By Tarek Fatah
April 30, 2013
Tarek Fatah in Bangladesh with protesters from the Shahbag movement (Photo courtesy Tarek Fatah)
On Nov. 11, 1970 the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded in history hit, what was then East Pakistan, killing 500,000 people. The tragedy, and the lacklustre relief effort from Islamabad, had serious political implications. It united the people as never before in their desire for freedom from Pakistan. Within months, they elected the separatist Awami League, followed by a 10-month national war of liberation that cost another three million lives.
I was a young 20-year-old reporter in Karachi then, as we witnessed the birth of a new nation in the Ganges Delta; in the land of Tagore and the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Last week, another tragedy unfolded in Bangladesh, and I was there.
By the standards of 1970, the collapse of a multi-storied building housing textile factories and the death of hundreds of workers was miniscule. However, the loss of so many innocent lives is having a positive impact, bringing Bangladeshis together, uniting Hindus and Muslims. For a brief moment in time, a sense of nationhood and community has re-emerged in the deeply divided country.
Lost in the reporting of this tragedy, however, was the fact it happened while the country is in the midst of an epic battle — nationalist secular liberals pitted against a well-funded Islamist network of madrasa-based Jihadis.
In fact the day, the textile building collapsed, the entire city of Dhaka was in a lock down; opposition Islamists who did not allow a single vehicle to move on the streets.
I witnessed thugs smashing car windows and chasing citizens back into their homes even after news broke of the tragedy. The Islamists did not allow anyone on the streets until hours after the building had collapsed and only when rescue vehicles forced their way to the site.
By any standards, the relief and rescue operation by the government and volunteers was impressive. At the historic Shahbag square, home to Bangladesh’s young liberal activists, people lined up to donate blood in unprecedented numbers.
The reaction in the West was predictable. As news emerged that the textile workers were making products for Joe Fresh and other clothing retailers, the usual ‘activists’ emerged to clamour for a crackdown on imports from Bangladesh.
The fact that 80% of Bangladesh’s exports are textiles and that such a boycott would devastate the lives of millions, was of little concern to the urban leftists in the West.
Notwithstanding the capitalist greed of the corner-cutting textile manufacturers in Bangladesh, there is no denying that the employment of tens of thousands of female workers has led to their empowerment and has made a positive impact in the lives of the working class.
Dhaka businessman Akhter Matin Chaudhary best expressed the dilemma resulting from this tragedy. He told me: “The current situation is a Mexican standoff.” He was referring to the multiple stakeholders involved in the business—the manufacturers, the international buyers and the Bangladesh government. Chaudhary suggests: “International buyers should not bargain prices down to the bone. (They should) allow manufacturers the margins to invest in safety.” In addition he pleaded that “compliance certificates should include structural safety of the premises in which the factories are located, and buyers should boycott factories where there is no freedom of association (Trade Unions).” Sumi Khan, a women’s rights activist and the editor in chief of the weekly Surjobarta told me, any boycott in the West of Bangladesh products will only hurt the workers, not anyone else.
“It’s very unfortunate, but as a result of this tragedy factory owners are realizing that if they want to survive in this business, they have no other option but to take care of their workers and permit them trade union rights,” she added.
And a serious commitment for these basic changes will make us all feel much better when we slip into our “Made in Bangladesh” Joe Fresh clothes