Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war against Pakistan has been described as ‘bloodier than Bosnia and in the same rough league as Rwanda’.
Forty-two years on, from the comfort of his home one of Dhaka’s elite suburbs, Muhammad Zamir, poet, diplomat and one-time revolutionary tells me about the birth of his people’s republic.
“We set up government in just three small rooms,” he says.
“Only three countries recognised our status and we marked each one with green pins stuck to a map on the wall.
“Kissinger and Nixon were full of ridicule.
“They called us ‘an international basket case’ but we believed in ourselves.
“And every time another country acknowledged us, we marked it on the map and celebrated with a cup of tea.”
I ask Zamir what lessons us Irish can draw from the success of this nation that crams 161 million into a land mass roughly the size of both England and Wales.
“The rest of the world can learn much.” Zamir answers.
“Between floods and war, we have suffered enormously and so are patient, resilient and determined.”
His eyes shine as he talks of how in the past three years in Bangladesh, there has been a jump in the number of mobile phone users from 52 to 110 million.
“The cel phone’s not a one-off purchase,” he explains.
“It is a product which you need to have money to use day in-day out, and so if someone buys one then it means they can afford it.
“Bangladesh is often seen as a backward country but yet 67% of our population can read and write.
“We have 24 Satellite TV channels and 62 daily newspapers.
“In 1972, when my son was born, we couldn’t even buy milk powder, today you can go into a shop and not only find what you need but five or more alternatives.
“And the wonderful thing is that 90-95% of these products are manufactured here at home.”
But how does all this progress serve people on the ground?
In a recent article in The New Age, Zamir writes of a recent law which requires greater safety measures for factory workers, the creation of a central fund to improve their living standards and also a requirement for 5% of the annual profits of a company to be deposited into employee welfare funds.
I ask Zamir where the idea for this came from.
“On one of my trips to Washington, my luggage got lost and I had to go out to buy clothes because I had a meeting to attend.
“I didn’t want to spend too much and so asked my driver to take me somewhere where there would be sales on.
“In the first shop, I find a shirt with a 40% discount (marked down from US $49.99 to US $29.99. I wear it to my meeting and it is not until the next day that I notice it was made in Bangladesh.
“I’m curious about this and decide to track down its source. It turned out that the factory where it was made sold it to a middle-man for US $4.99.
“His middle-man then sold it for $12.99 to a US wholesaler who supplied it to a supermarket chain.
“The chain marked it up to US $49.99 so they still made a profit even though I bought it on sale.
“But the thing that concerns me is that the factory owner who sold it for US $4.99 is being shown up for not giving enough to his workers.
“Surely this is the shared responsibility of everyone involved?”
Out of this experience, Zamir became involved in the movement to create a fund for Bangladeshi employees.
“The idea is that it would be managed by a board comprised of retailers, factory managers and worker’s representatives.
“People in need could then go to the board and apply for money for things like medical care, a crèche or improvements to fire safety.
“The decisions made would involve the whole group with no-one having more power than the other.
“Of course, this is difficult to implement and really what we need is for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to engage more constructively with manufacturers and middlemen.
“They have the ability to implement this new initiative, but it’s a case of political will.”
So whilst Sheikh Hassin’s (Zamir’s socialist counterpart and Bangladesh’s first President) dream of a Socialist Republic may never have materialised, perhaps it can be replaced by an economic system that supports rather than cripples the people.
This week I met with Arthur Shears who heads a programme for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) called ‘Decent Work for All’.
Shears assures me that compensation is on the way for the survivors of the factory collapse that last April killed 1,127 workers.
“The ILO is supporting those people who are too traumatised to return to the factories. It does this in terms of training them in how they might use their compensation to set up small businesses or alternatively, to re-skill and find work elsewhere.”
Arthur tells of the stellar work and investment by retail chains such as H&M in supporting the implementation of health and safety measures, but yet progress is slow.
Each week there are reports of a new factory fire and earlier this year a number of government appointed Safety Instructors were found to be fraudulently claiming to have carried out inspections in factories which they had never visited.
I ask Arthur what the ILO is doing to ensure that the middle man is held to account.
He smiles wryly but remains tight-lipped, shaking his head and saying ‘That’s a very good question.’
At the entrance-way to The Best Western hotel in Dhaka, there’s a publicity poster depicting the fact that they have hired a girl caught up in last April’s factory collapse.
She is one of the many traumatised who have since found refuge through menial jobs in the tourist industry.
It would appear that helping victims is good for business, it’s now just a matter of substance.
Eilis Haden is spending time in Bangladesh meeting with local people, especially those working in factories for extremely low wages. You can contact Eilis on her email at email@example.com