Interview with Raihan Ali, Executive Director, Thanapara Swallows

This fire is a huge loss, and we were so sorry to hear that this happened. It is a great tragedy, and even though there is a lot of international pressure on the government of Bangladesh these things continue to happen. 

Why did this happen? First of all, the building’s owner did not follow proper building protocol. There were no stairs for people to exit the building quickly. The elevator was working, but accidents do happen and they necessitate quick movement. Thanapara Swallows is in a rural area and all of our buildings are very open. Maybe accidents can happen here, but we have constructed the buildings in such a way that people can get out of them very quickly. We have open light and our buildings are easy to move in and out of. In Dhaka the cost of land is very high, so building developers try to use each centimeter of land to the fullest. They make things as small as possible and as short as possible, and they don’t properly consider building safety when it comes to building design. 

Bangladesh is growing as a garment producing country and the Bangladeshi government is spending money on development. They can afford to be stricter around how products are made, worker protections, and building safety. All Bangladeshi factories must get a license from the government and the licensing process is enforced by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers should ensure that factory owners carefully follow all of the rules when they create a new factory. This would help us dramatically reduce the number of people dead and prevent bigger losses. Bangladesh has become a corrupt country. People can just pay cash to get what they want and get law enforcement to look the other way. And people in politics have a great deal of power that they misuse.

Large companies also have a role to play in preventing future injury and death. Before they put in orders at least one representative for the brand should visit a factory, mention that building safety is an issue in Bangladesh, and ask questions around building safety and monitoring. If the building doesn’t meet safety standards the brand should not place an order with that factory. I anticipate brands don’t always do this as they are looking to have goods produced as cheaply as possible. When a factory creates a cheap product they are trying to cheat on every side by paying less for labor, less rent to the building’s owner, and cutting other corners. I think brands fear that if they don’t ask tough questions they can’t get a cheap product.

Americans do have the power to create positive change. They can put pressure on the American Ambassador to Bangladesh to put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to enforce the law. American consumers should ask brands what countries they produce in and what type of relationships they have with those working on the ground.

Raihan Ali is the Executive Director of Thanapara Swallows, a Bangladeshi development organization that runs a fair trade factory in Bangladesh. Thanapara Swallows was featured in the film The True Cost. Rebecca Ballard interviewed Raihan Ali on September 26, 2016, to get his thoughts on this fire, the state of building and fire safety in Bangladesh, and his thoughts on moving forward. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and reviewed by Raihan Ali prior to publication.

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