Still counting the cost of the Rana Plaza collapse
Relatives struggle to rebuild lives; lessons from tragedy still need learning
Morium Bibi has been struggling to survive since the Rana Plaza textile complex collapse
The collapse of the Rana Plaza textile complex in April did not just kill 1,132 garment workers and injure thousands; it also changed the lives of countless family members of the victims.
Four months after one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, families are still waiting for adequate, and in some cases any, compensation.
Honufa Begum, 65, has been forced to become a domestic helper to feed herself. She had no one to turn to after her daughter Sakhina Begum, 25, a cutting helper, went missing after the tragic accident.
Sakhina used to earn just 6,000 taka (US$77) per month, barely enough to sustain her and her mother in their shanty abode behind the Rana Plaza building.
“My daughter was everything to me -- my hope for my old age. She didn’t earn enough, but was still happy that she was able to support us,” Honufa said.
“I often ask Allah why she had to die so young and why I cannot find her body so I could at least arrange a proper burial.”
Sakhina is one of 261 people officially missing and presumably among the 300 or so unidentified bodies buried weeks after the disaster that still await identification through DNA testing.
Honufa received no compensation from the government or the factory owners. A local volunteer group donated 16,000 taka, the only piece of substantial support so far.
Morium Bibi, 23, another garment worker at Rana Plaza, is now a widow with a nine-month-old daughter. The accident took the life of her husband, but she survived because she was sick and at home at the time.
“My parents-in-law are old and totally depended on our income. We used to work together, while they used to look after the baby,” says Morium. The family has received about US$1,250 in government assistance so far.
She says since the tragedy she has not wanted to return to work in a garment factory. The problem however is she does not have any other skills.
“I don’t know how I will manage to bring up my daughter. If I had more support from the government I could start a small business such as opening a shop,” she said.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised to provide the relatives of those who died about US$1,250 in cash and US$19,000 in a savings scheme, amounts equal to and higher than the roughly US$1,250 that factory owners are legally required to pay. But relatives say this is far from sufficient considering most victims were young men and women who had a whole lifetime ahead of them.
Money was supposed to come from the government, from private donations and factory owners and major international retailers such as C&A and Primark.
However, the government so far has provided sums ranging from US$1,250 to US$5,000 to about 777 families, according to Solidarity Center, a Washington-based labor rights group.
The main compensation package has been delayed because of a retailers’ meeting, said Jaglul Hayder, an official from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the main trade body.
“A meeting of retailers was supposed to have been held in Geneva in August, but was postponed. It will take place this month and finalize compensation for the victims,” Hayder said.
Besides compensation, moves to boost safety in factories are slow in coming.
Bangladesh pledged to boost worker rights and recruit more safety inspectors after the European Union, which gives preferential access to Bangladeshi garments, threatened punitive measures, while the US ended trade benefits for Bangladesh in June.
Five different Bangladesh agencies have sent teams to inspect the estimated 5,000 factories that make up the country’s $20 billion garment industry.
Because of a lack of coordination between the agencies, senior government officials are unable to say how many factories have been checked. The numbers vary from 100 to 400.
US and European retailers, the major buyers of Bangladesh’s garment products, hoped the inspections would be completed in nine to 12 months. Inspectors and government officials say it will take at least five years, largely because the country has fewer than 200 qualified inspectors.
Babul Akhter, a labor leader in Dhaka, says the Rana Plaza collapse will not be a wake-up call and will unlikely change the lives of garment workers for the better.
“In a country where workers are considered profit making machines by factory owners and the government often takes the side of the owners, we can’t expect good things for garment workers despite a massive disaster like Rana Plaza,” Akhter said.
“Workers must be seen as human beings and the government must play its role properly.”
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