Every human tragedy in Bangladesh is grist to the political mill. It is not surprising, therefore, that the deaths of over 100 workers in the devastating fire in a garments factory near Dhaka have become a political issue in the country. The government suspects the hand of saboteurs behind the tragedy. Its opponents allege that such insinuations are actually aimed at shielding those responsible for the tragedy. Yet, the disaster offered an opportunity for both sides to make common cause on an issue that is crucial to the country’s economy. The garments industry is one of the three major sources of revenue for Bangladesh, the other two being agriculture and manpower export. The three together provide a large number of jobs to Bangladeshis at home and abroad. Yet, the garments factories in the country have long been among the most unsafe places of work. Fires and other accidents in these units are common. The people who flock to work there are too poor to worry too much about the conditions in which they are forced to work. The government of the day does not want the workers to protest too much about the conditions lest production should be affected and the country should lose precious foreign exchange earnings. Also, parties in both the government and the opposition are anxious not to upset owners of these factories who are powerful and wield much influence in politics.
The latest tragedy should be a wake-up call to politicians, owners of these industries and other players. If dangerous working conditions continue to prevail in these units, the industry’s survival could be at stake. Most of these factories survive as suppliers of finished goods to their foreign clients. The international business community cannot shirk its responsibility towards improving conditions in these units. Foreign enterprises and human rights groups have earlier intervened to stop child labour in these factories. They have an obligation to ensure that the workers do not have to work under these conditions, in constant fear of death in a fire or some other industrial accident. But the authorities in Dhaka have to act first. They have to make serious attempts to find out what exactly caused the latest fire. If it turns out to be an act of sabotage, it would be crucial to uncover the conspiracy. But using the tragedy to score political points would be a shame. It would also be suicidal for Bangladesh’s economy.