London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy in which over 30 people were killed when a fire engulfed a block of government-funded flats shines a spotlight on the Dickensian aspects of life where living standards between rich and poor differ dramatically.
In a city where affordable housing for citizens remains elusive, this building was covered in cheap, flammable material. An accidental fire which could have been contained had adequate safety mechanisms been in place instead escalated into tragedy. Ironically, the Council of Kensington and Chelsea where the building is located is one of the wealthiest in the city. Residents had continuously voiced their concern about the building’s safety but were routinely ignored. This stands as a damning indictment of a capital city which is considered to be the premiere playground of international oligarchs and ultra high net worth individuals.
The tragedy has echoes of Britain’s Victorian era — a time of deprivation when government assumed no responsibility for the welfare of the poor who subsisted largely on the generosity of charities. Ironically, this destitution existed during Britain’s imperial apogee when the country enjoyed unprecedented wealth from its colonies. Urban squalor, unbearable working conditions, soaring infant mortality rates and the outbreak of epidemics among Britain’s working poor led the government to develop the notion of a welfare state. The ideal of a social welfare state was finally implemented in 1945 and became a benchmark of excellence for much of the world representing a system where human development and quality of life was placed at the heart of the country’s economic programme. However, the Victorian attitudes which Dickens so eloquently captured in his books have returned. Sharp reductions in welfare funding in the name of fiscal austerity, a sustained vilification of the poor by certain media platforms, the mismanagement of the national health service and prohibitively expensive housing are indicative of a disregard for society’s most vulnerable. More recently, immigrant workers who often undertake the lowest-paid and most menial of jobs have become the focus of intolerance and exploitation. In fact, the residential profile of the Grenfell Tower block was overwhelmingly poor immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities aptly describe the duality of life in developing countries like Pakistan where a deep chasm exists between the privileged and the poor
Dickens himself was no stranger to the heartlessness of poverty. As a nine-year-old boy he was forced to work in a boot polish factory to pay off his father’s debts while his parents were incarcerated in a debtor’s prison. This searing experience profoundly influenced his writing which is why child labour is such an enduring theme in his books.
For me, the tragedy conjured memories of the 2012 Karachi industrial fire which killed almost 300 people when employees were trapped in a burning textile factory. Such enterprises generate millions for industrial magnates who seemingly display a disregard for the hundreds of people who toil in their commercial establishments with inadequate health and safety standards and minimal rights. A lack of governance and enforcement means that the industrialist class can all too easily bypass basic health and safety standards for their employees such as fire exits, alarms and water sprinklers. Profits taking precedence over the safety of people is a problem across the developing world. In 2013, over 2,000 people were killed when a textile factory collapsed in Bangladesh. These sweat shops are often the primary suppliers to major international retail brands which reap profits that run into the billions.
In recent times, the British government has been calling for greater deregulation insisting that regulations are expensive, unwieldy and an obstacle to productivity. In fact, the European Union’s raft of regulatory standards was one of the arguments for leaving the Union. However, as the lives lost in Pakistan and Bangladesh through negligence and lax standards reveal, far-reaching deregulation programmes which impact essential public protection are weighted against the poor, often with fatal consequences. These avoidable tragedies must form the impetus for universal reform to protect the lives of the marginalised poor both in the United Kingdom and the developing world.
Though the opening lines of Dickens’ masterpiece a Tale of Two Cities was written in the context of pre-revolutionary Paris and London, his words still aptly describe the duality of life in developing countries like Pakistan where a deep chasm between the privileged and poor still prevails: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”
The writer is the founding editor of Blue Chip magazine. She tweets @MashaalGauhar
Published in Daily Times, June 20th, 2017.