imperfect | world | 2010

Archive for February, 2006

Feb 28,2006

S Alam

Suraya got married when she was twelve. Her husband, a first cousin and 28 years of age, left her one month after the birth of her child having married someone else. One and a half months later he took the child away without her knowledge. In the weeks and months following this kidnap, Suraya became withdrawn and would not stay at home. She would wander around the village and in the fields. She would not talk to anyone. The child is now 5 years old, and was only re-united with Suraya a year ago after a death bed plea by the father of the ex-husband to reunite mother with child. The child went back to Suraya but had no feelings for her. He acknowledges her as his mother but does not call her mother. Indeed, he prefers to stay with his paternal grandmother. And a few days ago, the paternal grandmother took him away again. Suraya provided for his schooling in the year that he was with her family but he receives no schooling at his grandmother’s.

At 14 she went to work for a garment factory in Mirpur, Dhaka. No one asked her age when she enrolled in Vision. She could pass for a thirteen year old today, and four years ago she must have looked younger. The “regime” at Vision was tough.


Feb 27,2006

Collapsed Phoenix Mill

On saturday around 11am I was driving to the Liberation War Museum from Gulshan 2. At the Gulshan 1 circle, the road leading down through Gulshan 1 was blocked by police. My initial suspicion was that some “dignitary” was heading somewhere in Gulshan and getting the usual disruptive VIP treatment. Following the diverted route, I found other routes similarly blocked off. I began to suspect something else….and then I found out. The Phoenix Mill at Tejgaon had collapsed. (See picture above. You can just make out a crane where the building was. Apologies for poor shot - it is the Motorolla RAZR).

The building was apparently listed for demotion as it was a poorly maintained industrial unit. Dhaka is jammed pack with unsafe structures built with little regard for anything. Read HERE about how to build a dodgy building in Dhaka.
It beggars belief (or does it?) that an industry which earns the country around $6bn and employs upto 2 million directly and indirectly shows no concern for the welfare and the safety of the workers.

See my earlier posts:

54 dead and counting: another garment disaster in Bangladesh
1.2 million Euros required for Savar tragedy but….Update

Feb 25,2006

Fire related incidents have claimed many in the garments industry over the years. But thursday’s fire at KTS textile mills in Chittagong is reckoned to be the worst. Girl workers as young as twelve have perished. It is well known that conditions are ripe for such disasters. Factory owners ignore safety rules concerning smoke and heat detectors, and emergency exits either don’t exist or are blocked by merchandise.

When will “compliance” start to bite the garments industry? Compliance, that is, with minimum basic standards? Is it too much to expect the Bangladeshi industry to change after such horrendous incidents. The answer is obvious: yes They will change only when the foreign buyers are serious enough to do something about the plight of these workers. And when will that happen? We can’t expect change arising out of concern alone. However if the buyers start receiving the appropriate price signals from consumers  indicating that they don’t want goods from sweat-shops - sweat-shops which not only underpay workers but are death-traps - then we might be getting somewhere. And when will consumers start behaving ethically? …Campaigns like the Clean Clothes Campaign have their work cut out.

This latest tragedy comes days after two workers from last year’s tragedy at Savar toured Europe seeking compensation from European buyers (like Karstadt/Quelle, Zara, Carrefour and others with dealings with that collapsed factory)for the families of deceased and injured workers. See my earlier posts. One can only hope that compensation and assistance to the latest victims won’t be as tardy. Khaleda Zia visited the victims in hospital - did she promise anything? Like sorting out the factory owners?

Murshida Arzu Alpana in exhibition

  • Filed under: Art
Feb 24,2006

She was sipping tea as I entered the gallery on No 27 Dhanmondi. I wondered around mesmerised by the solo exhibition. I wondered how could one possibly sit there sipping tea and not be drawn by the works on view. Afer I had gone around twice, I flicked through the pages of the stylishly produced but thin gallery booklet on the artist. And there she was at the back - the photograph of the artist. I recognised her even though she was not sipping tea. Even prettier in life than her picture in the pamphlet, I had no hesitation in asking her if she was the artist, and then insisting that she tell me about some of the paintings. She graciously obliged. My first question was about a protest painting about the war in iraq entitled “Stop Genocide.” She revisited her thoughts about that acrylic work and explained how distraught she was that all this was being done in the name of democracy and freedom. I moved on to my purchases and insisted on explanations. Here was a chance to get to the artist and ask her about the things that resonated within me. Entitled “Recollection” one work was a wispy, floating and a nebulous recollection of a river in Faridpur. Incredible - her ancestry is the same as mine!

