Bangladesh Factory Collapse: Uncertain Future for Rana Plaza Survivors

Thousands of men and women who used to work at the collapsed Rana Plaza factory complex had made their way to a military school in Savar. It was a chance to trade information — about the dead, the missing, how to get compensation, and, perhaps most elusively, what they should do next.

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An injured survivor of the Rana Plaza building collapse returns home after having a follow-up medical treatment in Savar, Bangladesh, on June 7, 2013

The news spread quickly: somebody was coming to give out more money. By the middle of the steely gray morning of June 7, thousands of men and women who used to work at the collapsed Rana Plaza factory complex had made their way to a military school in Savar, the industrial district outside Dhaka. They stood outside the compound’s walls as rain pattered down on their umbrellas. It was a chance to get some much-needed cash, but also a chance to trade information — about the dead, the missing, how to get compensation and, perhaps most elusively, what they should do next.

Six weeks after the worst industrial accident in the history of garment industry, information is still in short supply. The official death toll of the Rana Plaza collapse is 1,129, with 301 bodies still unidentified, but workers’-rights groups think the count is higher. Of a group of 20 or so people crowded under a tree, nobody quite knew why they had waited in line that morning to register their names, surrounded by soldiers and security guards in crisp polo shirts. Nor were the workers sure who, exactly, had provided the 1,000 taka — about $12 — that they were handed before they left. “An NGO?” somebody in the crowd offered. Khadija Begum, who worked at Phantom Apparels on the building’s 4th floor, said a neighbor had told her to come. “They gave us 1,000 taka and I wrote my name down on a list,” she said. “I don’t know who the money was from.”

(MORE: Why Big Fashion Labels Shouldn’t Pull Out of Bangladesh)

 In fact, the money was from Primark, a British high-street retailer that had purchased clothes manufactured in Rana. The company had put an advertisement in the local press the week of June 1 telling people to go to the school in an attempt to create a master list of people working in Rana Plaza, according to Chris Barrie, a spokesman for the company. Primark wants to help all the workers it registers: it plans to set up bank accounts in order to pay the equivalent of a three-month salary to them, including workers who were not making Primark’s clothes.

It is symptomatic of this opaque industry that a foreign private company has taken on the job of untangling exactly how many people were in the building that day and who they were. The dangers of that lack of transparency were well known in Bangladesh before April 24, when Rana Plaza’s eight stories collapsed like a stack of pancakes. Safety violations have caused hundreds of worker deaths and thousands of injuries since Bangladesh’s garment sector — the world’s second largest after China — took off in the 1990s. But several successive governments have failed to clamp down on an industry that supports millions of people in a country with few other opportunities. “This is not a wake-up call,” says Sara Hossain, a prominent human-rights lawyer in Dhaka who has filed several public interest cases calling for inquiries into garment-sector accidents. “This is like somebody sleeping in after the alarm has been ringing and ringing and ringing.”

(MORE: Retailers Sign Bangladesh Garment-Factory Safety Deal)

The horror of Rana Plaza finally made global consumers wonder about the true cost a T-shirt manufactured halfway around the world for $5. But that awakening has yet to translate into a loss of business: garment exports were up 15% in May, one of the sector’s best months all year. What comes next for Bangladesh’s 5,500 registered garment factories — and the people who work in them — is uncertain. The government and domestic manufacturers have already distributed cash for salary compensation and funeral expenses to workers, but it is still unknown how much long-term help will be available to disabled workers and victims’ families. It is also unclear how survivors will secure the jobs that the government has promised them, or whether the government will stand by its promises to amend the current labor law to, among other things, improve workers’ rights to organize freely. The need for such protection was clear last week, when hundreds of former Rana Plaza workers gathered to protest for more compensation. Near the site of this tragedy, police opened fire and used tear gas on a crowd full of survivors, witnesses said.

The concentrated attention on Bangladesh’s factories has, of course, led to some swift action by officials desperate to keep foreign buyers from fleeing to other markets. The owner of Rana Plaza and the individual factory owners operating in the building have been arrested. The government is making moves to correct its anemic and underperforming safety-inspection apparatus. On June 9, the Labor Ministry suspended seven safety inspectors who it said had rubber-stamped the license renewals of Rana Plaza factories. One company, the Ministry said, had been operating since 2008 without a site inspection. Over the past month, the government has also ramped up inspections, evaluating hundreds factories and shutting down several noncompliant factories.

Better late than never. But if the crackdown continues, that too raises questions about what will happen to the thousands of workers on the payrolls of unsafe enterprises — and the many more thousands of mothers, fathers and siblings in villages across Bangladesh who depend on their salaries. The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the leading industry association, estimates there is up to a 30% labor shortage in the country and more than enough jobs for garment workers who are looking for them. “If anybody doesn’t get a job, we can get them a job,” says Atiqul Islam, BGMEA’s president. “It’s an express guarantee.”

But many survivors have no interest in going back to work anywhere near a sewing machine ever again. In a hospital bed in Savar, Rogina Faidul, 25, is recovering from having had her left arm amputated. She pulls absentmindedly at her white bandage as she describes her ordeal. She was trapped under a beam for three days before rescuers handed her a small saw. She tried to cut through her arm to free herself, but when she got to the bone, she says, she passed out. She was later pulled out of the rubble, but her sister, who was working beside her, is still missing.

Faidul says she will not go back to work in a garment factory, and she won’t let her husband go back to the jute factory where he was working either. There may be some help on the way. Primark, which was buying clothes from the factory where Faidul worked, has promised long-term assistance to disabled employees, though it has not determined how much it will give, says Barrie. In the meantime, the young couple is hoping officials will make good on their word. “The government has promised to help us get some work,” Faidul says. If Dhaka comes through for Faidul and other survivors, a better future for Bangladesh’s garment industry may start to come into focus.

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