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Remembering Rana Plaza, one year on

A year after Rana Plaza, a call for real change and accountability

Remembering Rana Plaza, one year on

The Rana Plaza tragedy sparked strong public outcry and calls to improve factory safety and conditions for Bangladesh’s garment workers. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

The Third Eye, Dhaka

April 24, 2014

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It’s been a year since the Rana Plaza textile complex collapsed, killing 1,135 workers and injuring more than 2,500, making it the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh history.

Fatal accidents are all too common in Bangladesh’s US$20 billion garment industry, the second largest in the world after China's. In the past decade accidents have occurred an average of two to four times per month. It’s ironic—and outrageous—for an industry that employs four million people and fetches 80 percent of country’s annual export income to be so poorly regulated.

About 2,000 workers have been killed in work-related accidents in Bangladesh in the past ten years. These accidents, and the easily preventable deaths that occurred as a result, have largely been due to lax safety standards and atrocious working conditions in the factories.

Disasters like the Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen Fashions factory fire, which killed more than 100 people in Dhaka in 2012, are a product of the collective negligence of everyone who has benefited from the Bangladesh garment industry. They have occurred under the noses of the authorities, trade bodies and Western buyers, who remained astonishingly silent as workers perished. The catalysts for these events did not just appear over night. Year after year, a wide range of monitoring bodies and agencies put their stamps of approval on thousands of factories, despite the fact that structures lacked proper fire doors, fire escapes, smoke-proof stairways and automatic sprinkler systems.

Some analysts have drawn parallels between the Rana Plaza accident and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York that killed 146 workers and led to lasting safety reforms in the US garment industry. Well, seven times as many individuals died at Rana Plaza. The scale of suffering in the wake of the collapse was almost too much to swallow, even for the most apathetic of companies or governments. It triggered an unprecedented outcry from the media, labor advocates and consumer groups, which is paving the way for long overdue reforms in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

Indeed, a year after the collapse, Bangladesh has seen a major push for changes.

More than 150 mostly European companies have signed the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, while 26 mostly North American companies including Walmart, Gap and Target have formed the separate Bangladesh Alliance for Worker Safety that commits the companies to invest in upgrades in more than 2,000 factories. The Bangladesh government and the International Labor Organization have pledged to conduct safety inspections in the remaining factories.

Under intense pressure from foreign governments—including suspension of US trade privileges for Bangladesh—the government has amended its labor law to make it easier for workers to unionize. To date, more than 100 new trade unions have been registered and workers are speaking out strongly against poor working conditions and walking away from jobs if necessary. Their collective efforts have led to an increase in the minimum wage from $37 to $68 per month.

The owners and managers of Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza are being prosecuted for culpable homicide charges in a country where garment manufacturers wield immense political power and have never been held accountable for previous accidents.

These are all positive changes, despite the fact that they have only come about as a result of such a massive loss of lives. But, we would be foolish to believe that everything has been cleaned up and will henceforth be on the straight and narrow.

Though Western brands have begun a major push for safety improvements, they have divided into two oft-feuding groups—those that signed the Accord and those that signed the Alliance—which is an arrangement that analysts say hinders the overall effort.

Members of the Alliance claim that they have so far performed more factory inspections than the Accord brands, while Accord members say that the Alliance’s inspections are far less rigorous. Accord members also say they work closely with trade unions and have input from workers, while Alliance members assert that some Accord brands have not provided wages to workers who were laid off after their factories were temporarily closed following inspections that discovered serious safety violations.

The Alliance has been widely criticized for not being legally binding and for its lack of transparency. The Alliance claims to have inspected about 400 factories so far, but it does not make its inspection reports public. Meanwhile, the Accord has published reports on 10 factories and asserts that it has inspected about 300.

In a sense, the competition appears positive on the grounds that they are attempting to raise the bar higher in terms of safety standards. But at times it also seems like an unappetizing neo-colonial battle in the globalized world.

The Accord inspection reports paint an ominous picture of dangerous conditions in the factories. Inspectors found structural, safety and fire faults in every factory they visited including dangerously heavy amounts of storage, which has led to cracked walls and stressed, sagging support beams. They also found basic fire equipment missing and exit routes that didn’t lead to the outside. Viyellatex, considered one of the best factories in Bangladesh, received multiple citations.

If massive, top-of-the-line factories have such issues, one can only imagine how bad the reality could be in smaller factories. In Bangladesh, there is a vast underworld of small factories operated by subcontractors working for larger manufacturers. These businesses often operate in shoddy apartments, basements, shops and rooftops where underpaid workers sew clothes under fierce pressure from bosses who abuse them and care little for workplace safety.

Unauthorized subcontracting is common. International buyers often know about it, though they don’t admit such things officially. The reality is they can’t stop it.

Flaws of the labor law

At its core, the labor law is not that worker friendly. Theoretically, workers are free to form trade unions, but in practice it’s not that easy. In a country where corruption is widespread, officials can be discreetly paid off to prevent the formation of a union. Likewise, factory owners can obtain a list of prospective union members from corrupt officials and fire the workers who intended to unionize. If workers take their case to the labor court, justice is rarely the outcome. Most garment workers are too poor to afford protracted unemployment, and the legal system is too expensive and too drawn out for them to stick out their case.

The labor law guarantees $1,282 in compensation from a factory owner if a worker dies or is seriously injured in a workplace accident. But is this money worth a person’s life? For years, the labor law has remained friendlier to owners than to workers, largely because owners wield immense political power. Some have even become parliamentarians or government ministers.

Meanwhile, the government has reportedly raised $16 million in compensation for the victims of Rana Plaza, while the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has raised some $1.8 million. However, some victims’ families say they have received nothing, and not a single family has received the full amount of $1,250 in cash and $19,000 in a savings scheme the government promised.

There is a serious lack of coordination among authorities and various organizations working to help victims and families. No one seems to know when the compensation payments will be made.

“It seems everyone is considering it as an act of charity, not as an act of responsibility,” a labor export said recently.

Rana Plaza could go down in history as a big turning point for the Bangladesh garment manufacturing industry. Like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, it might be the wake-up call that international brands and factory owners need.

But if it’s not, and better safety standards aren’t enforced, there’s no telling how many more Rana Plazas there could be.

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