The women’s support group is barely visible under the light of a single bulb, and it makes no difference to Shahnaz Begum: she lives in near darkness everyday. Since November’s deadly fire at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory, the 35-year-old sewing machine operator has gone blind in her right eye and is rapidly losing sight in her left, the result of getting trampled in the stampede to escape the blaze that also left her with a broken leg and searing headaches. Though she has already spent most of her compensation on medical expenses, she is more fortunate than the other survivors in her group, most of whom have not received anything at all. “No one else is caring for us,” says Shahnaz. “We have been forgotten.”
With a staggering death toll of more than 1,100 people, the April 24 Rana Plaza disaster held the world’s attention to the dangers of Bangladesh’s garment industry as never before. While efforts to compensate victims and inspect factories are frustratingly slow and erratic, critics agree that overdue safety accords signed by Western brands will have a significant long-term impact on labor conditions in the world’s second largest garment exporter after decades of foot-dragging and neglect.
However, activists and the survivors of the Nov. 24 Tazreen fire — in which at least 112 people perished in a locked factory on Dhaka’s outskirts later found to be producing garments for major U.S. retailers — are fearful that their pre-existing claims for financial and medical help have been further marginalized by Rana Plaza. “These workers are being totally ignored — there is no action plan for them,” says Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a prominent labor rights advocacy organization.
Such concerns were fanned over the weekend by the failure of Western companies to reach a compensation deal for the pain and suffering, medical expenses and loss of earnings of Tazreen and Rana Plaza victims at a meeting in Geneva. IndustriALL, the international trade union federation that coordinated the talks, said that of the 29 Rana Plaza brands and retailers invited, less than a third took part; Tazreen fared even worse with just two out of 14. No-shows included American firms Disney, Sears and Walmart (the latter has maintained all along that its supplier was sub-contracting without its knowledge and it is therefore not responsible.) IndustriALL Assistant General Secretary Monika Kemperle called the lack of concern for lives “destroyed by the avoidable accidents at Tazreen and Rana Plaza shocking in the extreme.”
The workers have hardly fared better at home. Of the 1,137 Tazreen survivors, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country’s main trade body, has given compensation of about $1,250 to just 90 workers hospitalized with severe injuries. Yet less than ten months later, Ale Noor, 35, insists she can no longer afford mounting medical bills after sustaining a concussion and shattered leg when she was forced to jump from the third floor of the factory. Co-worker Ruma Begum, 26, says she’s been paid nothing for the simple fact that her wounds are less obvious: a crippling fear of fire and loud noises that, by her own admission, cause her to lash out at her own children. Unable to go back to work, her husband has picked up a job in a garment factory but can only work part-time in order to also care for the family, leaving them almost no money to get by.
Then there’s 16-year-old survivor Sumaya Khatun. Like Shahnaz Begum, she is blind in one eye and fast losing her vision in the other, the result of a tumor in her brain that is pushing further outward each day, distorting her face with intensifying pain. Although doctors refuse to connect the fire with the aggravation of Sumaya’s tumor, her mother, Amiran, is adamant that her illness was hastened by smoke inhalation and a blow to the head that she sustained while fleeing. At a minimum, she adds, her daughter should be paid for her suffering and loss of job. But absent any help from authorities, the girl’s condition has become life threatening. (The BGMEA, for its part, maintains that Sumaya was not present when the list of injured workers to be compensated was prepared.)
As hundreds of Tazreen survivors struggle to secure assistance in the shadow of Rana Plaza, victims and rights monitors say that a breathtaking lack of justice has added insult to injury. Despite a government probe into the fire that concluded the factory’s owner should be convicted for “unpardonable negligence” that was responsible for so many deaths, Delwar Hossain remains a free man who continues to produce garments for export. Though he refused to name the brands supplied, he told TIME that he still works for a handful of European clients that are placing regular, if smaller, orders through a buying house. His near-term plan, he says, is to partner with a Chinese company in order to change his company’s name so he can rekindle his relationships with American customers “some time next year.”
What’s more, after admitting that the factory’s doors were locked as a “standard procedure” to prevent theft, Hossain went on to assert that he himself is entitled to millions in compensation from the government to cover the loss of business. “No one cares about all that I have lost — I am a victim too,” he says, citing the cars and fancy condominium he’s had to give up. And while Hossain’s claims for compensation are liable to fall on already deaf ears, he may at least count on his ongoing involvement in the garment industry: in more than two decades, not a single factory owner in Bangladesh has ever been prosecuted for the deaths of workers.
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.