Stone eye sheds tear
‘MY LEFT eye is made of stone, but it still sheds tear,’ Shahnaj squeezed her eye to prove it to us.
On December 2013, Hamid, a local labour organiser and I were sitting in her room in Nischintapur, Ashulia — listening to her rage, her frustration, and her stories of survival. With her unparalleled wit, she talked about being the only one-eyed woman in the village. Her story is not different from those of other injured workers. She survived the fire, but the physical injury and trauma continued to follow her.
She was a folder in the finishing section of Tazreen Fashion Ltd. The night of the fire, she had jumped through a window of the burning factory, saved her life but got herself seriously injured. Later, she lost sight in the left eye. In order to prevent complications, her physician at the Islamia Eye Hospital advised her an ocular prosthesis. Following an enucleation, the doctors at the facility replaced her natural eye. She believed that the surgery was not performed properly. She feared that she would lose sight in the other eye as well. Her family seemed annoyed with her since all she talks about was her blurred hazy, unclear vision sight. But the ophthalmologist thought otherwise and suggested that her compromised vision may be symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. The darkness she had encountered during her time inside the burning factory was returning to her. The momentary relapse of her eye-sight was a flashback to that moment. She relived that moment and her world become dark.
Shahnaj refused to accept her physician’s diagnosis.
I have no expertise to approve or disapprove her claim that she was slowly losing her vision. What I want to insist that this clash of subjective truths, lived experience of the worker with biomedical truth, needs to be acknowledged when assessing an injured worker’s claim. In the context of an exclusively compensation-based model of ‘industrial disaster’ response, the struggle to ‘move on with live’ and cope with the trauma have become dependent on the way worker’s monetary compensation claims are processed, accepted or rejected. An inadequate compensation or no compensation means worker’s grievances are not heard, their experience of surviving a horrific fire is denounced.
ON JULY 2014, Shahnaj had considered making a claim for compensation under Chapter XII of the Labour Act or filing a civil suit for damages against the employer. She met a labour lawyer at a public protest in front of the National Press Club. According to him, Shahnaj was eligible for filing a claim; however, her injury will not qualify her for a permanent disablement.
Section 151 of the Labour Act (2006, 2013) suggests that the amount of the compensation depends upon the gravity of the injury and the nature of disablement. If there is a permanent loss of earning capacity, ie the worker cannot perform any kind of work ever again, then there is permanent, total disablement amounting to Tk 1,25,000. This could be in the form of loss of a hand, a foot, both eyes or a combination of injuries specified in Schedule I of the Labour Code that amounts to a loss of earning capacity of 100 per cent or more.
She only had lost one eye.
The lawyer told her that she may be considered for 50 per cent disablement. Shahnaj was trembling with anger as she was recounting her experience of filing claim with the labour court, ‘There is a fixed price for our eyes written in the book!’ She thought it was morally distasteful to negotiate the worth of her eye sight in the courtroom and temporarily abandoned the idea of going to court. I earnestly agreed with her. This particular quantification of workers injury is in other words legalised expression of existing class inequality.
MEANWHILE, her family turned their back on her. When she was earning, no one raised a voice to her. Now, she is just an extra mouth to feed. Her spinal injury prevented her from returning to factory. Desperate in her situation, she had reconsidered taking legal actions. The labour lawyer she had earlier worked with also mentioned the possibility of taking her case to the High Court, even gave her contact number of a human rights lawyer.
Probably in the first week of January 2015, I got a call from Shahnaj. She had already made her appointment with the human rights lawyer. She wanted labour leader Shahidul Islam Sabuj and I to accompany her to the meeting since ‘lawyers speaks a lot of English’ and she was ‘unfamiliar with boro loker (elite) Dhaka.’
The meeting started with optimism. The human rights lawyer shared our anger and frustration with the labour law. He was very supportive of the possibility of a petition that would open up the possibility of amending the existing compensation clause in our labour law.
We provided him with Shahnaj’s file. He said, ‘Bring me a rather compelling case. She had only lost one of her eyes. In order to argue that law needs to be changed, I need rather convincing case, a perfect victim.’
He read our discomfort and disappointment, and tried to explain his comment, ‘I am not suggesting anything. It is society. The judges would better empathise with a young woman amputee with children, and no one to support.’
These gender stereotypes posed particular challenges for workers demanding compensation. In the eyes of lawyer in question, it seem impossible to call attention to Shahnaj’s undeniable suffering without reproducing images of passive female victimhood.
The meeting ended rather abruptly. Shahnaj with her sharp tongue and quick wit responded to our awkward silence, ‘They all have their “pet victim (posha victim).” Some even travel abroad with the favourite one. I am sometimes favoured in these programmes in front of the press club or at round-tables because I am the only one who had lost vision, but I am not young, or docile. I ask too many questions.’ She paused, ‘But don’t think journalists are any different. They search for perfect victim too.’
To provide medical care for the injured workers, some NGOs and labour organisations developed short- and long-term relief and rehabilitation projects funded by global brands (for example, Caritas Bangladesh is implementing a rehabilitation project with direct funding from C&A Foundation, a sister concern of Dutch retailer, C&A that outsourced from Tazreen Fashions Ltd). In this project-based landscape of activism targeted to mobilise resources and organise campaign for compensation generated gendered stereotypes. A victim apparently had to be seen to be continuing to suffer in ‘feminine way,’ as if the violence of the night of the fire would lose gravity otherwise. In public events, they have to recollect and relive the horror of the night for their audience.
Four years later, Shahnaj’s words proved true. She is now blind, still a hard-working woman, persistently seeking her right to reparation. In the years that followed the fire, she constantly navigated legal and other bureaucracies negotiating such continued feminisation of victimhood.
I read this feminisation of victimhood as a consequence of an exclusively compensation model of ‘industrial disaster’ response. This is a model that precludes any ethical consideration of quantification of injury or putting an end to this perpetual cycle of victimhood.
Saydia Gulrukh, who worked in Nischintapur in search of Tazreen’s missing workers as part of a research collective Activist Anthropologist, is an assistant editor at New Age.
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