The images that emerged following the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka in April were horrendous. But something equally as remorseless surfaced: the numbers. There was a relentless onslaught of figures, ranging from the very small to the immense, their juxtaposition highlighting the immense disparities between the truly powerful and the dreadfully weak. 1 owner, 1 building, 5 factories, 8 storeys high, more than 1100 killed, 2,500 injured.
There were other sorts too. Seventeen – the number of days a seamstress survived under the wreckage. She was nineteen years old. £12.8 billion – the amount the Bangladeshi garments industry is worth annually. 3.6 million — the number of people the industry provides jobs to. It accounts for 75 per cent of the country’s exports. We found out how much workers earned per month — £30. Links and judgments were made between this and the price people in western countries pay for the clothes the workers were making. Questions were also asked: how much compensation will be paid to families/survivors? How will this be calculated? By which date will this happen? How many times has this sort of thing happened before? How many times will it happen again?
This array of numbers will now take an uneasy place alongside other mythical and difficult figures in contemporary South Asia. Some such figures have been so momentous for the development of the region, for the creation of nation-states and the continued relations between people, that they need no explanation – they alone speak volumes. These include 1857, 1947, 1971, 1992, and in the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan, three million (the number of people killed during the break-up of the two countries, a fiercely contested total).
Whilst workers trapped under the rubble of Rana Plaza were being dragged out — some alive, many deceased, another figure kept cropping up – 6.7 per cent. It is a more cerebral number compared to the others I have mentioned, but it explains a great deal about the place of this tragedy in relation to the path of development Bangladesh has chosen to go down which is now symptomatic of the entire region.
6.7 per cent is Bangladesh’s current GDP growth figure. As the Rana Plaza death toll rose, many journalists, economists and consultants were applauding Bangladesh’s developing economy. (In comparison, the US economy grew by 2.4 per cent). They advised multinational companies with vested interests not to pull out of this emerging lucrative economy despite its shoddy safety record, restrictions on workers’ rights, intermittent power supply, and unstable political and physical infrastructure.
However, the garment industry is only one part of a larger neo-industrial revolution taking place in Bangladesh. Whilst garment workers are the most visible of the different labour forces (as their product is sold primarily to the West), there are many others who also carry a heavy burden for the country’s development. They too work in horrifying conditions, they too carry the burden of a growing economy.
This is the case of workers in Boropani, a remote coal mining region creviced among hills and wetlands on the Bangladesh-India border. It is one of the largest land ports between the two countries, dedicated exclusively to coal. Every year hundreds of thousands of men, women, hijras (the third sex), and children travel there to toil in the illicit cross-border coal trade.
All of the mines are found on the Indian side. Facilitated by the border guards of both countries, dark skinned, gaunt men — a fretwork of bones protruding out of their taught muscles — cross the border to work in the perilous, dark, hot caverns. Fear pervades their working lives. The coal which they excavate is then moved to the Bangladeshi side of the border where labourers push, heave and pull carts laden with heavy sacks.
The ‘black gold’, as miners refer to it with irony, is destined for the innumerable brick kilns that have mushroomed around Dhaka and across the country in recent years. Their chimneys spew out noxious fumes, maligning the air, water sources and fields of crop. Many of them are illegally constructed. The bricks are used in the building boom that has taken hold in Dhaka and other cities. It is also used by power plants, something the country is ever-increasing need of.
A perceived remoteness to the global system means that, unlike the garment trade, the numbers relevant to coal miners remain opaque. Nevertheless, the price they pay with their bodies, and all too often their lives, is no less significant. The coal labourers (as indeed the garment workers) are symbolic of how in the neoliberal era workers are required to be cheap and exploitable. They have no protection or union rights. Regulations that exist in law are not adhered to by employers. There is little health care for them and their families. National and international NGOs provide paltry services which only some are able to access by borrowing through microcredit, entering into cycles of interminable debt.
It was not always like this. During the middle of the last century, Boropani was the site of a monumental modernist master-plan that was to revolutionise the country with the workforce as its vanguard. The Khonighat Limestone Mining Project was an example of an earlier developmental ambition. It became a coveted posting for workers because they and their families were taken care of (a valuable lesson of which today’s industries should take note). Extensive provisions were made including housing, healthcare, safety regulations, set wages, trade unions, fixed working hours, lunch breaks and a pension system. The Limestone Project was, for a while, a microcosm of what was to come for the rest of the country.
This utopian workers’ vision of the future closed down in the 1990s as a result of neoliberal machinations by donor countries, the World Bank and the IMF, and corruption at the local level. Today the market-determined coal trade reins supreme and everything that the Project had believed in and propagated — as well as the state itself — is in decline. It now lies in ruin alongside the borderland.
It is simply too easy to hold bargain-hungry western shoppers accountable for the carnage of Rana Plaza. This is not to absolve ordinary people’s responsibilities from the choices they make. But by just doing this, it ignores the larger and more complicated neoliberal practices at play. To prevent catastrophes like this from happening again may be difficult if the end goal is to merely achieve a 6.7 per cent GDP growth rate. Surely a developed society is one that does not just focus on economic growth: respect for life should be one of the fundamental aims striven for, whether in a first world nation or a developing one. To begin on such an endeavour, a total systematic and structural overhaul of the position of workers in required: certainly a project that the West would be wise to join in.