Two years after Rana Plaza, scars linger for garment workers

Labor groups say not enough has been done to fix the major problems in the industry
Two years after Rana Plaza, scars linger for garment workers

A memorial now stands in front of the empty plot where Rana Plaza once stood in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

More than five years ago, Mahinoor Akter left her impoverished village in southern Bangladesh in search of a job. She was only a teenager, but she hoped the country’s booming but troubled garment sector would help lift her family out of poverty.

For a time, it did.

Earning roughly 10,000 taka, or about US$130 a month, Mahinoor stitched clothes for major international retailers from North America and Europe. Her earnings enabled her to support her elderly mother and two younger brothers living in a tin-roofed shanty in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka.

She switched employers over the years, but all of them shared one thing in common — they were located in Rana Plaza, an illegally constructed eight-story building that collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing 1,135 mostly young female workers and injuring more than 2,500.

Mahinoor was trapped by steel and concrete rubble for nearly 20 hours before she was rescued by one of her former colleagues. She sustained major injuries when a sewing machine fell on her head and a gigantic beam broke her limbs.

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She underwent months-long treatment for her injuries at the Center for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed (CRP), a non-government medical and rehabilitation facility in Savar. But the accident also shattered her dreams for a better life.

“I have tried to go back to work in another factory but I stopped after fainting during work several times. I have lost a finger, my ears sometimes bleed and I have chest pains,” she told ucanews.com during a recent interview. “The management said they won’t hire former workers of Rana Plaza anymore.”

The Rana Plaza tragedy, the deadliest structural disaster to hit the clothing industry, sparked massive international outrage against extremely hazardous working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories.

But two years after the collapse, Rana Plaza survivors and their families are still struggling. Many complain of difficulty supporting their families and receiving promised compensation for their losses. Observers say there have been cautious improvements since the tragedy. But key concerns still remain in the labor rights sector.

So far, Mahinoor’s family has received less than half of the 96,000 taka ($1,200) promised as compensation by the government. With Mahinoor unable to work, the burden of supporting the family has fallen to her 12-year-old brother, who has a lowly paid job at a hotel and is unable to cover all the family’s expenses.

“We have failed to pay the house rent for the past three months and the landlord has ordered us to leave the place. We have dues in the local grocery stores and the grocers have threatened not to sell anything else to us. We are in a really rough situation,” said Mahinoor, who is now 18. “The dream of a good life for me and my family has been buried with Rana Plaza.”

Abdur Rahman Khan (right) has resorted to begging after his son, Azam, died at Rana Plaza (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

 

Most survivors unemployed

Like Mahinoor, about 55 percent of Rana Plaza survivors are still unemployed due to physical inability, trauma or a lack of suitable jobs, according to a recent survey by ActionAid Bangladesh, an international development organization.

The survey, launched in Dhaka on Wednesday, covered 2,200 people, including survivors themselves and family members of the dead.

Only 35 percent of the respondents returned to a job in the garment sector. Overall, the majority of respondents reported earning less than 5,300 taka ($68) per month — the current minimum wage for the garment sector.

To help compensate victims, the International Labor Organization (ILO) created the Rana Plaza Trust Fund, to be funded by dozens of retailers who source from Bangladesh factories. But to date, that compensation fund is $9 million short of its $30-million target, with many international brands refusing to donate.

The Prime Minister’s Relief and Rehabilitation Fund raised the equivalent of more than US$16 million in donations, but so far less than $3 million has actually been distributed, the Bangladesh chapter of Berlin-based anti-graft watchdog Transparency International said in a statement this week. The government, meanwhile, has denied the report.

“It is absolutely frustrating and unacceptable that there have been huge amounts of donations for workers since the Rana Plaza accident, but many are still waiting for compensation and rehabilitation even after two years,” said Syed Sultanuddin Ahmed, assistant executive director of the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies.

“It is sad to see that the workers who were denied their rights during their lifetime are also victims of negligence after death. This is a disgrace for us all.”

Monjurul Karim, rehabilitation wing manager at the CRP, says most workers need long-term treatment but cannot afford it. “We have provided treatment to 509 injured workers, many of whom need to visit doctors regularly and take medication,” Karim said. “Most of all they need money and rehabilitation support to settle down.”

Bangladesh’s garment industry is the backbone of the economy, employing about four million mostly poor, rural women across the country. But the industry is notorious for poor labor practices and atrocious working conditions.

Since 1990, more than 1,800 workers have been killed and at least 5,600 have been injured because of deadly fires and building collapses in the industry, according to the Civil Defence and Fire Brigade department.

The government pledged to bring reforms to the garment sector after the Rana Plaza disaster, under intense pressure from foreign governments. These promised changes included amending the labor law to make it easier for workers to form trade unions.

