People pay homage to unknown victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy at a graveyard in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on April 24, the sixth anniversary of the factory complex collapse. (ucanews.com photo)
Mahmudul Hasan Hridoy still shivers in shock and horror when he recalls memories of Rana Plaza’s collapse on April 24, 2013.
Now 32, he was a quality inspector at New Wave Style Ltd., one of five garment factories located inside the ill-fated complex in the Savar suburb of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
The deadly collapse of the eight-story complex killed 1,136 workers and injured thousands, making it one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
Some 300 victims were buried unidentified after DNA sampling as their bodies were beyond recognition.
The tragedy buried the dreams of thousands of simple working-class people like Hridoy.
“Many children lost their parents and future forever. There was sporadic compensation and promises of justice, but the victims are forgotten,” Hridoy told ucanews.com.
The Muslim man was trapped under rubble of concrete and mangled steel for hours before rescuers pulled him out. He regained consciousness in hospital after 16 days and found his right leg paralyzed, right eye partially blind and his ribs caved in.
Within two months, his six-months-pregnant wife had an abortion and left him forever, considering him “worthless.”
Hridoy cannot walk and stand for long, does not have good eyesight and suffers from chest pain time and again. He has been unable to get a job since being released from hospital.
He was the sole breadwinner for his family but earns nothing today. He lives with his younger brother, who has stopped going to school to become a garment worker. His income supports Hridoy and their elderly parents in their village home.
“In six years I have twice tried to commit suicide by drinking poison, but I failed when my brother saved me,” he said.
Mahmudul Hasan Hridoy, 32, a survivor of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, is seen in this 2015 file photo. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
To highlight the suffering of forgotten Rana Plaza victims, Hridoy started an indefinite hunger strike on April 23, a day before the sixth anniversary of the tragedy.
He took up position in front of a memorial established near the site where Rana Plaza once stood and listed 11 demands of victims that remain unfulfilled.
The demands include compensation and lifelong treatment costs for victims, rehabilitation and employment for able workers, declaring the anniversary of the tragedy a national mourning day, taking complete responsibility for children of Rana Plaza victims, confiscation of property of Rana Plaza and garment factory owners, and capital punishment for those responsible for the tragedy.
“There was a flow of donations for victims after the tragedy, but many workers got nothing. I got a letter that stated I would get 50,000 taka (US$595), which I never received. I have talked to hundreds of journalists about my suffering, but nothing has changed for me,” Hridoy said.
Hridoy’s hunger strike attracted public and media attention. Some trade union leaders came forward and expressed solidarity with him, but they also requested him to end his strike.
“Labor leaders said they will fight for the rights of victims together, so I decided to postpone the strike for now. Our battle for compensation and justice will go on,” Hridoy said.
Rana Plaza collapsed about six months after a deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions factory on Nov. 24, 2012, which killed 112 workers.
The two tragic accidents put intense global scrutiny on Bangladesh’s US$25 billion export-oriented garment industry, the second largest in the world after China’s.
The industry employs more than four million workers who stitch clothes for high street Western brands for a monthly minimum wage equivalent to US$95.
A major economic lifeline for this impoverished South Asian country, the garment industry has been plagued by poor labor practices, hazardous working conditions and abuses of workers for years, leading to fire accidents and collapses that killed and injured hundreds of workers over the years, but factory owners were never held responsible and punished.
Two orphan children whose garment worker parents died in the Rana Plaza tragedy hold a placard to demand justice in this 2015 file photo. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
At home and abroad, the public and media outcry became louder as it was known cracks appeared on Rana Plaza’s pillars the day before the tragedy and local government officials had ordered closure of the complex.
The next day, complex owner Sohel Rana and factory management forced workers to return to work and threatened to withhold their monthly salaries if they refused to work.
Police and media investigations found multiple irregularities in building construction and management.
Sohel Rana, a local Muslim and politician, forcibly grabbed swampy land from a Hindu man and constructed the building by filling the swamp illegally.
The building was approved for residential use and a shopping complex, but it was mostly rented for garment factories. The authorities allowed a six-story building but two additional floors were added illegally.
Police issued arrest warrants for 41 people including Sohel Rana, factory officials, local politicians and government officials for their role in the tragedy.
They were charged in three criminal cases filed at the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court in Dhaka, according to Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust (BLAST).
While 32 of the accused were arrested, seven remain in hiding and two have died in recent years.
However, except for Sohel Rana, all those arrested secured bail and the cases remain in limbo due to legal complexities as well as the political and financial clout of the accused.
“We are seriously concerned that none of cases filed after Rana Plaza’s collapse has made any notable progress. The victims have not been fully compensated and justice has been delayed and denied,” BLAST said in statement on April 23.
Trade unionists allege that the government has been negligent towards Rana Plaza victims.
“The Rana Plaza tragedy resulted from corruption and negligence about the safety of workers who keep this industry running with their blood and sweat,” Khairul Mamun, organizing secretary of the Dhaka-based Garment Workers Trade Center, told ucanews.com.
“If the authorities considered the tragedy a national image crisis, I think Rana Plaza victims and cases would not be neglected.”
Mahmudul Hasan Hridoy says at least he is still alive with the chance of seeing justice one day.
“Rana Plaza has taken away everything from my life — my health, my job, my love and my unborn child. But I want to see those responsible for the tragedy for many people like me face stringent punishment one day,” he said.