As a member of the Alliance for Secular and Democratic South Asia (“Alliance”), a Cambridge, MA based organization which champions issues in South Asia, the news of the November 24th Tazreen garment factory fire in Dhaka Bangladesh in which 112 workers lost their lives was a rude jolt. It was also a reminder that such things seem sickeningly repetitive. Only in October, the Alliance had organized a panel discussion called “Corruption and Capitalism in Bangladesh and Pakistan,” which dealt with the incident of fire this September that claimed the lives of 300 garment workers in Karachi, Pakistan. In the blurb of that event we had written that, “Such an incident is not an anomaly but the inevitable consequence faced by workers with near non-existent negotiation powers in Bangladesh and Pakistan.” On this occasion, faced with another horrific incident, the Alliance decided to come out to the streets, as it were, to hold a candle-light vigil and protest rally at Harvard Square on Dec 1st.
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|Tazreen Fire Vigil - Dec 1 Harvard Square|
We were joined in our efforts by representatives from several organizations, notably the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and the Association for India's Development (AID). We felt it was important to highlight issues of the voicelessness of the garment workers and their exploitation. It was important to protest against the exploitation of the actual creators of the product who, at the bottom of the value chain, make a pittance while the middlemen and the owners skim off the obscene profits.
It was also important to be able to raise our voices against the obscuration that the modern processes of capitalism and supply-chain manufacturing entail which are designed towards obscuration, obfuscation and a shirking and dilution of responsibilities. We, who are from South Asia, cannot forget the case of the Bhopal gas leak in 1984 where even when the Indian-owners of a US multinational was involved and later that corporation was taken over by another US-based corporation, Dow Chemical, the issue of liability has been fractious and has more recently been dragging on in courts for 28 years now, with Dow Chemicals refusing to accept the liabilities of Union Carbide. With the off-shoring of the manufacturing jobs to the lowest bidder, major multinational corporations like Walmart, the GAP and H&M could care less about pay structures and safety measures in the outfits they contract to. So the vigil was a way to articulate and reiterate such forms of deliberate negligence that have fatal consequences for the human beings who are ensnared in such an exploitative system.
We felt it was important to highlight the fact, especially in this holiday-season, that the clothes and dresses that we buy from stores that seem to be offering cheap prices – all have very high human costs associated with them. To that end we had actual items of clothing during the vigil which had messages such as, “Walmart Is Cheap? Ask Bangladeshi Workers,” pinned on them. For us it was crucial to emphasize the “Cheap=Deadly” equivalence as the more than 1000 deaths in the garment industry in Bangladesh, according to a report by ILRF, bears out – not to mention comparable numbers in other such manufacturing hells in other countries in South Asia and also the world. Marx, of course, elucidated the concept of commodity fetishism which was a fundamental fact of modern capitalist mode of production, but the transnational nature of outsourcing takes the abstraction of relations between the capitalists and the workers to another level of obscuration, such that the drops of blood after every tragedy never seem to stain the clean shirts of executives in their boardrooms.
Umang Kumar is an activist with the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia.