Smoke billows out as firefighters, factory employees and locals work together to douse the fire at a leather factory in Narayanganj’s Rupganj upazila on August 4, 2021 Dhaka Tribune
The trained and high end workers end up in good circumstances, but problems lie with the lower end ones
After independence in the 1970s, international economists believed that the direct role of state was necessary for Bangladesh to initiate and advance its industrial development.
We did it that way in the beginning.
But, why was industrial development important?
Answering the question is much easier now considering the place where the country is right now.
Looking back, historically this industrial sector has been the growth driver which enabled this country to move from low to middle income status. How?
Purely in classical thought, industries have been providing employment to a large number of workers who also comprise a large consumer pool, and raising social productivity by producing high- value goods on a mass scale.
Though there remains a long way to go, presently the country’s economy comprises a number of small, medium and big industries and enterprises which make up for 29% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Now, considering the return Bangladesh has extracted from this sector, how much has the country nurtured it?
How has the country treated different binding factors of this industry who/which were the responsible ones behind this success?
Truly where and how the country remains in institutional sense, and what can be insinuated from how it acts in this regard?
While Bangladesh keeps celebrating the accomplishments, the issue keeps getting marked by tragedy, exploitation, and unchecked chronic capitalism. How?
Lately, Bangladesh is producing professionals, technologists and other middle and low-level skilled workers to support its ever-growing industrial sector, thanks to the technical training in its universities, colleges, technical training centers, polytechnic institutions, etc.
The trained and high end workers end up in good circumstances, but problems lie with the lower end ones, who are involved in the core production process.
These lower end ones are the focus of this discussion.
According to an estimation done by the International Labour Organization (ILO) every year “11,700 workers suffer fatal accidents and a further 24,500 die from work related diseases across all sectors” in Bangladesh.
Because of high unemployment rates and inadequate enforcement of laws, the owners always hold the upper hand in bargaining and workers find no one to complain.
As a result, in cases of refusal or retribution considering working conditions; losing jobs is the only option available.
Apparently the phenomenon has turned into a ‘culture’ patronized by chronic elitism which also keeps the policy and law under a group’s control and lets them reap the benefit of the ad hoc basis formulation and implementation practices.
Because if that was not the case, incidents of Nimtoli chemical warehouse fire (June 2010), Tazreen Fashion factory fire (November 2012), Rana Plaza collapse (April 2013), Gazipur boiler explosion (July 2017), Chawkbazar chemical warehouse fire (February 2019), Armanitola chemical storage fire (April 2021), Hashem Foods of Sajeeb Group factory fire (July 2021), etc. wouldn’t have happened consecutively.
And these events are just tip of the iceberg as only in case of ‘fire hazards’, there have been 5,834 incidents in the last five years.
If the most recent incident of Sajeeb Group is considered apart from its impact on the related events and happenings involving the authorities and owners, this is the most outrageous and obscene case in the history of industrialization in Bangladesh since Tazreen Fashion, and Rana Plaza.
At least 51 people among whom most were children were killed, and 20 more were injured in this incident.
Following the occurrence the owner (Mr. Hashem) stated that: “A fire can occur if a factory is operational…I never triggered the fire myself, not even the manager as well.”
Though the owners were detained later, actually the authorities and relevant government offices or institutions are equally responsible for the filthiness and nakedness of this atrocity.
Later another fire broke out in a leather factory at Narayanganj from electricity short-circuit, and just two days before a fire that broke out at a five-storey building in the capital's Banani area which was quite old and did not follow the building code..
A total of 888 reported workplace deaths in 2016, 1242 reported deaths in 2017, 898 reported deaths in 2018, 1200 reported deaths in 2019, and 729 reported deaths in 2020 couldn’t stop the toll by making the government authorities and institutions aware to strictly enforce building codes, occupational and safety codes, labour act, etc.
The obscene symbiotic relationship between the administration, political institutions, and large capital sustained anyway.
Focusing on the universal aspects of society, where the interdependent relationships among individuals, collectivities, institutions, and/or organizations are weaved with the political, and economic networks; the outcome of nurturing the above mentioned ‘culture’ leads only towards ‘structural violence’.
So, two salient and seemingly flawed aspects respond and patronize this culture of violence; severe inequality and a huge disparity between accorded rights on a case to case basis.
This structural violence is difficult to comprehend as it subjugates the subordinates of their access to advancement, opportunities, and representation.
As Zizek states: “(It) uses privilege without directly physically assaulting the subordinated group(s)”.
The cultural practice has become so sustainable and deep-rooted that the workers are not only more likely to suffer; they are also more likely to have their suffering silenced.
The task at hand, if this culture of violence is to be broken, is to strictly point out the forces colluding to establish and sustain it, with the understanding that these will be differentially weighted in different settings.
Then there will be a chance to stand against the forces, discerning their inherent disgusted kinds and immobilizing their efforts.
We already know why is it important, now why more participation from different domains are necessary to find ways out of it?
Because, when economic and power structures are colluding like in Bangladesh’s case to limit a group’s agency to the extent that necessary conditions and fundamental needs are not being met, then this structural violence has already become a "sovereign empowered structural violation of human rights."
Both authors are working as researchers at the Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ), Brac University. Views expressed in this article are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the position of Brac University