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The unforgiving legacy of Rana Plaza

Justice is slow to come for victims of the garment factory tragedy

The unforgiving legacy of Rana Plaza

A memorial in front of the empty plot where Rana Plaza once stood in Savar, near Dhaka in this 2015 file photo. (ucanews.com photo)

Four years is not enough time to get over the ramifications of one of the worst industrial disasters in world, the Rana Plaza collapse, which killed 1,136 workers and injured over 2,000.

So, on April 24, all major national and international media outlets ran stories to remember the accident that shocked the world; workers and activists rallied to pay tribute to the dead and injured victims; while rights and advocacy groups released statements issuing stark warnings to the government, international brands and factory owners to avoid such a tragedy in future.

Reportedly, apparel industry groups, brands and unions have reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring long-term reform in the Bangladesh garment industry.   

There was a prevailing sense of grief, guilt and loss across the events but it was not felt by everyone. 

The government deployed hundreds of riot police, armed with batons and water canons at a memorial ground at Savar, near Dhaka where Rana Plaza once stood. Police did not allow a group of protesters to hold rally although they were simply demanding compensation and justice for victims, and fair wages and rights for garment workers.

Siddiqur Rahman, the president of country's most powerful trade body the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) claimed that owners of five Rana Plaza factories were not responsible for the disaster but only Sohel Rana, the owner of the ill-fated complex.   

Ironically, he made this comment while visiting a graveyard in Dhaka where some 311 unidentified Rana Plaza victims were buried.

It seems his visit was simply a courtesy call but like most garment factory owners he was apathetic to the plight of workers even after such a massive disaster.

Fatal accidents are nothing new in Bangladesh's US$25 billion garment industry, the second largest in the world after China. It supplies clothes to Europe and the Americas and counts for 80% of Bangladesh's annual exports.

The Rana Plaza disaster was not a bolt from the blue. It was a culmination of grim, atrocious irregularities and malpractices in the industry that employs some 4 million workers, mostly poor rural women. 

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It came about six months after Tazreen Factory blaze that killed 112 workers. Altogether, over 2,000 workers have died in various accidents in the industry in the past two decades, occurring on average two to four times per month.

These accidents were not only a fault of greedy profiteers but were a product of the collective negligence and apathy of all who are directly or indirectly involved with the industry and benefit from it.

So, the Rana Plaza collapse brought collective shame on all, not only Bangladeshis but across the globe, sparking an unprecedented national and global outcry for long overdue safety reforms and worker's rights.

The accident was heavy to swallow for most governments and companies, forcing them to pay heed to the call for real change and accountability in the industry. Four years on, the industry has seen a push for major changes.

The government has raised the minimum wage of workers about 76 percent, from US$37 to US$68 per month, although it is still among the lowest monthly wages in the world.

Two bodies of Western brands: the European-dominated Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the American-backed Bangladesh Alliance for Worker Safety have invested millions of dollars in two separate five-year deals to conduct safety inspections and implement a corrective action plan in over 2,000 source factories. The Bangladesh government and the International Labor Organization have been inspecting the remaining factories.

The actions have yielded fruits, as there have been no major accidents in garment factories or casualties since Rana Plaza.

Amid pressure from international trade unions and governments, including the suspension of trade privileges in the U.S. for Bangladesh, the government amended the labor law to allow workers to unionize. Hundreds of trade unions have been formed and workers are more vocal about their rights than ever.

In Bangladesh, garment factory owners wield immense political and financial clout. In the present parliament, 60 percent of parliamentarians are businessmen and at least 30 percent own garment factories.

Before Rana Plaza, labor law was friendlier to owners and no owner was held accountable for previous accidents. But now, both owners of Tazreen and Rana Plaza are facing trial, although justice is elusive.

These are all strong, positive signs for major changes. But there is little reason to be cheerful, because it's just one side of the coin.

After the Rana Plaza collapse, the government and the BGMEA raised about US$20 billion in compensation for the victims, while the ILO created Rana Plaza Trust Fund of US$30 million with donations from international brands sourcing clothes from Bangladesh. However, to date none of the victim families have received the full amount of US$1,250 in cash and US$19,000 in saving as promised.

A recent report from non-government organization ActionAid Bangladesh shows 42 percent injured victims of Rana Plaza are still unemployed as they are physically and psychologically unfit to work and they never received compensation or rehabilitation.

Most of them are still traumatized to work in garment factories due to their horrific experience, trapped under concrete rubble before being pulled out alive. No concerted effort has been taken to address their problems through psychological counseling.  

The minimum monthly wage was raised to US$68 but high inflation and a price hike on daily essentials have lessened workers' purchasing capacity. So, workers' living standards have actually gone down as they cannot afford good housing, nutritious foods or even school for their children.

The abuse and ill treatment of workers has not stopped either. This was vividly illustrated in December 2016 when factory owners dismissed some 1,500 workers in Dhaka after they took part in demonstrations for a wage hike. The owners collaborated with police to charge hundreds of workers with false cases, jailing and torturing them in custody.

Workers are free to form trade unions but many are reluctant as owners threaten them with termination and pay officials to root out unionists to be fired.

The labor law provisions labor courts to resolve any dispute, but in reality poor and powerless workers do not have the money and time to fight legal battles. It provisions US$1,250 in compensation from a factory owner if a worker dies or is injured in a workplace accident. No sane person would agree to that amount for a lost life. There have been debates between labor groups, owners and the government to fix a lifetime compensation package but nothing worked out in the end.

While Accord, Alliance and ILO are checking for safety upgrades in large factories there is a vast underworld of smaller factories operated by subcontractors that continue business in shoddy apartments, basements, rooftops and shops, where workers sew clothes under immense pressure from abusive bosses. These factories are largely out of touch and devoid of any kind of inspection, keeping the door open for disasters.

Labor leaders are concerned about what will happen after the five-year safety upgrade ends. Will there be constant vigilance and monitoring? There is no such indication or commitment so far.      

On the legal side, two cases filed after the accident are in limbo. The police, in 2016, charged 41 people including the Rana Plaza owner, factory bosses and government officials for murder and negligence.

While Rana remains in jail, 16 others are freed on bail and the rest are at large. The trial procedure has yet to start as the government is still trying to save officials accused in the cases, citing they were simply monitors of inspection and safety, not direct accomplices in the incident. So, it's highly unlikely that justice will be done.

Global brands are also failing to keep promises as well.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said only 29 out of 72 global apparel and footwear companies contacted were disclosing information about their source factories, failing to comply with a transparency pledge endorsed by a coalition of labor and rights organizations.

The scar of Rana Plaza will continue to haunt Bangladeshi workers unless real changes take place.

Rana Plaza could go down in history as a catalyst for change and reform in the Bangladesh garment industry. If not, the unforgiving legacy of the disaster will continue to remind us we have failed as collective humanity to pay back the innocent victims, who truly deserve to be remembered as lives, not merely numbers.

Rock Ronald Rozario is journalist and commentator for ucanews.com based in Dhaka.

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