Jus­tice & im­punity

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zeenat Hisam

IT was an early March morn­ing in 2009 and I was cruis­ing along one of the pri­mary roads in the cen­tral busi­ness district area of Dhaka city where many of the ready-made gar­ments (RGM) fac­to­ries are housed in old build­ings. Young girls in droves, dressed in shal­war-kameez, were emerg­ing from the side lanes, step­ping down from the buses, cross­ing the road, chat­ting on the foot­path, bend­ing over street ven­dors' wares now and then and head­ing to­wards their fac­to­ries for the morn­ing shift.

I was in Dhaka to get a sense of what makes Bangladeshi RGM women work­ers or­gan­ise for their rights. I climbed a nar­row stair­case of a build­ing where many girls had gone. The fac­tory was on the first floor. From the small land­ing I looked through the iron grille pad­locked from out­side: women bend­ing over sewing ma­chines in rows. A surly young man guarded the door: "out­siders are not al­lowed", he told me.

The im­age of the fac­tory en­trance, pad­locked from out­side was made vivid three years later in Septem­ber 2012 when a fire burnt to death 258 work­ers in a fac­tory in Bal­dia, Karachi. The fac­tory had no fire es­capes and no fire alarm. Some of the ex­its were locked from out­side. The three in­quiries in the case con­ducted by the po­lice of­fi­cers com­mit­tee, the FIA and the ju­di­cial tri­bunal es­tab­lished that the own­ers had com­mit­ted gross vi­o­la­tions of laws and var­i­ous govern­ment de­part­ments were in­volved in chi­canery.

All the three re­ports had ruled out ex­tor­tion, sab­o­tage or ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity as the cause of fire. The ini­tial pro­ceed­ings - fil­ing of the FIR by the area po­lice, charge sheet and the ar­rest of the fac­tory own­ers in Oc­to­ber 2012 - gave hope that jus­tice would be done and those re­spon­si­ble for crim­i­nal neg­li­gence would be brought to task. It has been four years now, the mur­der case against the own­ers and oth­ers is still pend­ing in court and the sus­pects are at large, on bail, out of coun­try.

In Dhaka, back then, I had vis­ited sev­eral trade union fed­er­a­tions' of­fices and met labour ac­tivists women and men. Though the labour move­ment in Bangladesh was weak and frag­mented, I still found it func­tional and vi­brant. There were about five ac­tive trade union fed­er­a­tions mo­bil­is­ing and sup­port­ing women work­ers who com­prised 80pc of the work­force in the gar­ments sec­tor, and the ma­jor­ity was 16 to 24 years old. I thought the work­ers' fu­ture may not be that dis­mal. But the Novem­ber Tazreen fac­tory fire that killed 112 work­ers, and the April 2013 col­lapse of the Rana Plaza build­ing that led to the death of more than 1,100 peo­ple in­di­cated how murky the path to jus­tice and a de­cent life is for labour.

The mur­der case filed against 13 ac­cused, in­clud­ing the own­ers, for the death of work­ers in the Tazreen fac­tory started re­cently in Jan­uary 2016 in a Dhaka court. The ac­cused were chargesheeted in De­cem­ber 2014 and in­dicted in Septem­ber 2015. In the Rana Plaza case, the court ac­cepted the charge sheet in De­cem­ber 2015 against 41 peo­ple (own­ers and oth­ers) for mur­der, in­clud­ing four govern­ment in­spec­tors de­spite ef­forts by their de­part­ments to shield them from pros­e­cu­tion un­der pub­lic ser­vant im­mu­nity rules.

Al­beit too slow, the pro­ceed­ings of the Bal­dia fac­tory case in Pak­istan and the two cases in Bangladesh val­i­date the role of civil so­ci­ety, trade unions and labour or­gan­i­sa­tions who stood up with the work­ers against in­jus­tice and kept prod­ding the ju­di­cial sys­tem for de­liv­ery. In both coun­tries, though ac­count­abil­ity of the con­cerned au­thor­i­ties is en­sured in the con­sti­tu­tion and rel­e­vant laws, a cul­ture of im­punity reigns supreme.

Peo­ple, at all level, par­tic­u­larly the rich, be­lieve they can get away with the vi­o­la­tion of laws, mi­nor or ma­jor, and in most cases they do get away. Im­punity in the sys­tem is sus­tained through a break­down of trust and of the so­cial con­tract be­tween the state and the ci­ti­zen and un­equal power-shar­ing.

Im­punity can also be re­sisted through an en­abling en­vi­ron­ment built col­lec­tively. Af­ter the two in­dus­trial dis­as­ters in Bangladesh, a num­ber of ini­tia­tives were taken. The Ac­cord on Fire and Build­ing Safety in Bangladesh, a legally bind­ing agree­ment be­tween brands and trade unions signed in May 2013, led to 1,358 Cor­rec­tive Ac­tions Plans de­vel­oped by fac­to­ries and brands by Fe­bru­ary 2016.

The Rana Plaza Ac­tion Com­mit­tee, com­pris­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the labour min­istry, the lo­cal and global gar­ment pro­duc­ers, lo­cal and global trade unions and NGOs, with the ILO act­ing as a neu­tral chair, su­per­vises the process of com­pen­sa­tion to the vic­tims. The Bangladesh Worker Safety Al­liance, formed in 2013, is a legally bind­ing, five-year com­mit­ment to im­prove safety in Bangladeshi fac­to­ries. Do we have sim­i­lar un­der­tak­ings to cite af­ter the Bal­dia fac­tory disas­ter?

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