Justice and Impunity

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2016

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 charge-sheeted 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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