Made in Bangladesh: Shengxi Li ‘15 Pursues Justice

CHARISSA ILUORE

While much uncertainty continues to surround labor law in Bangladesh following the factory collapse, Li is working passionately to ensure that the country is moving closer to this change.

Charissa Iluore, Article Image 1On the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, in the city of Savar, there is a conspicuous gap between the concrete buildings which used to cover the land uninterrupted, where a building collapsed to the ground in April 2013. In the rubble that remains of the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building of which three floors were occupied by garment production shops, one could see debris, children’s clothing, even human limbs. The building had been constructed illegally, in defiance of building codes, and more than 1,100 garment workers lost their lives when the building collapsed in the worst factory disaster in history.

Shengxi Li ’15 is among the students at Harvard passionate about legal reform to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future.  Asked whether incidents like the Rana Collapse would help reform Bangladesh’s labor laws, she says, “There is definitely reason to hope since there has been quite a bit of international censure as well as domestic pressure to get things going.” She has been in the country since June helping to devise a comprehensive compensation plan for victims of the tragedy as an intern for the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST). “However, there was also the KTS [fire] and Spectrum [collapse] a few years ago and hundreds of other factory collapses and fires that have also happened before. Hence, while there is hope that this will help push for reform, there are also [serious] doubts,” Li continues a bit less optimistically.

There is reason for such guarded optimism—BLAST’s work on the 2012 Tazreen Fire, another garment factory disaster in which about 120 workers perished after being locked inside of a burning building, has been slow and painful. Adding to the heartbreak of the situation, the case is still trapped in court. “In fact, the Spectrum factory collapse case from 2005 is still pending as well. If you can believe it, the state lawyers actually claimed that the writ petition from Spectrum was lost and hence, the case could not keep going; the writ somehow miraculously appeared a few weeks after the Rana collapse and so the case is now pushing forward once again,” Li explains. “Even our own Executive Director here at BLAST has admitted that it was in part due to civil society’s lack of follow up and push following [Spectrum] that resulted in Rana.” Other than a labor act instituted in 2006—which Li calls “grossly inadequate”—nothing has changed regarding work safety standards.

Charissa Iluore, Article Image 2As such, getting compensation for the families of the victims of the Rana Collapse will no doubt be a long, arduous journey. Li’s job is complicated by the fact that there is no international standard of compensation, no consensus on how much a life is really worth. There is no clear count of how many people were in the building before the collapse, no straightforward protocol to determine which of the surviving family members will receive compensation, and no certainty of identifying every single one of the remains. Furthermore, there are several competing plans for compensation which must be reconciled in order to be effective. “It’s been something of a game picking and choosing through them all and trying to present something of a comprehensive picture to the court in terms of a recommendation,” she admits.

Such obstacles have not deterred this Social Studies concentrator from her mission to see justice prevail in Bangladesh—and elsewhere. While interning with Harvard Law Professor I. Glenn Cohen, Li contributed to his book on medical tourism, helping to ascertain the effect of said tourism on local access to medical services. “In terms of effects, it varied depending on location and on the kind of market. For example, in the Caribbean where each country became very specialized and found a niche market, it really didn’t seem to have a horrendous effect,” Li points out.  “However, in other areas in Asia like Malaysia, India and even Singapore, there were obvious effects of doctors preferring private hospitals over public ones and more time and resources being provided for the private sector because it became much more profitable for the country as a whole and became a way for the government to generate revenue through subsidies.”

Li continues to indulge her interest in international issues in her capacity as the Director of Operations for the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR). As a part of HPAIR, Li helps to facilitate a dialogue about the challenges Asia confronts as it continues to grow into its role as a world superpower. “I think social problems are the biggest challenges that Asia’s economy faces. Looking at countries like India, Bangladesh and China, it is really all issues like income gaps, gender discrimination, the caste system, religious discrimination, corruption, and political incompetence and obscurity that are at the heart of many of the obstacles that exist to progress… I think these problems will have to get worse before they get better, very much like working and social conditions in the Industrial Revolution – it is only when it gets so truly horrendous that people start questioning the humanity of such actions that change will happen,” she says.

However, it seems that things cannot get much worse for the garment workers toiling seven days a week, seventeen hours a day in Bangladesh’s factories. When asked what we back home can do to help to protect the rights of foreign and offshore workers who produce goods for the U.S. market, Li acknowledges that there is no simple answer.“It’s difficult to say because for one, a lot of Bangladeshis want foreign aid but they don’t want foreign pressure and a lot of what consumers can do just puts pressure on the stores, which would then put pressure on the factories. It is difficult to say [whether any benefits] will actually trickle down to the worker, given how many people the money and pressure have to go through…. That is not to say, of course, that [we] should not be proactive and try to accomplish something – by all means I think consumers should demand some kind of brand or label akin to fair trade labels that differentiate brands that are produced in humane and well-kept factories – but to make it a lasting change, it is just going to have to take more,” she stresses.  And while much uncertainty continues to surround labor law, Li is working passionately to ensure that Bangladesh is moving closer to this change.

Charissa Iluore is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at ciluore@college.harvard.edu.