Rehana Akter, 28, with her son Abu Raihan, 12, at their home in Savar. She lost her left leg in the Rana Plaza collapse. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
The first two weeks of Boishakh — the first month of the Bangla calendar — are known for seasonal storms popularly called Kalboishakhi (Black Boishakhi) that kill dozens of people and destroy properties in Bangladesh every year.
On such a summer day five years ago, a deadly, man-made Kalboishakhi crushed the life and dreams of Rehana Akter.
The worst industrial disaster in the country's history came on April 24, 2013, when the poorly constructed Rana Plaza garment complex collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring about 2,900.
The poor workers, most of them rural women like Akter, stitched clothes for high-street Western retailers in five garment factories in the ill-fated complex in Savar, an industrial hub about 25 kilometers from capital Dhaka.
The disaster didn't kill Akter, then 23 and a quality inspector at one of the factories, but it affected her life forever.
After firefighters rescued her from the rubble of mingled steel and concrete seven hours after the building collapsed, her left leg was severely injured. For weeks, she received treatment in a Dhaka hospital, but doctors had to amputate her leg to save the rest of her body.
"Stuck in the rubble and in a hospital bed, I thought about my only son [now aged 12]. I prayed to Allah so that I could get back to life, otherwise my son's future would be in darkness," Akter recalled.
After trying for weeks, she could walk using crutches and returned to her one-room, tin-roofed shanty home, some 200 meters from the site where Rana Plaza once stood.
"I worked in Rana Plaza with about 1,200 workers for one year. But now I cannot think of working in any garment factory, and often I shiver in panic when I see a large garment factory," Akter told ucanews.com.
She can barely walk or do household chores. Her son is a seventh-grader at a high school. Her husband has lost interest in her and the family.
"Maybe he has married another woman by now but he sometimes comes to stay with us. He never gives us a penny," Akter said.
She was awarded compensation of 1 million taka (US$11,765) by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the main garment trade body, after government intervention. The full amount was deposited in a bank as savings. Akter receives a monthly sum of 10,000 taka (US$118) in interest but says the amount is insufficient for keeping body and soul together for two people.
"I feel pain in the leg from time to time, so I need to go to the doctor and take medicines. I also have several other illnesses including chest pain. I cannot work and I have lost dignity in society as I cannot earn anymore. Most people look at me with sympathy and it saddens me," she said.
Akter believes the government should help with the rehabilitation of Rana Plaza victims.
"The Rana Plaza site is now empty and useless. The government should use it to rehabilitate victims and their families. It should take measures to help workers who are unable to work to find alternative means to rebuild their lives," she said.
"If the government can shelter and feed one million Rohingya refugees, it can support Rana Plaza victims too."
The empty plot that once housed the eight-storied Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Savar. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Inadequate, uncoordinated compensation
Following the accident, families of dead and injured workers received 50,000 taka (US$588) to 5 million taka (US$58,824) in compensation from the Rana Plaza Fund created with donations from home and abroad, foreign governments and international brands. But very few received high amounts.
"The compensation process was uncoordinated and so most of them got less money and only few got the full amount. It was inadequate given that many workers lost limbs, got paralyzed and became psychologically traumatized. They deserved much more as they can never work again," Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, told ucanews.com.
He said middlemen had eaten up compensation money that was supposed go to workers.
"Moreover, about 200 workers were buried unidentified as their bodies were beyond recognition. Most of their DNA didn't match with those who claimed to be their relatives, so they didn't get anything," Akhter said.
He said most of the 2,900 injured workers have poor and miserable lives as they are unfit to work physically and psychologically.
"There should have been efforts to rehabilitate workers by the government and the BGMEA, but they just finished their job by giving money. The collapse of Rana Plaza was not the fault of the workers, so they should not carry the burden forever," Akhter added.
BGMEA first vice-president Mohiuddin Ahmed said enough has been done for victims.
"From our part, we have compensated the workers as much as possible. We also helped them find jobs in other factories. But there is no end to demands and we cannot fulfill everything. If the BGMEA realizes the workers need rehabilitation, we will look into it," Ahmed told ucanews.com.
Changes but not enough
The Rana Plaza tragedy sparked an unprecedented global outcry for long overdue reforms to Bangladesh's US$25 billion ready-made garment industry, the world's second largest after China's but notorious for poor labor practices and hazardous working conditions.
The industry earns 80 percent of the country's annual foreign exchange income and employs about four million workers, mostly poor rural women who stitch clothes for international brands for about US$68 per month. Yet about 2,000 workers have been killed and thousands injured in fatal factory collapses and fires since the 1990s, according to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence.
Amid pressure from Western customers, labor groups and governments, dozens of international brands that source clothes from Bangladeshi factories formed two consortiums — the European-dominated Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the North American-dominated Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
The two groups have invested millions of dollars to conduct safety checks and recommend corrective action in up to 2,500 factories where they source their clothes.
Last year, the Accord extended the deadline for completion of safety reforms to May 31, 2021. It says 84 percent of its 1,600 active factories had been through the initial remedial process as of April 1 and the process would be completed by the deadline.
About 90 percent of the Alliance's 658 active factories have completed primary corrective action. It has suspended 162 factories for failing to maintain safety standards.
Bangladesh's government and the International Labor Organization have been jointly inspecting and helping the remaining 1,500 large and small factories.
Pressure from labor groups, rights bodies and Western governments forced Bangladesh to raise garment workers' monthly wage from US$36 to US$68 in 2013.
The government also amended the labor law to make it easy for workers to form and participate in trade unions.
Before Rana Plaza's collapse, there were 130 trade unions, mostly inactive in the face of threats from factory owners who yield immense financial and political clout in Bangladesh.
Although there are now 500 trade unions in small and medium-sized factories, none of the large factories have trade unions.
"Only 35-40 trade unions can engage effectively in collective bargaining with the factory authority over worker rights, but others cannot due to fear of repercussions," labor leader Akhter said.
He said there are labor courts to resolve worker rights issues but in practice they do not serve the purpose.
"The legal procedure is lengthy and expensive, so poor workers cannot afford it. Moreover, workers often fear losing their jobs in retaliation for complaints against the authority, so they endure abuses and keep silent," Akhter added.