Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tears in Garments from Bangladesh


The heartbreaking image above is from The Daily Star. A sister crying over the photo of her brother who is trapped in that collapsed building at the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh. This is the day five after that collapse, killing hundreds of workers and injuring many. The total number of casualties is still unknown as many more are feared to be trapped underneath the piles of concretes of the collapsed building. 

Every day the hopes for finding more survivors are diminishing. Miracles do happen, and some are still getting rescued because of some heroic and tireless rescue efforts. The relatives, standing near, holding their loved one's photos in outstretched hands, looking toward the rubble, a live tomb, where many garments workers died for the sole reason of complete indifference toward workers' basic human rights for a safe work environment. Was it too much to ask for? 

Garments workers in Bangladesh get one of the lowest wages in the entire world. This unfortunate fact is also one of the reasons Bangladesh is competitive, and is now one of the largest manufacturers of garments in the world. But the disparity between what the workers get in Bangladesh, and the other nations is striking. 

Per a table showing in Wikipedia all the minimum wages by country, the workers' minimum wage in Bangladesh is 11 cents an hour, that is $220 per year. Even a discount store if one visits, like the other day I observed at Walmart that one of the marked down prices of a shirt made in Bangladesh was $10.00. I do not have the data on how long a skilled garments worker take to manufacture a shirt, but the difference between ten dollars and eleven cents seemed to me simply mind blowing. For a discounted shirt of $10.00, for example, if an average worker takes about 3 hours to make a shirt (a generous number of hours it seems), then the worker gets mere 33 cents for her or his 3 hours long efforts. Subtracting 33 cents from ten dollar still leaves $9.70 per discounted shirt. Applying simple statistics in this crude example, a garment worker earns 3% from a $10.00 shirt, and the garments owners and the sellers combined make 97% of the revenue earned. 

Of course there are cost involved in any business. Even applying all kinds of business costs, it does not seem 3% earning is fair for an average garments worker in Bangladesh for this hypothetical example where the price of a shirt was $10.00. In many cases, the price of a shirt is way more than $10.00. The price range can be anywhere between $15 to $100 or more. In those cases, for store like GAP, Sears, Bay and many other similar ones, the ratio of a garments worker's earning to the price of a shirt will be much lower than a heavily discounted shirt. 

It is true that many millions of impoverished Bangladeshi women and men were and are given new hopes and better livelihood through these jobs in garments sector. About 80% of exports earnings of Bangladesh is from its garments industries that has huge impact on its GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Then a question may arise naturally as to why such a vital industry's workers are not given their basic rights to have a safe work place? Garments workers are getting the lowest comparative wages and from time to time are getting burnt or crushed to death. It is indeed a rotten deal at the best. 

In my previous writing on this very subject a few days ago I asked a few questions. Mainly, why would the government of Bangladesh not take the necessary steps to protect its garments and other workers who are the vital source of its economy's longevity? Why is it that the owner of this particular collapsed building Rana Plaza is a member of the ruling party, and only a few days ago, even after the building collapse was boastfully travelling in a car with his hoodlum cadres? Is it possible for a grade 8 failed student amassing such wealth and power without the direct complicity of the ruling party? Where are the real culprits, the large gigantic sharks, who repeatedly use Rana and other muscle-man thugs like cadres to preserve the lucrative power? Not only the ruling Awami League, the opposition BNP too depend on these goons and criminals to survive and thrive in polluted political environment of Bangladesh. 

Who will come forward to demand the workers' rights? The glimpse of hopefulness that Shahbag's protest movement had shown in February, seems to be fizzled out in the end by not being more inclusive, and for only demanding punishment for crimes committed in the brutal war of 1971. One laughable quotation I can still remember from that movement was something like this: "when there is geography exam, we will study for geography, when there is  math exam, we will study for math", meaning the movement would focus only on one demand, that is the justice of the war criminals. Such a lonesome demand devoid of any practical connections of greater crimes being committed in present days literally in broad day light can hardly be sustainable. Anyone can call himself or herself a progressive, or a movement to be progressive without the slightest bit of notion what progressivism really means. Progressives do not live in an island where only a single injustice can be focused on, as injustice is rarely alone, it has its roots, sprouted branches and leaves, like the giant trees and expanding forests, where one injustice festers another, interlinking many more in seemingly an overwhelming dominating force to reckon with. The collapsed building in Bangladesh, the sheer indifference of the building and the garments owners is only a small puzzle piece in the reckless adventures of riotous life wreckers. 

Tearful agony of this sister crying over her buried brother's photo near the collapsed building is heartfelt and her and other like hers pain have touched hearts of many, near and far. Murmurs of discontents on the shabby political system of Bangladesh that most possibly has direct or indirect links for the causes of so many innocent life lost in this tragic collapse can be heard in office corridors or the cafeteria in the western nations. This will create pressure points, and quite possibly the right pressure points, that may fasten the most needed collapse of the rotten political system in Bangladesh, and from this rubble, from the tears and agonies of dead and the livings, perhaps the very needed political reformation steps will at last materialize, truncating the sprouted branches and leaves of corruptions, and preserving the core human rights of the trampled workers.

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