After spending the morning in Savar with Rana Plaza survivors, we go to the town of Ashulia, about 7 kilometers north, to meet with survivors of the Tazreen Factory Fire. Mohamed Ibrahim, from Kalpona Akter’s organization, the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity, organized the meeting. Again, Zaeed translates for us.
In Ashulia, roughly 14 workers and their children are gathered outside their home, a series of rooms linked by a common porch. They give us seats on the porch, leave one chair for a survivor to sit in as she or he speaks to us, and form a semi-circle of listeners behind the speaker.
One at a time, four people take the chair to tell the story of where they were and what they did on November 24th, 2012, when the management of the Tazreen Fashion Factory locked the doors and left the building. A fire started inside the factory–which had no fire security measures, no fire extinguishers, and no sand. At least 112 garment workers died and 300 were injured. Despite the fact that the fire occurred before the Rana Plaza collapse, the deceased workers’ families and those injured in the fire have yet to be compensated. There is hope that because of Rana Plaza there will be at least some compensation, but nothing has materialized yet. It’s hard to believe that a garment factory fire that killed over 112 workers in part, because of locked doors, did not garner international rage and action when it happened. It is also stunning that only a workplace disaster as devastating as the Rana Plaza collapse, that took 1,134 lives, could do so.
With each story told, there is an air of giving testimony. We listen with respect and humility to a mother who worked in the garment industry to be able to bring up her children–particularly her daughter–with a proper education, but now has a traumatic brain injury that gives her such severe headaches that she can no longer work, a father and experienced tailor who now, because of spinal and hand injuries, ekes out a living running a tea stall, a sewing supervisor who once supported his parents, his brother, his wife and himself but is now so severely injured that he that will never be able to do manual labor and cannot support anyone, and a frail, middle-aged woman, a sweeper in the factory, whose injuries were so devastating that her husband had to quit his job as a rickshaw puller to care for her. They had to send their youngest children to their extended family’s rural home to be looked after by relatives.
Each person describes the mounting terror of watching the factory slowly fill up with smoke, the fear felt trying to figure out how to escape and the wild panic of attempting to pull the grills off windows in order to get out. All talk of losing consciousness after hurling themselves out of windows and hitting the roofs or walls of nearby buildings.
With no fire extinguishers, no fire trucks coming to the rescue and locked doors, it is almost inconceivable that the Tazreen Factory fire happened in the year 2012. Walmart and Sears were two of the main American companies whose clothes were made in this factory. These companies have given no compensation to workers injured in the fire or to the families of workers who lost their lives. Tazreen, and other similar Bangladesh garment factory fires caused by poor fire safety standards and no fire safety education for garment workers, are the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire all over again.
Masud Rana, the former tailor and current tea stall owner, cries when he tells us how difficult life is for him now. He is not earning enough to support his wife and children and can’t ask for support from his father, a poor peasant farmer. His wife, who was pregnant when the fire happened, has to remain in the house with their youngest child. “But the cause of my agony is, I couldn’t save the lives of those who burned to ashes in front of my eyes.”
He also says he is utterly happy that we are here with the Tazreen workers. “You will let other people know about the conditions we are living in.”
“Write, so that the process of getting compensation might get momentum,” says Hassan Mian, the former sewing supervisor and family breadwinner who now has to collect old garments from other people to clothe his children.