In the past 45 days, at least 40 (former) employees of Tazreen Fashions Limited have protested on the sidewalks outside the press club, which has largely gone unnoticed by the media. Every night they make beds out of thin blankets and hang mosquito nets on the club’s fence for another restless night. Every morning they ask the press club authorities to allow them to use the toilets, although most are turned away and forced to find repulsive alternatives (hence most drink no more than a glass of water throughout the day). They may eat a full meal and tidbits throughout the day brought back by well-wishers and a handful of left-wing activists who are doing their best to raise the morale of the protesters. When it rains, as it did two nights ago, you have no choice but to let it wash over you and wait for the cool air to dry your clothes. Almost all of them experience significant physical pain, which has only worsened over the past month from sitting on the hard mortar for so long. But they firmly believe that they will not leave the streets until their demands for decent compensation, rehabilitation and justice are met.
Most were permanently disabled when jumping off the upper floors of Tazreen Fashions Ltd to escape the fire that killed over 117 workers on November 24th eight years ago. There was no fire in the factory, the stairs and exits were blocked in most cases on floors and the main door was locked from the outside, while the nine-story building only had permission to build three stories. Although spared their lives, the injured workers have since experienced an incredible nightmare and have been unable to find work or stay in their jobs for long. They were their families’ breadwinners before the fire, but have lived on people’s charities and loans for the past eight years. With Covid-19, the charities and loans have dried up, and even the stores are no longer selling groceries on credit.
“If I had known about the debt and hardship that awaited me – that I would become a beggar outside the press club – I would not have tried to save myself by jumping off the third floor,” says Jorina Begum, who stretched on her uncomfortably on the sidewalk, her feet swollen from sitting on the ground for over a month. Three bars pierced her bones and flesh during the fall, and her spine was permanently damaged. After several operations, countless visits to the physiotherapist and lifelong pain relievers, Jorina still cannot sit still or stand on her feet for too long. The pain in her spine is relentless. Her husband packed and left years ago, and since then her elderly mother has supported her and her two children – eight and ten respectively – as domestic servants on her meager income. But with Covid, her mother’s income has also fallen and now they are threatened with eviction as they have not been able to pay rent in the past three months.
“Whatever alms we received four years ago were used almost immediately to repay the first four years of loans – loans that I used for surgery, medicine, and simply to support my children. I still owe at least five lakh Taka and no one will not lend me any more money. And honestly how am I supposed to pay back the loans in the first place? My mom is getting older and sicker and I should be the one to support her, but after she fed us, she didn’t even have Money I’ve been an active member of the workforce. I don’t want to be a beggar forever. I want rehabilitation. “
Labor activists have long argued that permanently disabled workers should receive compensation at least equal to their lifetime earnings, taking into account the bonuses and increments they would have earned by the time they retire. According to our labor laws, however, the life of a deceased employee is still worth Tk 1 lakh and that of a permanently disabled employee is worth Tk 1.25 lakh. Eight years after Tazreen, the government made no attempt to change the compensation rules, which remain among the lowest in the world. Indeed, later demands by labor activists and workers to change the law have been dismissed as unsustainable for industry. According to the China Labor Bulletin, our main competitor in the apparel sector, China, can offer compensation to workers worth around Tk 78 lakhs.
One of the main demands of the protesters is the amendment of the compensation laws and the provision of “worthy” compensation to permanently disabled workers. Aleya Begum, another former Tazreen worker, says, “We want what is our right. It is not our fault that we lost our ability to work. We were deprived of that ability. Both my husband and I were caught in the fire injured.” and now neither of us can work. If we both worked, we would be in managerial positions and earn around Tk 30,000 a month in overtime and social benefits. Even if we only made 10,000 Tk each, we would make 2,40,000 Tk every year. If the government gives out Tk 1.25 lakh and wants to call it a day, how long will it help us? “
Workers who protested outside the press club said they had not even been offered that meager amount by the government. About 12 permanently disabled workers received Tk 50,000 from the Prime Minister’s Welfare Fund. However, they received varying amounts from the Tazreen Claims Administration (TCA) Trust, which was established in 2015 based on an agreement between C&A, the C&A Foundation, IndustriALL Global Union and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). The TCA followed a mechanism similar to that developed by the Rana Plaza Agreement to calculate and distribute payments to Tazreen workers and their families. Note that this was not a binding agreement but rather a voluntary donation from brands that were themselves involved in the fire. Despite a protracted international campaign to shame shoppers into taking responsibility for workers’ plight, major brands such as Walmart, Kik, El Corte Ingles, the Edinburgh wool mill, Piazza Italia, Disney, Sears, Dickies, Delta Apparel are sourcing and Sean John either simply refused to contribute to the trust or paid negligible amounts. Seriously injured and permanently disabled workers reported receiving between Tk 1.5 and 5 lakh, although the victims were promised the minimum standard of compensation set out in ILO Convention 121. As Jorina and Aleya apa point out, this lump sum helped them repay some of their loans at the time, but how could it possibly help them lead a decent life with loved ones?
Workers are also furious that Delwar Hossain, the owner of Tazreen, is bailed while they rot in the street and has made no progress in the past eight years in which he and twelve others have been filed for murder under Section 302 of the Criminal Code Proceedings achieved Code, culpable murder, which is not equivalent to murder according to § 304, leads negligently to death according to § 304A and is voluntarily violated according to § 323. The fault of the owners and management of Tazreen has been well documented over the years by researchers, activists, and journalists – even a Home Office investigation after the fire found that owner negligence was responsible for the huge death toll in Tazreen. Over the past five years, however, prosecutors have moved at a snail’s pace, not even bringing witnesses to court – so far only eight of 104 witnesses have been dismissed. According to court sources and activists who were closely following the trial, prosecutors were only able to produce six witnesses out of the 38 planned hearings! It should be a national shame that prosecutors failed to perform their duties so miserably in a case as high-profile as Tazreen, where the evidence overwhelmingly shows that the factory was built in breach of multiple safety codes and the workers were not admitted Leave a burning building despite the fire alarm as soon as the fire broke out. Who needs defense lawyers in such a criminal prosecution?
The demonstrators firmly believe that they no longer need handouts – they want a dignified life, rehabilitation and justice for the crimes committed against them. But no one seems to care about their demands – not the government, not the Bangladesh Apparel Manufacturers and Exporters Association, not the buyers, not the media, and not even us. About 10 days ago, representatives from the Department of Factory and Facility Inspection (DIFE) came and made a list of the injured workers, but then left with no assurance. The workers are fed up with waiting and living a life of uncertainty, insults, pain and outrage. The least they deserve is the state’s respect for the sacrifices they have made for the economic blessing of this nation.
Sushmita S Preetha is a journalist and researcher.
The protesters do not want a charity, but if you would like to donate food, medicine, blankets, etc. so that they can continue their demonstration, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org