On February 8, the owners of the garments factory in Bangladesh that burned and killed more than a hundred people in April 2012 finally surrendered to the police. Delwar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akter, along with eleven associates are charged with homicide for the fire, which prompted an international debate on corporate responsibility in developing countries.
The charges are significant because it is the first time that Bangladesh has sought accountability from leading players in the lucrative garments industry, a powerful political and economic player. It is a test of Bangladesh’s police force and the legal system, at a time when they are coming under increasing public scrutiny for what is perceived as their laissez-faire attitude towards the rich and powerful.
At around $20 billion, the garments industry in Bangladesh accounts for a significant portion of the country’s export industry, with shipments mainly going to the U.S. and Europe. A poster child for development economic research and nonprofit work, the industry has been hailed by academics for increasing the role of the private sector in what is a late bloomer emerging market. With women accounting for the majority of workers, researchers and international development bodies alike have credited garments manufacturing for increasing employment opportunities for women and helping to bridge the rural-urban divide in Bangladesh, praising the industry for its indirect facilitation of gender advancement in Bangladesh socially and economically.
Following the fire in April 2012, along with several other deadly fires in the following months, this praise has been overtaken by stories of harsh working conditions and poor pay, attracting attention from human rights organizations, mainly from the West. While authorities and global clothing companies have vowed to improve safety standards, it is often forgotten that the issue goes beyond the rights of workers, to the very nature of the country’s police enforcement and legal system. The arrests of Hossain, Akter and their associates has shone a light onto an uncomfortable arena: the power of the police, one of the most mistrusted agencies in Bangladesh.
The power and fragmented nature of Bangladesh’s police force is an uncomfortable discussion. Following the fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory, local police cited insufficient evidence to bring a case against the owners. However, further investigation found that some managers had in fact closed the gates that would have allowed workers to escape the fire, and even told workers that it was a regular drill. The building had no emergency exits or a proper monitoring system. Even getting this far in the investigation was a power struggle; everyone knows that there is something profoundly wrong with the way that these factories are run, but no one does anything about it because of their lack of faith in the police.
In incidents involving garment factory fires, factory owners are rarely charged or held responsible. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a quasi-governmental body that is supposed to regulate export relationships, rarely faces charges, such is the influence of its leaders. Look no further than its glittering headquarters in Dhaka, which the Bangladesh High Court ruled sits on illegally obtained land. Despite a court order for it to be demolished more than two years ago, no action has been taken.
Yet the Tazreen fire was the deadliest factory fire in the history of garments manufacturing worldwide. The EU and the U.S. have placed and continuing to threaten Bangladesh with trade sanctions. In the meantime, stories were heard of protests abroad, from people far removed from the Bangladesh experience, against companies like Wal-Mart.
Whether this sustained international pressure was what finally motivated the police to file charges against the owners of the Tazreen factory a full year and a half after the fire will remain a point of contention. The police in Bangladesh are seen as both powerful and indifferent to the public they serve. It will be interesting to see if in this tragic case authorities can successfully separate justice from political power.