Arson and accidental fires are death traps for the working class communities of Dhaka. Corrupt officials ignore building codes and allow unscrupulous businessmen to bypass fire protection standards.
The most affected are the basti – slum dwellers and garment factory workers, but hazards exist for everyone. The impact is most visible in the garment industry of Bangladesh, which earned $19 billion in 2012 alone. Factory fires and building collapses have killed 1900 garment workers since 2005.
The nation’s worst fire was at Tazreen Fashion factory in November 2012, and grabbed world headlines. At least 112 people were confirmed dead although the number was claimed to be higher. 53 unidentified workers were buried in a mass grave.
The deadliest disaster in the history of the industry occurred on 24 April 2013, when Rana Plaza, a complex with five garment factories collapsed. Reported death tool was 1133 workers and over 600 more workers were disabled. For these victims life is a painful struggle. The headlines are soon forgotten in the West, while the victims pay a huge price for producing cheap, fashionable clothes.
The global headlines came with the horrific fire at Tazreen Fashion factory in November 2012. At least 117 people were confirmed dead in the fire (and activists claim more bodies were "disappeared" by authorities), making it the deadliest factory fire in the nation's history. 53 workers bodies could not be identified due to severe burns and were buried in mass grave. Tazreen's clients, either directly or through subcontractors, included global giants Walmart, US Marines, Sears, Disney, and Enyce. As a result, this fire became the symbol for the high cost paid by third world workers for western consumer's fashion desires. The issue has been brought all the way to US President Barack Obama, via a letter signed by US Senators.
"Ma (mother), I have no way to save my life,” Palash Mian told her on the phone, calling from inside the factory. "I cannot find any way to get out. I am in the bathroom of the fifth floor. I am wearing a black T-shirt. And I have a shirt wrapped around my waist. You will find me in the bathroom.” Dead bodies were lined up with white bags in a school ground near the factory. Palash’s mother, Ms. Begum unzipped a bag and found a corpse wearing a black T-shirt.
I have been photographing fire risks and the building collaspes in Dhaka since 2005, including terrible fires at slums, garment factories, homes, shopping malls etc. But even with all that experience, I paused while photographing a charred face. I didn't know her name or didn't have time to wait for the relatives to identity her so that I could get her name. May be a mother, a wife or a daughter– to me a human being, and sadly now a corpse. Army soldiers had cordoned off her body along with others. It was difficult for me to take that photograph of a small ornament visible on her destroyed nose. I felt grief and anger and guilt for taking such a gruesome portrait. But I also know that news agencies will clamor for this photograph. The world only gives such people importance and headlines when they are dead, ignoring them when they are alive. The price of your cheap, fashionable clothes is those deaths.
I will continue to document the living and working conditions and vulnerability of the garment workers. I want to use photography to raise global awareness and pressure powerful global brands like WalMart, Nike, and Disney to pay fair prices so that labor and safety standards can be implemented in these factories. Photography can carry the stories in a way that endless essays, op-eds, and seminars cannot. I want to dedicate my work to saving this industry, bringing an end to the exploitation of 3 million workers (60% women workers) who toil away in the shadows of this industry. Let us not wait for another tragedy, before we take action.
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Pathshala South Asian Media Institute
16 Sukrabad, Panthapath