by Rebecca Prentice
There is for me a sad familiarity in the story of the Grenfell Tower fire. I have spent recent years researching garment factory fires and collapses in Bangladesh. Large-scale fires, no matter where they are, have a recursive quality to them. There is always the story of the spark that begins it, and the moment when the blaze gets out of control. There is always the story of breathtaking heroism by individuals trying to save others. There is always the story of anguish and loss in the aftermath, and demands for accountability and justice on the part of grieving families and communities.
And then, sometime later, there is always the story—the backstory—of official neglect, the lack of regulations or unenforced regulations, the unanswered demands for sprinkler systems, the anger over poorly-functioning alarms or blocked exits. The story of how advocates for safety were silenced. This backstory predates the fire, but it sets the stage, lays out the materials, and stokes the flames.
We now know the following: that the Grenfell building was covered in a cladding that was more flammable than a slightly more costly version that could have been purchased instead. That experts raised concerns about the fire risks of cladding years ago. That Grenfell residents had voiced safety concerns and asked for safety upgrades but were rebuffed and threatened. That 312 Members of Parliament voted against legislation in 2016 that would require flats to be fit for human habitation. We now recall with dark portent former Prime Minister David Cameron’s vow to rid the country of regulatory ‘overburdens’ that protect people’s health and safety.
Taken together, these facts make the Grenfell fire feel less like an unfortunate accident and more like a purposeful attack. London is a beloved city of grotesque inequalities. As sociologist David Madden puts it, this inequality ‘is built into the urban fabric and infrastructure, such that many working class and poor people, and people of colour, are subjected to deadly risks from which the wealthy are protected.’
As we grieve and demand answers, it’s a good idea to look towards Bangladesh, where people have suffered so much from factory fires and building collapses similarly patterned by state neglect, political failures, and the self-interest of wealthy elites. We can be inspired by the actions of Bangladeshis to demand justice for the Grenfell families.
Take, for example, the Tazreen Fashions factory fire. On November 24th, 2012 a fire potentially caused by an electrical short circuit began on the ground floor of the nine-storey factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. The fire quickly spread to other floors and burned for 17 hours before being successfully extinguished. Accounts describe workers unable to escape narrow exits, workers leaping from windows to their deaths, stairs that only led back to the ground floor where the fire originated. At least 119 people lost their lives, with many more injured.
The affected community and their allies have fought back. Not content to accept another factory fire as business as usual, they have organised, protested, and raised court cases to demand three things:
- improvements to building safety to reduce the likelihood of other deadly incidents,
- compensation for affected families to help rebuild their lives, and
- justice in the courts by holding accountable those who were responsible for the deaths through their negligence of workers’ health and safety.
Anthropologists, in particular, can take inspiration from ‘Activist Anthropologist,’ a Bangladeshi group of activists formed after the Tazreen fire to wage a campaign with the victims for justice and accountability. As three members of the group—Mahmudul Sumon, Nazneen Shifa, and Saydia Gulrukh—explain it, they participated in using a legal mechanism known as ‘public interest litigation’ to raise a case in the High Court of Bangladesh against Tazreen factory owner Delwar Hossain for his neglect of safety standards. Under the pressure of public outrage, Hossain was also the first factory owner to be charged with criminal offenses related to a factory fire.
When the Tazreen fire was followed only five months later by the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Dhaka—which led to the death of at least 1,134 people—workers and their allies continued their efforts for building safety, for workers’ rights, and for accountability. Workers came out by the thousands to march, demonstrate, protest, and win important changes to labour legislation, minimum wages, and factory safety. Although these victories are continually under assault, they have shown the power of workers, residents, and allies working together to demand change.
What we know from Bangladesh is that the best prevention against building fires and collapses would be to strengthen the rights of people—workers and residents—to organise and speak up on their own behalf; and to have political representation that truly reflects their interests. London, with its ever-deepening divide between haves and have-nots, has given us a deadly reminder of the dangers of denying the simple rights and protections we all deserve.
Rebecca Prentice is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. She has co-edited with Geert De Neve the forthcoming Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World’s Garment Workers (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). The book includes a chapter by Mahmudul Sumon, Nazneen Shifa, and Saydia Gulrukh on justice for the victims of the 2012 Tazreeen Fashions factory fire.