Murshida Arzu Alpana

She must have been irked. She must have thought I was an uncouth consumer wanting the “specs” on her life’s reflections. I hope not. The exhibition is called SPAGAT: Living in two worlds. She has been living in Germany since 1993 and as the booklet points out she understands “poignantly the feeling of in-betweenness that characterises modern metropolitan living and the whole migrant ethos.”" That much is clear. There is also a little anger in some of the paintings. No, quite a lot I think. The social awareness is explicit, and she seems to be directing it in a progressive direction. Murshida is an extremely engaging artist and I could hardly tear myself away from the gallery. I can’t wait to tell A in Berlin about her. And I can’t wait to see more of her works in Berlin! If you are in Dhaka - go see the exhibition at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts until the 28th of this month!

Behind the glass-wall

Rating Site: Turbans

  • Filed under: Misc
Feb 20,2006

Fed up of rating chicks? How about this then: A Rate My Turban site!

Rate My Turban, dude!

Yep. You go to the site and you rate the dude’s turban. Wait there are some women wearing turbans too. How will the Khalsa warriors react to this site? With a smile and a chuckle I hope. Will the mollahs join in? I kinda doubt it.

Feb 20,2006

If you are a sweat-shop worker connected by globalisation to the fashion markets of Europe, don’t expect decent wages. Don’t expect safe working conditions. Don’t expect compensation in case you are injured, and don’t tell your family you will be compensated should you die at your work place. That is probably the message that Jahangir Alam and Nura Alam are getting in their european tour of garment giants.

Spanish firm Inditex (owners of Zara fashion stores) calculates that 1.2 million Euros should make up the Trust Fund to compensate the injured garment workers and the families of workers who died at the Spectrum Sweater factory in Savar last April. (See my earlier post here). However it has been a long ten months and there has been precious little done to compensate those affected.

Inditex have atleast taken a lead but firms in Germany and elswhere apparently are not so forthcoming. According to Evelyn Bahn of the German chapter of Clean Clothes Campaign, companies benefting from the sweat-shop trade in garments are fearful of setting a precedent. They don’t want to have to pay out everytime an issue like this arises. And hence the lack of will to do something about the situation despite the passage of so many months and the continuing hardship of those affected. German firms have not yet made up their minds as to whether they will even take part in the Trust Fund. Some have raised issues of disbursement given corruption issues in Dhaka

Read this press release (pdf 350kb, german language) by Inkota (part of the NGO coaltion campaigning on behalf of the workers). See this report on Spiegel online.

Given the enormous profits made by the various retails giants and given the scale of the tragedy, it seems inappropriate to describe this as just “feet-dragging.” It is downright shameful.

Feb 18,2006

I received an email from Jean-Paul of Peuples Solidaires responsible for the French leg of the tour being undertaken by Jahangir Alam and Nura Alam (see my previous post) - a couple of garment workers who were injured in the dreadful and tragic events of last April. I copy his email below. By way of explanation: Solo Invest buys extensively from a variety of Bangladesh garment manufactureres. See HERE. The trust fund Jean-Paul refers to has been set up to properly compensate the injured workers, and the families of those who perished at Spectrum.

Two meeting were planned in France. In the morning, we met with SOLO Invest… They gave us reports of the audit and have been very open to the discussion. The workers have underlined the weakeness of the social audit and SOLO is ready to go further on this issue, and to implement their code of conduct. The main result is that SOLO is ready to contribute to the Trust Fund. We also had a meeting with French NGO and TU, mainly based on Carrefour. This was very useful to explain more the situation and the demands of the workers to those who are pressuring Carrefour. The meeting with Carrefour is planned on the 20th afternoon.

Feb 16,2006

Jahangir Alam and Nura Alam

Jahangir Alam and Nura Alam are seriously lucky to be alive. Their injuries are appalling. They were in the collapsed  garment factory in Savar last year when sixty four people died and seventy injured. Jahangir (left) broke a bone in his back and has kidney and leg problems. Nura (right) lost his arm. Remember that incident? Of course you do but it seems that despite the terrible tragedy and the consequences for many of the workers, there has been little headway in terms of compensation, severance pay and other demands of the workers. Now why is it that I don’t find that in the least bit suprising? The two workers here are in Europe (8-19th February) to press big name companies like Carrefour and Zara to do something about the plight of the Spectrum Garment Factory workers and wider issues of “compliance” in the garment sector.

There are fears that Bangladesh could lose trade if it fails “to comply with a common code of conduct developed by the global buyers.” Read HERE. That report by Shamsul Huq Zia in the Financial Express also points out that the various stakeholders - the government and the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association in particular - are far from being on top of all this.

