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Collapse of faith: Mohammad Tauheed on the Savar garment-factory disaster

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An eight-story building named Rana Plaza in the Savar neighborhood on the outskirts of Dhaka collapsed at 9am on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Hundreds of workers were killed, and many more were trapped for days under the rubble until rescued with severe injuries. Photo: Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

An eight-story building named Rana Plaza in the Savar neighborhood on the outskirts of Dhaka collapsed at 9am on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Hundreds of workers were killed, and many more were trapped for days under the rubble until rescued with severe injuries. Photo: Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

TED Senior Fellow and architect Mohammad Tauheed runs, a nonprofit community resource for architects and designers in developing nations. When the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, collapsed last week, killing hundreds of garment factory workers, Tauheed supported the rescue efforts. Here, he tells us his experience of the disaster, how corruption and greed can quickly lead to tragedy, and what’s being done to prevent illegal building practices.

What happened?

The Savar tragedy is a matter of great sorrow and grief. The saddest reality of the whole thing is that it was avoidable. It is not a case of a plain accident. Cracks were detected in the building a day before the collapse. According to news sources, the tenants were advised to stop all activities in the building and to evacuate. That instruction was not followed, so TV reporters went there and interviewed the owner, Sohel Rana, a local politician, and asked why. He declared the cracks were nothing serious, that the building was safe. While a bank and shops in the first two floors were closed once the cracks were found, several garment factories on the upper floors of the building stayed open. The garment-factory managers forced their fearful workers to resume work the next day, and the building collapsed within a few seconds, with thousands of workers inside. It has taken more than 500 lives so far. There were around 2,500 survivors rescued alive from the debris, and many are still missing. The second phase of the rescue work is currently running. Heavy machinery is clearing the rubble, with no more hope of finding anyone alive. Days after the collapse, Sohel Rana was arrested.

What was your firsthand experience of the disaster?

I went there with medical supplies to deliver to the onsite health camp. It was an overwhelming experience. Thousands of people were waiting in tears to hear the news of their relatives among the victims, a private hospital nearby was dedicatedly busy round the clock to receive wounded survivors, frequent sirens of rushing ambulances and other emergency vehicles, many small voluntary booths giving away drinking water, snacks and free phone calls. In those few days, I’m sure everyone in Bangladesh thought and wished they could come to help in some way, wished they could contribute something to save a life. I was standing amid the crowd and crying.

I heard that the rescue workers needed light tools like cutters, drills, and so on to make holes in the concrete, so I called up architects and construction companies I knew, asked them to stop work for a day or two and send their equipment and men to the rescue site. Everybody responded positively and tried their best.

People from all walks of life did their best to help. General people, construction workers, unknown volunteers joined actively in the rescue work hand-to-hand with the firemen and a support team from the army. Their dedication, love for people and bravery were extraordinary. They risked their lives to go inside the rubble and take someone out alive. Hundreds of people donated blood in long queues in different camps in Dhaka. People sent support whatever and however they could. Social networks and news channels were busy with the live updates of ‘what is currently needed onsite’ messages. Hundreds of people actively collected those things and sent them to Savar — food, water, medical supplies, rescue equipment, tools and machinery, flashlights, canisters and cylinders of oxygen, funeral supplies for the deceased, cash, and so on were supplied mostly by the general public. And most often the amount of supply that came arbitrarily met the need. It was heartwarming and all the way an amazing effort that we saw from the citizens.

In your view, who is responsible?

The biggest thing that is responsible here is corruption. From my knowledge as an architect, I can tell you about the building construction-related law and its known flaws. To build in the Dhaka area — the boundary covers nearby suburbs and towns beyond Dhaka metropolitan, including the incident area of Savar — you need permission from the main authority RajUK (Capital Development Authority), as well as permits from 13 different organizations to get permission for construction and approval of architectural design (and, in the case of large projects, structural and other designs), including the municipality, environment department, fire service, electricity and gas distribution authorities, and so on. The approval process and construction are overseen by RajUK. When building a factory, you need to get additional approval from a factory-building construction-related authority, and if it’s a garment factory, you need a license and permission from the non-government organization BGMEA, an association of garment owners that regulates the industry in Bangladesh. If corruption plays any role at any point in this process, incidents like the collapse of Rana Plaza and fire at Tazreen Garments may happen any time. And many of these organizations are infamous for institutionalizing corruption. Allegedly, often this paperwork is done or overlooked by political influences and bribery.

