The Norman Transcript

May 4, 2013

Bangladesh factory collapse: beyond mourning and money

By Sheikh Rokon
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Last Thursday, I went to the weekly meeting of Norman Rotary Club with Andy Rieger, the executive editor of the Norman Transcript. He introduced me and Rotarians responded with a waving hands and lovely applause. Just moments after I sat down, the lady sitting beside me asked the distance between the collapsed building of garment factories in Savar, Dhaka and my home.

In fact, we are facing such sympathetic questions almost everywhere here in Norman, Oklahoma. The CNN news scrolled across the digital screen on Gaylord Hall at the University of Oklahoma. We have been noticing ‘Bangladesh’ here everyday. And we are answering as much as we know. Beyond that we have little to do, standing thousands of miles away, but weep silently for the tragic demise of hundreds of lives. What could we meaningfully do even if we were there?

We saw the lack of proper equipment to rescue people from the hall turned hell. It’s true that hundreds of people tried their best to help the trapped and injured. But those acts of big heart are really small in the scale of the catastrophe. So the grief of fallen lives and failed capacity lies over the nation. Reactions on social or mainstream media are saddening. One is the concern about our garment buyers based in Europe and America especially. The second target is the garment owners.

It is absolute that if the garment factory owners don’t improve the wage structure and working environment, instability in production channels and lives risked on thousands of our cheap labor force will prevail. As a result we may have to face more and bigger tragic incidents in the future. And eventually we will lose our garment market abroad, the second remittance earner sector. The thousands of youths, especially females from lower income groups or rural areas, many of whom got the “freedom of choice” due to cash in hand, who are trying to stand on their own feet and ignore some social discriminations, will lose their jobs.

The question is — is it just an issue of remittance or job market or women’s emancipation? Are the garment factory owners the only culprits responsible for our mourning? We have to think beyond emotional and economic concerns.

Firstly, I think, safety of the citizens is the real concern whether it is a garment factory or the secretariat. So we have to ensure the safety of the homes and workplaces. Not only the Rana Plaza, hundreds of buildings have been built and improvised without proper design and safety measures. Many of our roofs are at optimum tenure, especially in Old Dhaka. We have to identify and restructure those buildings immediately. And proper rescue equipment has become most essential. We should not forget that Bangladesh is near an earthquake zone, let alone the accidents like Rana Plaza.

Secondly, witch hunting for garments owners exclusively will not help to ensure a safe and secure garment industry. The collapsed Rana Plaza of Savar has shown how the nexus of politicians, land grabbers and city development officials built a tower of death. Well, garment owners should have been careful while renting the floors for factories, but isn’t it the city authority’s task as well to stop the illegal building work going on? Isn’t it really the building owner who put hundreds of lives, millions in investments, foreign markets and our hearts and honor at stake? If we just blame the garment factory owner, the real culprits will be smiling, sitting in a safe corner.

Sheikh Rokon is a Bangladeshi journalist and researcher visiting Norman under an exchange program from the U.S. State Department and Gaylord College of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Oklahoma. Contact him at