The Justice Table Is a Little Bit Empty

Dahka city market
A market in Dhaka 

On Feb. 11th we visited lawyer Sara Hossain at her office at BLAST, the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust. Sara is the daughter of Kamal Hossain, a very liberal and well-known jurist who is considered the father of Bangladesh’s constitution. Bangladesh has a thriving intellectual and progressive vanguard and Sara is certainly a member of it.

Ishita Dutta and Sara Hossain at the BLAST office
Ishita Dutta and Sara Hossain at the BLAST office

She is also the executive director of BLAST, whose mission is “to make the legal system accessible to the poor and the marginalized.” BLAST has provided a number of services to Rana Plaza survivors and families of victims, and continues to work on legal aspects of the case.

Sara is also a member of a law firm and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh as well as BLAST’s director. To say she has a hectic schedule is a huge understatement. Our interview was periodically interrupted by phone calls and visits from other BLAST staff members asking for her counsel. She invited a young lawyer, Ishita Dutta, to join our meeting and cover for her when she was too busy to talk to us.

Sara was very frank about the immediate effects of Rana Plaza on Bangladesh’s garment industry. “The law protecting workers’ rights is O.K., it’s the implementation that’s the problem.” The government is more concerned about keeping the ready-made garment industry strong, allowing private factories free reign to keep up with the demands of multinational companies.

“The people who would be coalescing behind Rana Plaza have fractured,” she says, due to the country’s political climate, in which the two major parties are battling for power with violent ferocity.

“The justice table is a little bit empty,” says Sara.

On the way to the cemetary
On the way to the public cemetery

Little has changed in the almost two years since the Rana Plaza collapse. The government has “washed its hands” of the survivors and victims’ families, leaving their compensation and rehabilitation to the “voluntary scheme” of the Arrangement.

“On the other hand,” Sara adds, “the glass is half full.”

A market near Dhaka University
A market near Dhaka University

Thanks to the work of activists and NGOs, there are initiatives in place for the workers of Rana Plaza. They’ve had some level of counseling; they did have solidarity from the rest of the country—at least immediately after the collapse.

And the collapse did change “the game” with the AllianceAccord. Inspections and protection in factories have improved. There is now a more organized frame of reference, more debate and discussion. A lot could still happen.

We couldn’t help but think about how long it took for the shock and outrage after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to translate into labor laws and building codes and a strong garment workers union. Although the owners of the Triangle factory did go to trial, they were acquitted, and not held responsible for the tragedy.

Sara’s message for American consumers: “please support the workers here. This is not a situation where you can look away. There has been incredible change. The world buys things we make. It makes a big difference in the conversations we can have here, the comparisons we can make.”

Street food
Street food near Dhaka University

What should happen next, we ask. Multinational companies and factory owners should have some understanding of what their responsibilities are. And there should also be clarity on building codes and safety inspections. Bangladesh is a fast-changing industrialized society. Every day, larger, taller buildings are built on sandy soil that can’t accommodate so much weight. And all the new development occurs in Dhaka, which is already the 19th most densely populated city in the world.

And of course, the voluntary funds need to get to the Rana Plaza survivors and the victims’ families.

Sara is concerned about the difficult issue of compensation, an issue that we’ve also discussed with other NGOs that work on the Rana Plaza case and with the Rana Plaza survivors we’ve met. According to Bangladesh Law, if your family member dies in a workplace accident, you are entitled to the equivalent of $1,000 US dollars. If you are a permanently injured survivor, $1,200 US dollars. In the case of the Rana Plaza collapse, money is being distributed in a variety of ways and based on a range of criteria, but the amount of compensation remains shockingly low. Of course it is impossible to put a price on a loved one and many survivors and family members who lost loved ones in the Rana Plaza collapse talked about this with us. Moreover, they emphasized the unfairness of the equation. On the other hand, the amount families are receiving is more than what any victim of any factory accident in Bangladesh has ever received, and some people see this as progress.

For Sara, our discussion opens up a larger and critical question about how we conceive of justice. She told us that many people think of justice as something that happens at the end – punishment or rehabilitation. She is much more interested in seeing it in different ways and especially in seeing it as a process. We find this to be a potent context for both the story of garment workers and the current political climate in Bangladesh, which is challenging at best.

Poster at the offices of Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies
Poster at the offices of Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies

Sara discussed the current culture of impunity that exists, that may be changing because of Rana Plaza. A case in point is a factory fire that occurred in the town of Ashuria on November 24, 2012 in the Tazreen Fashion Factory. At least 117 people were confirmed dead and over 200 were injured. It was extraordinarily similar to the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire in that the reason so many people died is that the doors to the factory were locked. The survivors of this fire have yet to receive any compensation. The owner of this factory was not arrested until 11 months after the fire. Though in prison, he has yet to be tried.

