Garment workers in Bangladesh: the Savar tragedy

Friday, April 26, 2013 - 01:00

I hear the wailing horns of the ambulances and other sirens from vehicles showing the flag of Bangladesh. They're being escorted by special order protocol men carrying walkie-talkies, dust masks and khaki vests making their way behind their goggles. Critically injured survivors needing transfer to any hospital inside the city will have to suffer this tailback ordeal – I keep thinking, zipping towards the site this morning.

55 minutes later, this is Savar – away from the bustling capital Dhaka, except for now all the bustle seems to pack around Rana Plaza – the 8-storey building that caved in on hundreds of garment workers on the morning of 24 April.

Fissures in the concrete beams were visible the day before and concerned architectural experts said;

No one goes in!

Well, no one did, except for a few hundred garments workers, mostly women in their twenties and thirties, who were allegedly forced to get to work in this risky structure in a bid to making up for the hartal (general strike) hours to meet international buyers’ deadlines.

Dead lines… dead bodies… bodies bent in the waste… hurled into a flat mound… squeezed between ceiling and floor… dislocated limbs… and then the latest addition – the stench of dead people still trapped under the debris. Buzzing flies too.

I hear hydraulic lifters and metal clanks. People screaming, wailing, whistling, instructing, requesting, enquiring, clapping, ordering. I see people, in their thousands – huddling shoulder to shoulder. I see people with no training in rescue, wrapping up the head with a white bandana, brandishing an air freshener and off into the debris.

ActionAid Bangladesh are supplying food, water and rescue equipment to the fire service and their trained volunteers. We continue to monitor the whole premises for discrepancies and are communicating it to the local administration on site for immediate action.

We talked to people, moved concrete blocks, supplied water and food, took photos, tried to control the waves of inquisitive crowds. We supported rescuers and gave a few some rest while we offered a helping hand.

I had to hop into an ambulance carrying a dead body of a woman. Many came rushing to us with laminated photos to ask if they resembled the deceased. 30 hours after the collapse, no one could differentiate a face.

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Khadija hasn’t given up on her daughter, Shefali Begum, an operator whose station was in the fourth floor. Khadija wails,

Give me my daughter – dead or alive. I just want my daughter back. Give her to me!

The search continues. Inside the collapsed structure, survivors were still breathing. Every five minutes or so, bodies are brought out of the debris in stretchers and carried in ambulances either to a temporary morgue raised in a nearby school compound or to hospitals for treatment. I have come across four dead people stuck in the debris.

Rescue work appears to be considerably slow as a result of the sordid lack of proper equipments and electricity. Heavy columns were hammered down and rod sheets cut manually. But then portable electric-generators arrived. Hundred of locals and trained urban volunteers have joined with Fire Service and Civil Defence departments. Many organisations have supplied food items and emergency saline water. A number of media people are active on the ground, with live feed to online and cable channels. Rescuer-manned pickup trucks and ambulances carrying injured survivors or dead bodies are moving away from the site in a frenzy.

The army and BGB battalion are seen to be more engaged in controlling crowd - with little success. Thousands of people who are family members of the deceased/survivors and onlookers are congesting the adjacent roads. The lack of proper coordination among government departments are arguably contributing to the slow rescue.

The government’s public display today shows the number of deaths at 208, of which 154 have been handed over to relatives. More than 300 survivors are being treated in different hospitals in Savar and Dhaka. Rescue workers have made holes in fallen concrete structures to fan in oxygen and supply food and water if possible. But we fear there won’t be any survivors to rescue after today.

What will you say if I theorise a little bit?

What if I say, "Profit maximisation is disproportionate to workers' rights"? I know my country hasn’t seen many urban collapses and hence lacks the expertise in handling these situations. But what if I told you the list of unfit structures are not available to public query? What if I told you that the building was originally permitted to have 5 floors only? What if I told you the garment workers were threatened with a cut in their wage if they didn’t get in for work?

What if I told you I still feel I’m inside that 'pancake' of debris?