Return to Rana Plaza

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It has been two years since Mazeda Begum, 56, last saw her oldest daughter, Erina.

The family’s sole wage-earner was working on the fourth floor of a garment factory when the Raza Plaza complex collapsed on 24 April 2013.

“I don’t want money,” cries Mazeda. “Just return my beloved daughter. Are you listening to me? God, I want justice!”

The eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, collapsed not long after workers complained of seeing cracks in the walls.

They were forced to go back to work by the factory owners.

Some 1134 workers lost their lives in the deadliest industrial accident in Bangladesh’s history; thousands were injured, hundreds critically.

According to official statistics, 261 workers are still missing. Erina is one of them.

“She left me with her two children but we are almost living on the streets,” says Mazeda.

“We have not got the bone or flesh of my daughter to complete the [burial] rituals,” she tells Equal Times at the abandoned Rana Plaza site, her voice choked with emotion.

Mazeda frequently comes to the site to commune with Erina and to look for her remains. “I feel her company here. Whenever I come to the site, I hear the voice of my daughter asking me to look after two children.”

Other families also go to the site to look for loved ones who went to work one morning and never came back home.

 

#PayUp protests

They, too, are joined by protesters calling on big name brands to pay into a compensation fund for Rana Plaza survivors and the families of the deceased.

Since the disaster, an Accord on Fire and Building Safety was introduced in Bangladesh to try and improve safety standards in the country’s ready-made garment industry.

But for financial compensation, progress has been much slower.

Global trade union federations IndustriALL and UNI Global Union along with the Clean Clothes Campaign have been calling on big multinational clothing brands, such as Walmart, Carrefour and The Children’s Place, to pay into the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund.

So far US$24 million has been paid out by brands such as Primark, Mango and Inditex, the Bangladesh Prime Ministers Fund and other private donors, but there is still a shortfall of US$6 million to cover the compensation claims [editor’s note: compensation for victims and their families comes exclusively from the Fund].

Benetton recently became the latest brand to pay into the Fund with a US$1.1 million contribution but trade unions and activists have expressed their disappointment.

Kalpona Akter, a former child garment worker who is now the executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, is highly critical of the contribution:

“Is Benetton in Bangladesh for charity activities? No? So, it should deposit the due amount,” she tells Equal Times.

In a statement, IndustriALL General Secretary Jyrki Raina mirrored Akter’s sentiments:

“The people who died in Rana Plaza were the people that made the United Colours of Benetton. We believe that a contribution of US$5 million would show respect to the sacrifice that they made.”

Back at the disaster site, families are treated with even less respect.

Some garment owners are joined by local officials in trying to stop the protestors and the mourners from coming to the site.

Unbelievably, human remains are still being recovered from where the factory complex once stood.

An on-duty police officer tells Equal Times that the bones belong to cattle but the families are convinced that these are the remains of their loved ones.

“The factory owners hardly consider us as human beings. It’s the same with the police,” says Mahmudul Hasan Hridoy, who survived the accident.

Mahmudul was rescued from the debris of the collapsed building the day after the accident. He spent 17 days in a coma and is now living with a debilitating back injury.

 

After the rescue

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the Bangladesh government called in the army to help firefighters and other emergency services carry out the rescue operation.

In the three weeks after the accident, nearly 2000 people were pulled out alive.

But since then, survivors have received little assistance.

Each victim is supposed to get between US$1200 and US$35,000, depending on the level of injury or loss.

But so far, 5,000 people – dependents of the deceased as well as injured workers – have received just 40 per cent of the total compensation payment due to them, according to the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee, which is chaired by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

And according to activists, there are 59 victims who haven’t yet received any compensation at all due to a lack of proper documentation.

But even for those who have received some form of pay-out, the money barely makes up for their loss in earnings.

In addition, many survivors are now unable to work because they are suffering severe mental and physical trauma.

“My head is always dizzy. I feel as if I am falling down,” says Asha, who was working at the New Wave Bottoms factory on the second floor of Rana Plaza the day it collapsed.

Her father, Abul, tells Equal Times that she hasn’t been the same since.

“She tried to commit suicide twice, just to get relief from the pain in her head. My daughter has lost control of herself,” says Abul, whose work as a street vendor means that he cannot afford to take Asha to a doctor.

Asha tells Equal Times that the disaster still haunts her.

“I can’t sleep at night. I still hear the screams of people shouting for help.”
Like many other survivors, Asha suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Bangladeshi government has launched a number of counselling services for survivors but it isn’t enough for all those in need.

“There are too few initiatives for victims with mental disorders,” Akter tells Equal Times.

 

Union busting

For Akter, the victims have been deprived of compensation and assistance because of the lack on legislation and the weakness of trade unions in Bangladesh.

“If the compensation was calculated by an ILO convention, such a debate would not have arisen,” says Akter.

Some clothing brands are still refusing to pay into the Fund as they do not want to shoulder the responsibility for the accident or the pre-existing conditions in the garment industry which allowed it to happen.

But for Akter, culpability is unavoidable.

“Workers who were killed in the incident were making products for these companies,” she says plainly.

For Ben Vanpeperstraete, supply chain coordinator at Uni Global and IndustriALL, the post-Rana Plaza landscape is a mixed bag:

“On the one hand, there is progress under the Accord, as all factories underwent initial inspections. However, the real work is starting with the remediation and actually making these buildings safe. Now it’s the moment that the companies need to actually show real commitment in supporting these factories.”

But, he continues: “On the other hand, the Rana Plaza Trust Fund still needs US$6 million to give the minimum compensation to the victims. It’s appalling that on the second anniversary of the disaster, a multi-billion global industry cannot find the money to turn one of the darkest pages in its history.”

This week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a 78-page report detailing the terrible working conditions still endured by many Bangladeshi garment workers, and the union-busting measures they encounter when they try to organise.

Violations range from forced overtime and the non-payment of wages to physical violence.

This is despite the fact that in July 2013, Bangladesh instituted a number of reforms to the labour code, including adopting ILO Conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Enforcement, however, is a major issue, with workers who attempt to unionise facing intimidation, dismissal and even violence.

For Alonzo Glenn Suson, Bangladesh country director for the workers’ rights organisation the Solidarity Center, the urgent need for the protection of workers’ rights couldn’t be clearer:

“If Bangladesh’s trade unions were strong, incidents like Rana Plaza would never happen.”

But those who do speak out do so in a very hostile environment.

Bangladesh is the world’s second largest garment exporter after China, and employs as many as four million people.

Both business owners and the government take any perceive threats to the industry very seriously.

Garment worker activists like Nazma Akter [no relation of Kalpona] of the Awaj Foundation, have been accused of “destroying the industry” and have been described as “enemies of the nation”.

But Nazma says she will continue to stand firm until the exploitation of low-paid and badly treated garment workers comes to an end:

“We want to work with dignity,” she says.