In the case of Rana Plaza, the problem might have happened in a few different layers. Allegedly, the building was designed to be six stories, and the owner built an additional two floors without permission. There could be a fault in the structural design. Then there was the usage of the building: it was architecturally and structurally designed as a commercial complex, for small shops and offices. Counting the number of people per square foot and the weight of the heavy machinery, the dead load and live load of a garment factory is far higher than a commercial building. Even if the initial structural design was okay for commercial use, using the building for garment factories might have made the structure fail. It is difficult to tell what exactly happened without extensive engineering investigation. It was the responsibility of the architects and engineers involved in designing this building to check its legal status.

All the organizations that let the owner make this building without following the rules and let them use it for unapproved purposes are responsible. And along with the building owner, the owners of the garment factories are responsible for accepting the corruption. They are especially responsible for forcing workers to go inside that building that day.

The responsibility also falls upon the foreign companies – including Joe Fresh, Bonmarché, El Corte Ingles, Primark, Mango and Benetton – whose products were being made or had been made in those factories. They must take responsibility for checking the physical conditions, legal aspects and working environment of the factory buildings before they put an order to a third-party supplier. After all, their names and logos are all over the collapsed building, soaked in blood.

Is there any hope for conditions changing for the better? This is not the first time such a thing has happened in Bangladesh’s garment factories.

A few good things have happened recently with building codes and laws in the country. Bangladesh has a national building code, BNBC, first drafted in 1993. In 2006 it became mandatory to follow the code, with a penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. In 2006, a new construction law came out with the help of years’ worth of efforts by architects and related professionals. These codes and laws aren’t entirely perfect yet, but they are under constant practice, observation and development.

And following the Savar incident, the government has declared a few reforms to improve the situation of the garment industry in the country.

Why are the government and authorities not supportive of such changes?

Many of these ideas and proposals will cut corruption and the power of authority of different organizations. And no one wants to mess with the garment industry in Bangladesh, because it’s the highest foreign-currency-earning industry in the country, at more than $19 billion a year and supports the also highly lucrative real-estate industry. So any law that has the potential to reduce the profits in these two sectors will likely not get support.

This business is extraordinarily profitable – it makes people greedy and turns them into beings who can easily force their workers into a known death trap, because the stakes of shutting down a factory even for a few hours is huge in account of profit and loss. The factories are always desperate to keep running, as the supply of garments to Western countries is a highly time-sensitive business, for the frequent changes of fashion in seasons, special occasions and brand campaigns. Western fashion houses also should look into this issue of “time sensitivity” – which may cost human lives.

Of course, not all garment factories in Bangladesh are in bad condition. There are thousands of factories properly designed and maintained, and many foreign companies who procure their products from Bangladesh with commendable responsibility.

One great thing that has resulted from the West’s outsourcing of work to Bangladesh is that thousands of workers have pulled themselves out of extreme poverty. This flow must continue to produce more jobs and opportunities. With a little more responsibility and humane sensibility, we could save hundreds of lives and feed thousands more.

How does the work you do with your nonprofit ArchSociety prevent tragedies like this? focuses on helping architects with open source resources and information. However, following the deadly fire at Tazreen Garments in November 2012, we started working on a new project: an information package that will contain easy-to-understand booklets, posters, stickers, and so on, with fire-safety information and instructions targeted for garment factories. Now it looks like we have to consider adding basic construction safety and law information to that package.

Thanks to the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights for use of their photo. Learn more about their work here.