The other young lives

A Tribute to Young workers

Saydia Gulrukh writes a tribute to the young garment workers who sacrificed their youth to build the national economy of post-independence Bangladesh

 

November 24, 2012. Few minutes after the Maghreb prayer, a fire broke out at Tazreen Fashions Ltd, an apparel factory situated in Ashulia, Dhaka. Since the factory was filled with illegally stored flammable materials, fire quickly spread from floor to floor while hundreds of workers were trapped inside. The main collapsible gates of the factory were locked. The road from the highway to the factory premise was too narrow to make way for fire-fighting apparatus to arrive on the spot. There was no easy access to water body to douse the fire. Fire safety workers struggled to locate the nearest water body. In the first two hours, workers jumped through the windows of the burning building, some survived, some died. Family members of the trapped workers waited in front of the factory, wailing and screaming in anger and desperation in a cold November night. Twelve hours later, the following morning, fire was tamed, but by then it already claimed lives of 119 workers and left more than 176 workers injured for life.

 

Palash, Papiya, Mahfuja, Sharmin, Sabuj and others, all who died at Tazreen were young, between the ages of 15-35 years. They were a part of the labour force that brings more than two-thirds of the country’s annual export earnings. To be more specific, apparel workers, popularly known as the garment workers contributed 28.14 billion dollar in export earning to our economy in 2016. They sacrificed their youth, toiled for more than 14 hours a day to run the wheel of the national economy.

 

It will be mistaken to say that the lives lost at Tazreen are forgotten. On the occasion of fifth anniversary of Tazreen fire, different labour organisations, victims and affected families commemorated their lives through day-long programmes like bringing out procession at the factory site, placing flowers at the Jurain graveyard and holding protest rallies in the capital demanding the punishment of those responsible for the fire. They are remembered, but in a fragmented way. Their lives are reduced to a seamless category of ‘the worker’ — workers are toiling mass stripped of any other social characters. Therefore, our empathy, our mourning is exclusionary in nature.

 

Despite the fact that a majority of our young population comes from working class background, our socio-political imagination of tarunsamaj (young lives) and the way we conventionally imagine the youth community in Bangladesh, it excludes young workers. When I have asked a student of Dhaka University, how do you define today’s youth? Quick and crisp response was, ‘university and college students.’ When I have asked the same question to a grade ten student deeply involved with a youth leadership programme, she gave an elaborate answer, ‘Students of diverse background, from English, Bangla, or Madrashah, those eager to take up challenge, committed to social change are the future leaders of Bangladesh, they are the youth change makers.’

 

Students are obviously significant part of today’s youth; however, I bring this anecdote to underscore the exclusionary nature of our popular imagination. Migrant workers of Bangladesh, mostly young men, contributed an incredible $13.6 billion in remittance which was received in fiscal year 2016, yet they are not the young change makers of our nation. The garment workers of Bangladesh too are not the youth change makers. I write this piece as a form of protest against this exclusionary practice. I write this piece as a tribute to the young lives who sacrificed their youth to build the national economy of post-independence Bangladesh. I write this piece to tell the stories of workers who were burnt alive; it is a tribute to young garment workers whose right to a proper burial was denied. They remained missing since the night of the fire.

 

 

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Hena

Mother and daughter, Rokeya Begum and Hena had lived in a cluster of houses right across the road from Tazreen Fashions. Rokeya’s husband had abandoned her when Hena was only three months old, leaving behind the two, with no one else but each other. Several years ago, when Rokeya developed heart disease, Hena became the breadwinner. It wasn’t easy for Rokeya to get Hena a garments factory job because she was underage. Neighbors say she was only fifteen, but she looked even younger. Floor managers would hide child workers like Hena behind big boxes and cartons when buyers would visit the factory. But hiding behind no carton or box could have saved her from the raging fires. Rokeya says, I’m sure she’s still alive somewhere, maybe she’s unconscious, I’m sure she’ll mutter my name the moment she regains consciousness. Neighbors ask her, how do you get by these days. By drinking my tears, she quietly replies.

