With High Rent, No Oversight, Bangladesh Garment Disasters Keep Happening
Bangladeshi police say the death toll from the collapse of a building housing five garment factories has passed 800 and continues to climb.
Sima Bhowmik, a journalist with ABC Radio in Bangladesh, worked at KGOU for several weeks as part of a U.S. State Department program.
She followed the unfolding events of the building collapse in her country, and told World Views a lack of oversight and high rent contribute to a disturbing trend of tragedies in the garment industry.
“The owners, they want to save money, and they go for a cheap building, which is not really fit for his industry,” Bhowmik says.
During her three weeks reporting for KGOU, experts told Bhowmik the April 24 collapse would not have happened if it weren’t for the heavy machinery spread across the five garment factories inside the Rana Plaza building.
“This kind of accident is happening in Bangladesh the last few years,” Bhowmik says. “If they really want our economy to flourish, and our garment and export sector, then I think government should be stricter.”
At least 117 people died exactly five months earlier in the November 24 Tazreen Fashion factory fire. Vice magazine reported earlier this year that until the Rana Plaza disaster, 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have been killed in factory fires since 2006.
"Workers who try to form unions are regularly beaten and arrested by government security forces. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) has worked with the government to form a new force called the Industrial Police, accused by human rights groups of harassing and intimidating workers. At least one activist has been abducted and murdered. Riots are common."
Mohammad Musa, a former secretary of the Bangladesh government and also a former director general of Bangladesh Disaster Management Bureau, told Bhowmik the people responsible for previous accidents were not punished. And since Rana Plaza owner Sohel Rana is a local leader of the ruling party, there are doubts whether he would be properly implicated or not.
Musa says political parties get money from rich people like Sohel Rana during elections, and that’s why they do not take proper action.
On whether more government oversight would’ve prevented the Rana Plaza collapse
I would say, and experts agree with me, government should be stricter. If they really want our economy to flourish, and our garment and export sector, then I think government should be stricter. In Sohel Rana Plaza, the owner didn't have any license for that kind of building. He just used two or three [unintelligible] to build a nine-story building. It's ridiculous.
On border tensions with neighbors India and Myanmar
We have some problems with border killings. The Indian government always says they'll stop this. But these happen every other day. Basically, Indian authorities say our people want to go there illegally. Then they're shot. We don't do this killing on our side. In Myanmar, the Rohingya problem is a major problem for Bangladesh. They illegally cross the border, and they come and settle in Bangladesh. Our population is already over 16 million. We are a very small country. The other thing is in recent findings we see poppy cultivation in [the]Chittagong Hill Tracts area. We are really afraid. It proves that India/Bangladesh/Myanmar border is really creating a problem for us.
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Sima Bhowmik, welcome to World Views.
SIMA BHOWMIK: Thank you so much.
GRILLOT: So you're visiting us from Bangladesh, where you serve as a journalist. You're here studying journalism for a short period of time. What can you tell us about the main differences between journalism in Bangladesh versus journalism here? So far what has your experience been, and how would you characterize the profession in both countries?
BHOWMIK: When I see KGOU equipment, we use all the same equipment in Bangladesh. But the way they cover the news is different. In Bangladesh I'm a senior reporter for ABC Radio. We do special news and general news also. Here, I saw your reporters are "special correspondents." The other thing is I went to the State Capitol. Anyone can go there and see the House and what's going on. But in Bangladesh it's really not possible.
GRILLOT: So there's more access here than in Bangladesh.
BHOWMIK: Yes. It's a very good thing here, which we're not able to do in Bangladesh. We have to carry a card, specifically if you carry this card, you can enter this building. Here, I also see that you can carry your phone, laptop, whatever you want. But there, it's really not possible.
GRILLOT: There are more restrictions on being able to do your job in Bangladesh.
BHOWMIK: Yes. For a news person, your media facilities are really more flexible than ours.
GRILLOT: So is the goal of your program, the goal of your work here, to be exposed to different ways in which you conduct your profession, so you can take those practices home?
GRILLOT: If so, what do you expect when you return home to Bangladesh? Do you expect that some of these restrictions or limitations will change? Are you going to be able to maneuver them a little better?
BHOWMIK: Well Suzette, frankly speaking, I'll try to talk with my people. How your media works over here is a very interesting thing. Yes, I'm taking many things from here. I'll try to implement the good things.
GRILLOT: So to try to make some changes in the way journalism is conducted in your country. One of the many stories you've covered are financial markets. Your country is new. It's only been an independent country since 1971, and it's faced some very significant financial times. So what is the current economic climate like in Bangladesh today?
BHOWMIK: Suzette, the thing is we are basically a growing-up country. We have some MDG goals...
GRILLOT: So the MDG Goals, the Millennium Development Goals?
BHOWMIK: Millennium Development Goals, yes. We are doing well to some extent. Our financial sector is growing, but our main problem is infrastructure problem. It's a very young country, and we have power shortages, infrastructure problems, and gas problems. Maybe businesses have money, but they can't build a factory or an industry there.