The owner of the Rana Plaza building, Sohel Rana, was apprehended just 24 hours after the collapse, close to the Indian border, apparently intending to flee the country.

Sculpture dedicated to a student killed by political violence
Sculpture dedicated to a student killed by political violence

Sara also sees memorialization as part of the justice process. She encouraged us to visit the many important memorials in Bangladesh, the Liberation War memorial, the Martyred Intellectuals Memorial, the Memorial to the Mother Language and even the cemetery of the unidentified and unclaimed bodies from the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse – of which there are 154, of 1,134.

Martyr Monument commemorating those killed during the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations of 1952
Martyr Monument commemorating those killed during the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations of 1952

With our interest in linking the Rana Plaza Collapse to the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire, we especially appreciated her sense of the importance of history.

We are so impressed by Sara and the other women we’ve met in Dhaka who are working on behalf of garment workers here. Like Clara Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman and Frances Perkins, women from diverse classes and cultures who were instrumental in changing working conditions in America’s garment industry after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Sara Hossain, Kalpona Akter and Taslima Akhter are spearheading change in Bangladesh at a time when the majority of women in the country are just beginning to find their economic and political power. The challenges for Bangladesh’s women leaders, according to Sara, are working together with a common voice that speaks to all classes of women. “Religious extremism affects us severely,” she says; so does nationalist extremism, polarization, dogmatism and insularity. “People need to cross bridges to build a culture respecting rights.”

Street Scene on the way to the cemetary
Street Scene on the way to the cemetary

Heeding Sara’s recommendation, we go to the cemetery where the 154 unclaimed and unidentified Rana Plaza dead are buried. As it turns out, the 51 unclaimed and unidentified Tazreen fire dead are buried in the same cemetery. This cemetery is difficult to find, even for our incredibly experienced and talented driver, Sadek, who seems to know every back road in Dhaka, and more than once has gotten us out of traffic jams by skillfully navigating narrow alleys. He has to stop and ask people at every turn how to get to the public cemetery, a place where people with no money to buy a plot are buried. Eventually, we have to get out of the car and walk for ten minutes to get there because our vehicle cannot go in the narrow alleys along the way.

These are the kinds of streets and alleys where foreigners don’t usually travel. Stares and open mouths greet us as we walk with our extraordinary translator and guide, Zaeed.

Rana Plaza unidentified victims' graves
Rana Plaza unidentified victims’ graves

The cemetery is large and individual plots have thin bamboo fencing surrounding them. Children play and families walk among the graves. We finally come to a long expanse of grass where the 154 bodies are buried–like all the bodies buried here–in cloth, not coffins, which causes them to disintegrate fairly rapidly. Most heart wrenching are the individual labels by each burial plot. Handwritten on metal, lashed to a small wooden post is a DNA number and…and that is it.

Rana Plaza unidentified victim's grave marker
Rana Plaza unidentified victim’s grave marker

Garbage litters the area. The man who showed us the location of the plots begins to collect some of the garbage and attempts to straighten the signposts, obviously something that doesn’t happen very often. These are plots for bodies that no one was able to claim, or perhaps they belonged to families that could not afford to transport them back to their villages of origin. A few of the plots had been claimed after the bodies had already been buried and these were identified by the bamboo fencing placed around the plots, some painted and with more formal signs that showed the names and village of the victim.

A Rana Plaza victim's grave that has been claimed by the family .
A Rana Plaza victim’s grave that has been claimed by the family .

The graves of the Tazreen victims are even more decrepit. The cemetery manager has a hard time finding even one signpost designating any DNA markers, though eventually he does find one.

Tazreen Factory Fire unidentified victims' graves
Tazreen Factory Fire unidentified victims’ graves

At these gravesites, Sara Hossain’s words: “The justice table is a little bit empty,” are aptly illustrated.

Tazreen Factory Fire unidentified victims' grave markers
Tazreen Factory Fire unidentified victims’ grave markers
The Justice Table Is a Little Bit Empty

6 thoughts on “The Justice Table Is a Little Bit Empty

  1. “Multinational companies and factory owners should have some understanding of what their responsibilities are.” So critical for us to keep in mind these larger, policy contexts, worldwide. Thank you, Alison and Rachel, for being on the ground, and asking the important questions. Your comparisons are making a difference in terms of how we all might continue to frame these tragedies.

    Justice as process…Yes.

    Following along, with love.


  2. Meg Masterson says:

    I so agree with Patricia Cumbie. I also wonder if it wasn’t similarly true, surely it was, that some family members of the Triangle fire victims did not, could not transport their bodies home, and so they were unclaimed. This is such a smart and important project.


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