More than 1,100 workers died when Rana Plaza garment factory near Dhaka collapsed on April 24, 2013. Little has changed for garment workers in the way factory owners and management treat them. (Photo: AFP)
A dreadful, black day passed silently in Bangladesh last week with little to no remembrance, largely because the Covid-19 pandemic has put everything on the back burner.
Seven years ago, on April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza garment factory complex collapsed at Savar, an industrial suburb near capital Dhaka. One of the worst industrial disasters in history brutally killed more than 1,100 workers and injured thousands more.
We soon realized that the Rana Plaza collapse was an accident but an avoidable tragedy — the greed of the complex owner and factory management forced poor workers to return to work and die despite cracks in the building appearing a day before.
On that day I stood near the ill-fated building benumbed as frantic rescue attempts were made to pull survivors from the concrete rubble.
In the following weeks I was heartbroken to witness families and relatives crying after identifying dear ones among dozens of decomposed bodies.
I became speechless when partially and fully paralyzed workers and orphaned children of Rana Plaza workers narrated their plight.
As a human being, I felt ashamed and disgraced to witness this unacceptable tragedy, which I believe was a collective failure of humanity.
There were numerous condemnations at home and abroad over Rana Plaza’s collapse, but Pope Francis probably used the harshest one, denouncing conditions of workers as “slave labor.”
Despite significant structural changes in the garment industry since the tragedy, slave labor is far from over. Workers earn more than they made in 2013 but their US$94 minimum monthly wage is still the lowest in the world.
Little has improved in the way factory owners and management treat them, so physical and mental abuses continue. Workers are allowed to join unions, but few workers dare to do so because it can lead to rebukes and summary termination of jobs.
That means most garment workers are still treated as slave laborers by owners who consider them nothing more than money-making vending machines.
The same attitude is evident in most of the high-street Western brands that source clothes from Bangladesh at cheap rates and care too little about workers’ rights and conditions.
Both groups will be responsible for even a deadlier human tragedy if the decision to reopen garment factories on April 26 leads to massive transmission of Covid-19 in a country still struggling to contain the outbreak.
A government that always bows down to the financial and political clout of factory owners will be equally responsible as the partner in crime.
May Day means nothing to many workers
There are millions of slave laborers in almost all organized and unorganized labor sectors in Bangladesh and across the globe.
The British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 and the US government made the 13th amendment to the constitution in 1865, marking the official abolition of slavery. But an estimated 40 million people across the globe are trapped in various forms of slavery, according to the United Nations.
May Day (International Workers’ Day), soaked in the blood of workers in Chicago in 1886, comes and goes every year, but it makes little or no sense to slave laborers except for being a public holiday.
Extremely low-paid and discriminated tea estate workers in Bangladesh will continue to rot in eternal servitude despite the departure of their original slave masters, the British, in 1947.
Socially ostracized and underpaid sanitation workers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and elsewhere will continue to live in ghetto-like colonies and to be refused housing in residential areas.
Regarded as breeding grounds of social vices yet legally permitted in most South Asian nations, brothels will be spilling with sex workers and men who consider women as nothing more than perishable products.
Skyscrapers in oil-rich Persian Gulf states will continue to rise while poor migrant workers are trapped in overcrowded and unhygienic labor camps, shedding sweat and blood, often abused and killed, only to feed the greed of the wealthy and powerful.
While there’s little we can do when poverty and natural disasters displace people and force them to accept slave-like conditions for survival, this cannot continue forever, just as slavery didn’t last forever in the 19th century.
Slavery exists in many forms today, from forced labor, bonded labor and human trafficking to ancestral slavery, child labor and forced marriages.
As we mark May Day in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can at least feel compassionate for the plight of people entangled in the vicious cycles of slavery and slave labor.
We cannot forget these people and say or do nothing when they continue to suffer and die when we are able to do something to save them and improve their conditions. Slavery is a curse and slave labor is a disgrace to humanity, not just immoral but also inhuman.
Rock Ronald Rozario is bureau chief for UCA News in Dhaka.