GRILLOT: So banking, and those kinds of infrastructural needs of an economy? Being able to engage in financial transactions. Communications. Technology. These are some of the things that your country is struggling with?
BHOWMIK: Communication is one problem, and foreign direct investment. But our main problem is infrastructure, gas, power, and these types of problems. When any investor sees these problems, he realizes his costs will rise. So they don't feel interested. I think there's an opportunity for us.
GRILLOT: Well, when you mentioned infrastructure of course I can't help but think about a recent event in your country where a garment factory collapsed and hundreds of people died. Many more injured. So this has a connection to your economic well-being and your ability to engage with the West. Most of the customers of the garment factory are Western, and many American and European companies. So how do you make that connection? This was an unsafe workplace. What is the likely outcome there?
BHOWMIK: As you said, our customers are mostly foreigners like Americans or Europeans. That impact is very bad. Our garment sector is really rising. China, Bangladesh and when I visited your Wal-Mart and your Ross, I saw many things made in Bangladesh. When I saw that I felt proud. It's my product. It's my country's product. But there are a lot of owners who just wanted to save money. In Bangladesh the rent of a building is really too high. The owners want to save money, and they go for a cheap building, which is not really fit for his industry.
GRILLOT: For the kind of equipment and the weight that will be in the building.
BHOWMIK: Yes. And experts say the Sohel Rana Plaza building - it would not happen if there was no heavy machinery. There are five garment factories with a lot of heavy machinery. The building didn't take this well.
GRILLOT: So are you likely to see some changes in practices in Bangladesh because of this? It seems like people are outraged by this particular incident.
BHOWMIK: This kind of accident is happening in Bangladesh the last few years, but I would say, and experts agree with me, government should be stricter. If they really want our economy to flourish, and our garment and export sector, then I think government should be stricter. In Sohel Rana Plaza, the owner didn't have any license for that kind of building. He just used two or three [unintelligible] to build a nine-story building. It's ridiculous.
GRILLOT: So it's not that the restrictions aren't there. It's that they aren't being enforced. He didn't have permission to do what they were doing.
BHOWMIK: And the owner just rented the building because it was cheap to rent, and he wanted to save money. And there are problems with cheap labor. We have labor unions. They want to bring standards...
GRILLOT: To establish some minimum standards. A minimum wage. It was not only families of those that were lost in this most recent tragedy, but labor unions that are out there on the forefront trying to make these changes. So that raises some questions about the government of Bangladesh. We've talked about economics and the financial issues, but what about the stability of the government? Again, you're a young country. You're situated in a very interesting part of the world between India and Myanmar, and near Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and China. You're in what some might consider to be a volatile and difficult region. What can you say about your government and its relations not only inside the country, and its stability inside the country, but its relations with its neighbors?
BHOWMIK: To some extent I'll say that the relations with other countries like India and Myanmar, and Pakistan, Sri Lanka, government relations with India are not too bad. But we have some problems with border killings. The Indian government always says they'll stop this. But these happen every other day. In Myanmar, the Rohingya problem is a major problem for Bangladesh.
GRILLOT: So is it tension over the border itself, in terms of the line, the demarcation of the country, and the people on each side that are engaging with one another? What is the actual context of these border killings?
BHOWMIK: Basically, Indian authorities say our people want to go there illegally. Then they're shot.
GRILLOT: OK, so it's an immigration crossing of borders.
BHOWMIK: But if anyone crosses the border, they'll arrest him or her. They can't shoot her, but we don't do this killing on our side. I talked about Rohingya issues. They illegally cross the border, and they come and settle in Bangladesh. Our population is already over 16 million. We are a very small country. The other thing is in recent findings we say poppy cultivation...
GRILLOT: So drug concerns.
BHOWMIK: Poppy cultivation in Chittagong Hill Tracts area. We are really afraid. It proves that India/Bangladesh/Myanmar border is really creating a problem for us.
GRILLOT: So what about the larger context in terms of India and Pakistan? There is a lot of tension in that relationship. Do you often feel that you get pulled in between? Is there any kind of fallout from that?
BHOWMIK: We are not really directly involved with Pakistan. The Pakistan border is not near Bangladesh. We are...
GRILLOT: But the tension in the region. It's a tense region.
BHOWMIK: We really don't feel effect of the India/Pakistan tension. We really don't feel any problem.
GRILLOT: Well do you think Bangladesh serves as a mediating force? Despite its youth as a young country, is it out there trying to make good relations in the neighborhood?
BHOWMIK: Bangladesh is always trying to, and maybe you respond, but your friend is not responding. So what do you do? That's a big problem.
GRILLOT: I'm sure it's very challenging without a doubt. Well Sima, thank you so much for joining us on World Views to talk about an interesting part of the world.
BHOWMIK: Thank you so much. Thank you Suzette.
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