 

Rehana on the left

Rehana on the left

 

Rehana

Rehana was married to an Awami League hitman. Her husband would often return home with blood splattered on his clothes. She left home one day with their two-year-old son, after helping herself to some money from his trunk. She left her son with her mother and came to Dhaka. It was 2007. She worked in different garment factories in Nischintapur before taking up work at Tazreen. She had wanted to excel in life, confides her brother Matin. She was planning to go to the Middle East as a migrant labor, she dreamt of buying a piece of land in Rajbari for her son from her earnings there. A few weeks before the factory fire, she had applied for a passport. Maybe it was all waiting and ready to be picked up from the Dhaka Passport office, Matin remarks casually. He vividly remembers the night of the fire. My brother-in-law, Babul Mia received a frantic call from her, she had hurriedly said, ‘our factory is on fire, I don’t think I will be able to get out.’

 

Mahfuja

Jabbar and Saddam, who are brothers, stood outside Tazreen Fashions helplessly as the fire raged inside the building all night long. Their wives, Mitu and Mahfuja were locked inside the factory. Next morning, Saddam’s wife Mitu’s body was found. She had probably died of asphyxiation. There were no burn marks; she even had her sandals on. But Jabbar could not recognise his wife from the bodies lying on the floor of Nischintapur Primary School’s veranda. Several well wishers whispered in his ear, go, claim one of the charred bodies. But his grieving heart didn’t allow him to do so. Instead, he continued searching, opening the black zipper of one body-bag after the other. Mahfuja must be here, he kept hoping against hope. Jabbar and Mahfuja’s was an arranged marriage. He first saw her photograph. Weeks later, when he went to meet her in person, she was with five other friends, all wearing blue and white school uniforms. Even though they looked alike it took him only a few seconds to recognize his wife to-be, Mahfuja. To onlookers, the bodies in the body bags looked the same, charred bones and skeleton. Jabbar was unbelievably distraught, how could he not identify his beloved wife? When Jabbar showed me this photo of Mahfuja’s, his face brightened, he smiled and said, ‘this was the photograph that my mother showed me before our marriage.’

 

Shila

Shila was good at school; she’d passed her school certificate exams with good grades. After the exam, she even got admitted to a college in Narayanganj. Shila lost her father very early. Her elder brother, Shah Alam, meant the world to her. He had wanted her to complete college, to become a teacher like him. He had never thought she would become a garment factory worker. But during her college years, she became romantically involved with a ‘rascal’, they eloped, got married in Kuakata, neighbours spoke ill of them. Shah Alam went on, “My mother and sisters denounced her. That is how she ended up in a garments factory. It took me a day to hear about the fire. Two days later, I went directly to the Dhaka Medical College, but unclaimed bodies had already been buried. They told me to give a blood sample instead, for DNA testing. But my experience at the DNA testing center was awful, the testing process is so biased. I’m a primary school teacher. They looked me up, from top to bottom, they repeatedly asked, are you sure Shila is your apon bon (blood-related sister). You see, they worked on the basis of stereotypes, my appearance didn’t match their ideas of the ‘garments factory type.’ If I’d been wearing a lungi, if I’d gone barefeet, they wouldn’t have hesitated, I would have been saved from the preliminary interrogation.”

 

In popular imagination, when we say ‘tarunshomaj’ it does not necessarily include the young working class/working class youth.  How do you explain this exclusion and othering? asked New Age Youth to Dr Mahmudul Sumon, anthropologists and a faculty at Jahangirnagar University

 

Dr Mahmudul H Sumon: I think the discourse around ‘Youth engagement’ by what I would call GO-NGOs, some nation-wide forums for newspapers, and also valorisation of Shahbagh movement has had a significant effect in constructing a ‘tarunshomaj’ in Bangladesh in recent years which is significantly different from earlier popular imagination of ‘tarunshamaj.’ It is increasingly fractured today.

This new ‘tarunshomaj’often evokes an image of an urban, middle class, ‘modern’ and I dare say secular figure, and it has a subjectivity which excludes ‘Others’, a huge population of the country who may have been subjected to a marginalised education system, or may not have been able to complete their education at all due to a marginalised class position or working in the low paid garments sector or leaving the country for employment in some of the Middle eastern countries.

We need to rethink this discourse and develop a new representation of the ‘tarunshomaj’. Government’s role is very crucial in it.

 

 

 

 

 

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