Well certainly judging by this report the Commerce Minister Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Altaf Hossain Chowdhury’s attention on last monday was elsewhere when he praised the performance of the Bangladesh export processing zones. His main focus seems to be the bottom line of the accounting sheet and certainly not the working conditions of the workers. Nevertheless his ministry does get a good write up in the Multi-Fibre Agreement Forum (Ethical Trading Initiative) website. This is what they had to say almost a year ago (and I just wonder what the garment workers make of it…)

The Bangladesh Government has committed to expand the brief of the newly formed National Forum on Social Compliance – a body charged with improving working conditions in the textiles and garments industry - to include not only government and textile and garment manufacturers, but also trade unions, NGOs, global brands and retailers and UN agencies the World Bank and UNDP. This is an unprecedented action in a country that depends on trade in textiles and garments.

ETI press release 3 June 2005

Unprecented action? And what has happened since June 2005? Precisely what did the government commit to?

Feb 15,2006

Muslim Aid Bangladesh (a component of Muslim Aid, a charity based here in the UK) has come under the spotlight from a ultra-right wing online publication called Frontpage magazine. Frontpage has claimed, based on third party reports, that Muslim Aid Bangladesh is channeling funds to dodgy organisations in the muslim world. The fur has been flying a bit and Muslim Aid has sent a letter through its solicitors - the well known and heavy-weight Carter-Ruck law firm (specialising in celebrity libel, slander and defamation cases) - asking Frontpage to publish their letter of complaint and to refrain from publishing such stuff in the future.  Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) employed Carter-Ruck to successfully sue News International when they linked him with terror last year.

Although I hate quoting online rags devoted to conservative advocacy, here is what they have to say:

Muslim Aid has been linked to militancy in Bangladesh, Bosnia and Indonesia by Spanish intelligence, Bangladeshi intelligence, CNN, International Institute for Asian Studies and the prestigious International Crisis Group (ICG). ICG and other leading think tanks have reported that Muslim Aid branches have helped to finance KOMPAK, an Islamic charity which is linked to Jemaah Islamiah operatives and finances militant camps in Indonesia.

Question is will Muslim Aid clear their name? Or will they forget about it given that it is only an online publication?

Pass laws in Israel

Feb 14,2006

If anyone is in any doubt about the parallels between present day Israel and apartheid era South Africa, take a look at this story about Israel’s recent machinations as revealed by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Israel continues to annex bits of Palestinian land.

Say, where are the cartoon Jihadis now? Why not protest about something sensible?
Chris McGreal of The Guardian has spent a decade in South Africa and has been reporting from Jerusalem for four years. He seems ideally placed to comment on the parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel. Have a gander at his two-parter looking at the unholy connections between the two countries in the Grauniad HERE

Sophiatown and Joe Slovo

Feb 12,2006

I heard about Sophiatown from South African anti-apartheid activists in the 80s. It was a legendary place. In the nineties when i was doing research in South Africa I saw a very, very moving museum installation about it in Museum Afrika in Joburg. I found myself in the ridiculous predicament of having to hold back tears. Today I delight at this news here. The original name has been restored to this Johannesburg suburb. Symbolic only yes but a statement nevertheless.

The BBC omitted to cover another name change earlier in the week. The great anti-apartheid fighter and later housing minister, Joe Slovo, had a busy road named after him in Joburg. Where else on the planet would you have a communist party general secretary honoured like this?

Singapore kopi susu

  • Filed under: Asia
Feb 12,2006

I am off to Singapore this week. Singapore has an interesting history dealing with questions of race and ethnicity. Interesting and problematic. I intend to write more about this but here is a little teaser. This was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s reply to question about whether the fault lines of race and religions would be blurred in the future.

“one country completely homogenised, served together like kopi susu, I don’t think that’s going to happen”

Kopi susu is the local term for coffee with milk

Read the whole article here

Feb 11,2006

What the Bishop said to the Rabbi.

Feb 11,2006

Good news never gets through. And this week the cartoon nonsense has drowned out a significant criticism of Israel and its illegal occupation of Palestine. The Church of England’s general synod - including the Archbishop of Canterbury - voted to disinvest church funds from companies profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. Yup. Its true. Read Here

And there is more! Some leading Architects in the UK, including Richard Rogers ( he of Pompidou centre, Millenium dome, LLoyds building fame), have come together and formed ” Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine.” They want a boycott of the Israeli construction industry in protest at the building of illegal settlements and the “separation barrier.” Read Here.

Of course the Archbishop of Canterbury did not want to upset the zionists too much. So in an embarassing letter he wrote to the Chief Rabbi in England, Jonathan Sacks, basically apologising for putting that resolution through. He also pulls his punches in the letter. Notice the phrase “some seriousness” in this line:

The demolition of Palestinian homes in recent years has been a regular source of controversy, and raises moral issues of some seriousness

Some seriousness. Really. Anyway, read it HERE.