Written by Hye Ryung Lee
Translated by Youngjoo Kang
Workers’ Sacrifices are Forgotten While The “Miracles” Remain
"Factories in Pyongwha Market resemble chicken coops, which eat away at the lives of young female workers who are expected to work in adverse conditions and insufficient lighting. They work 16 to 18 hours a day and earn nothing more than the price of a cup of coffee.” (Cho Young Rae, A single spark: The biography of Chun Tae-il).
Bangladesh has been following in the footsteps of the "Miracle on the Han River" in South Korea, dreaming of creating its own garment industry. The country has emerged as the second-largest apparel exporter, after China. This is due to using cheap labor. Many young people are being exploited.
The garment industry is the country's main income source accounting for 80% of the total export industry worth 260 million dollars, equivalent to 30 trillion Korean Won. Approximately 4,500 garment factories are clustered in the capital and the number of workers amounts to 25% of the total population of four million.
The lives of the workers, however, are not much different from the ones in the sewing factories 40 to 50 years ago in Cheongyechon, Seoul. In the critical biography of Jeon Tae-il by Cho Yeong Rae, he said, “Most workers contracted numerous diseases under the dreadful working conditions and many lost their lives from countless accidents.”
The Worst Industrial Tragedy: The Collapse of the Rana Plaza
On April 24, 2013, a nine-story building named Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. Banks and retail shops, as well as clothing factories, were located inside the building.
The police first advised evacuation of the building when cracks were discovered the day before the catastrophe. However, factory owners ordered their workers to return the day after, and the building collapsed. Two thousand, five hundred people were injured and 1,136 dead, most of whom were female factory workers.
After the collapse, the investigating committee of the Bangladesh government discovered the leading cause of the disaster. The building was originally constructed as a six-story building, three extra floors were added later on without authorisation. This catastrophic accident was a clear manifestation of poor and negligent construction practices, lack of due diligence with local authorities, rampant corruption and a lack of health and safety guidelines.
Recurring Calamities; Murders Not Accidents
In Bangladesh, accidents like the one at the Rana Plaza have been occurring repeatedly. Only a few months before the Rana Plaza collapsed, the fire broke out in the eight-story Tazreen Fashion building on the outskirts of Dhaka on November 24, 2012. Approximately 1,150 workers worked late that night to meet a delivery deadline.
With no exits and windows blocked with iron bars, escape was almost impossible. Most workers were found dead either by being crushed, inhaling toxic gasses or by fatal burning near the locked doors. People who fled to the rooftop jumped off the building in order to escape the blaze.
The fire started on the evening of the 24th and wasn’t put out until the morning after. The authorities first announced that nine people died, but after a further inspection, roughly one hundred bodies were found. A more accurate count found 112 dead and more than 100 injured.
Not too long after that disaster, another fire broke out at another clothing factory and seven workers lost their lives. Workers were enraged that fatal accidents continued to happen one after another with no one doing anything about it, so they started to protest for improved working conditions. Their voices spread throughout various levels of the society. Unfortunately, their voices were not heard and shortly a further 1,136 workers died from yet another needless tragedy.
This man-made disaster has been looming in everyone's eyes. Fire first started from the illegally stacked pile of textiles at Tazreen Fashions. Fire alarms went off, but factory managers instructed the workers to ignore them and continue to work.
After the Tazreen fire, Clean Clothing Campaign, a global alliance for improving working conditions and workers’ rights, released a report that, in Bangladesh, 33 major fires broke out at garment factories between the late 1990s and 2012, and more than 500 workers lost their lives.
Is Bangladesh's infamy of record-breaking disasters merely a national concern?
Even after the tragedy, numerous workers are still working in poor working environments. News of accidents and casualties are constantly being broadcasted. While people are making excuses and giving reasons like "We didn't know" or "It is unfortunate but what could I do?", a time bomb is ticking for the second and the third Rana Plaza.
We are heartbroken and genuinely concerned about the tragic state of affairs, however, we are also uncomfortable with the question “are we paying a fair price for the products?”. Factory owners don’t acknowledge the horrific working conditions but rather force the workers into them. International corporations and governments disgustingly hide their heads in the sand and ignore the problems and consumers continue to stay indifferent. With these patterns of thinking no-one can be free from the consequences.
They are not the only ones in need of changing. We must change ourselves. If you feel that something is completely wrong, act according to your beliefs and initiate changes. After all, the world does not get better by itself.
Moving forward consumers now need to speak and act on their “ethical” convictions. Also, we need to ask ourselves, as global citizens, how we can make changes in our daily lives to improve the situation. In order to live together, convenience shouldn’t be the ultimate goal to pursue. We can stop another Rana Plaza tragedy by taking personal responsibility for our present actions. We know now that buying cheap clothing is at the expense of others’ lives.
Hyeryung Lee is working at DAP LS in Bangladesh, organized by two activists who had volunteered in the country for 2 years. DAP LS is runs many projects where people can participate to help rather than focusing on financial donations. Its projects includes; <Bangladesh in Different Perspectives> which shares its projects to shed some bright lights on Bangladesh and other developing countries in order to help dismantle some of the prejudices; <Cultural Exchange Projects> that provide creative art platforms and art education for children Cox's Bazar Art Festival, 2012, International Art Biennale Cox's Bazar, 2015 as the project’s platforms with artists from Bangladesh.
Photo。 Sangmi Shin
She is working at DAP LS.