The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians…
Or Bangladeshis. These are the opening lines of famous poem “Shirt,” by Robert Pinsky. The poem recounts the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911. A century on, it’s still one of the worst workplace disasters in the history of my country.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
…a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
It’s been two years last week since the one of the worst workplace disasters in the history of Bangladesh, the Tazreen factory disaster. No one has really forgotten the fire that 112 people – especially since its owner, Delwar Hossain, has factored heavily into the more recent Tuba Group strike.
Even before the Tazreen fire happened, activists around the world were talking about Bangladesh with references to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. In 2011, one told me that they knew something terrible was going to happen – that the neglect, the corruption, the danger of the factories was just too much.
In one hundred years, she was saying, we have come no farther than where we were in 1911 with the Triangle factory. It was intense enough to be remembered with horror one full century later – another poem (this one by Robert Phillips) describes skirts rippling like parachutes/ girls hit the cobblestones, smell smoke/ burnt flesh, girls cracking like cheap buttons/ disappearing like so many dropped stitches.
And yet nothing had been learned, the activists said.
That’s not quite true now. What’s happened since Tazreen is historic.
Among the names of Tazreen workers, the one most often heard is Sumaya Khatun. She was 16 on November 24, 2012, when the fire began, and had escaped from the Tazreen factory by sheer luck. Nearly a year later – and a year ago now – her name has ended up in a highly notable situation.
In mid-2013, activist Saydia Gulrukh and a barrister names Jyotimir Barua filed a claim in the Dhaka court system. Their aims were dual. First, they meant to press for the arrest and prosecution of Delwar Hossain, the Tazreen owner. Second, they wanted support for Sumaya, who had developed a brain tumor after the fire. They alleged that her terminal illness arose because of the fire.
I followed the case for months, visiting Sumaya over and over. Doctors I interviewed refuted the activists’ claims – no fire could cause a large brain tumor to grow in just a few weeks.
Over time, I realized that the activists, however poorly informed about medical science, were acting as support for Sumaya and her family. For most of the girl’s last year, they consistently provided donation money, medical advocacy, and practical help. Some of them were deeply loving with the family – crucial supports in a difficult time.
Moreover, the move they made was historic. There is a tendency in all humans to pay attention to the suffering of a person, not people. Multiple studies have shown that people will give money, attention, and care to specific individuals – but much less to entire classes, even if they are suffering precisely the same fate. (Many organizations have caught on by now. Their donation pleas say, “Help Rupa” or “Save Sarah,” rather than “help every kid in the country.”)
Refusing to fight human nature, the activists wisely pointed out Sumaya’s plight as a reason that Tazreen victims ought not to be ignored. They were right. No matter what the cause of her cancer, the compensation money that victims were due should have been paid much more quickly. In her case, it would have spared the girl considerable physical pain.
They also threw Sumaya’s case into the court proceedings to get Delwar Hossain arrested. It worked. The same human tendency – to sympathize with the plight of one person, more than with a group – got the judge to tell the BGMEA to contribute to her hospital care.
At the same time, the judge also took crucial steps that lead to the arrest of Delwar Hossain. It was the first time in over two decades any factory owner was held accountable for the death of workers. It was one of several significant victories in the struggle for workers’ rights in Bangladesh – making factories, at last, better than the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York in 1911.
It was an achievement that might not have come without her name and situation being in public. From her hospital bed, Sumaya helped make a bit of history.
She didn’t live to see many more changes. She died on March 21, 2014, aged 17. Saydia and several other activists – the same ones who took action in court and pursued the issue through protests – remained close by. Some were her bedside until the last day, helping her up to enter eternity.
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
The dying girl.
The overdue justice.