About 190 mostly European companies 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 investing in upgrades in some 2,200 factories. The Bangladesh government and the ILO have pledged to conduct safety inspections in the remaining factories as part of a National Action Plan.

As of April, companies in the Accord announced they had completed safety inspections in 1,250 of 1,600 factories from which its signatories source clothes. Meanwhile, the North American companies said the Alliance had completed inspections in all of the 645 factories it counted as members.

“In fact, [in] all the factories we inspected, some of the electrical problems have been fixed. So, by extension, we have prevented lots of fires and saved a lot of lives,” Brad Lowen, the Accord’s chief safety inspector, said in a recent interview. “There is lot more to be done … but they are certainly much safer at the moment.”

Representatives from the Alliance said it had also made progress with inspections and remediation. Guillermo Meneses, a spokesman for the group, said 19 factories have been “fully or partially closed” following safety checks. He expected to complete final inspections on all factories by July 2017.

However, labor activists say that many factories have refused to be inspected at all. Of 2,500 factories covered by the National Action Plan, more than 100 factory owners have refused to be inspected, said Alonzo Suson, country director of the Solidarity Center, a Bangladesh affiliate of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

“This is a big concern because if anything happens to those factories that refused to be inspected, this … would give a very bad impression about the commitment of Bangladesh to reform the garment sector.”

Syed Ahmed, inspector general of Inspection for Factories and Establishments department, says that since the Rana Plaza collapse 32 factories have been shut and another 27 temporarily closed.

Many workers like Mahmudul Hasan were seriously injured in the Rana Plaza accident and remain unemployed (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

 

Union busting

The Bangladesh government increased the minimum monthly wage of garment workers from the equivalent of $38 to $68 in 2013. However, labor activists allege that many factories fail to pay workers on time.

“In many factories, owners don’t pay workers in time and they are scolded if they ask for it,” said Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, a leading labor group.

“Often, the workers are put through unrealistic production targets, but their salaries remain unpaid for months. So, many workers have to borrow money from local moneylenders, with high interest.”

Labor activists have also pointed to an increasing difficulty in forming trade unions. Suson said 300 new unions have been registered in the last two years; 15 have successfully completed collective bargaining agreements.

“But the number is still low and the rejection of union registration is increasing,” he said.

More than half of new union applications have been rejected up until April this year, he said, compared with about 19 percent in 2013.

“Many workers want to join a union but increasingly face obstacles like intimidation, threats or actual physical violence, [or] loss of jobs. The government is also unwilling to penalize the employers for unfair labor practices,” Suson said.

Babul Akhter says his federation has helped register 30 new unions, the majority forming in small factories with 300-500 workers. Organizing in larger factories has proven more problematic. “We couldn’t unionize in larger factories because of opposition from owners and managers,” he said.

He cited an example of one large factory, where the owners shut down the factory for a week and fired 10 union members after they unionized.

“After repeated requests, the factory was reopened but the union members didn’t get back their jobs,” he said. “We have written to the owners’ association and the government, but justice was not done.”

In a report released this week, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed ongoing violations in the garment sector, including physical assault, verbal abuse, forced overtime, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages.

“If Bangladesh wants to avoid another Rana Plaza disaster, it needs to effectively enforce its labor law and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal,” Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at HRW, said in a statement.

Garment industry representatives rejected the HRW report’s conclusions.

“We work for the good of the workers as much as we can because they keep our factories running. These allegations are not true,” said Rafiqul Islam, additional secretary at the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

'Everything good I had in my life'

But today’s labor conditions are of little interest to those still grieving the Rana Plaza collapse.

Abdur Rahman Khan’s 28-year-old son, Azam, also worked in one of the Rana Plaza factories. It took DNA testing to confirm that Azam had been killed. Now, his body lies buried in a Dhaka graveyard, along with 51 others who were initially unidentifiable.

Khan, 68, said his son was the family’s sole breadwinner. With no compensation from the authorities, Khan has resorted to begging to make ends meet.

“It is so humiliating for me that I often look downward to not show my face to passers-by,” Khan said. “We have lost our loving and caring son. Now we have no one to rely upon.”

Mahmudul Hasan, 28, survived the collapse, but his life today is in shambles, he says. He was trapped in the rubble for hours before he was rescued. When he regained consciousness 16 days later, he woke up to learn he was partially blind and that his right leg was paralyzed. Months later, his wife left him because he could no longer earn any money.

“Because I can’t work, my parents are forced to work in the fields and my brother must borrow money from others,” Hasan said. He said the government owes him 50,000 taka ($650) in compensation, but he has received nothing to date. “Life is so frustrating that I wanted to commit suicide by drinking poison,” he said. “Rana Plaza has snatched away everything good I had in my life.”

 

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