation, it is entirely reasonable to ask why BRAC rented space in a building that visibly violated building codes and illegally stacked up three extra floors. Did the BRAC official in charge over there demand to see Rana Plaza’s building permit?
Oversimplifying the vast problem of Bangladesh’s recurring industrial calamities as the despicable action of a few bad apples would only blunt our ability to demand change in the network of malpractices that make a disaster like Rana Plaza’s inevitable.
We should be asking a lot of questions. Why don’t RAJUK and other urban agencies have an adequate number of building inspectors despite the presence of nearly 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh? What level of accountability does BGMEA demand, if at all, from its members? What stops the government from spearheading an action agenda for enforcing safety standards in factories? Would a socially responsive business campaign dispel the prevailing myth that factory owners can’t afford the cost of safety measures due to narrow profit margins? Would an international campaign of consumer activism compel international retailers like Walmart to share the costs of installing safety measures in Bangladeshi factories? And, is it time to promote a healthy culture of labour unions with the spirit of safeguarding basic labour rights, while keeping partisan politics out of factories?
The Rana Plaza tragedy should not be remembered as the villainy of Sohel Rana or the resilience of Reshma alone. It should act as a reminder that factory disasters could be easily avoided. The corrupt culture of tadonto committees must change. We owe it to the factory workers who were misled to sacrifice their lives at the altar of an economic growth that often does not trickle down to them.
Adnan Morshed is an associate professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.