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Interview: Jahidul KabirApril 23, 2014

To mark the first anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza, a factory building in Dhaka, on April 24 last year, two women from Bangladesh were in Germany to appeal for compensation for the victims.

A rescuer carries an injured person after a building collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, April 24, 2013 (Photo: Xinhua/Shariful Islam)
Image: imago/Xinhua

Shila Begum is one of the Rana Plaza survivors. Despite suffering serious injuries, she was rescued from under the rubble of the collapsed building after being trapped for 16 hours. Over 1100 of her fellow textile workers in five factories in the plaza died.

Safia Parvin is the General-Secretary of the National Garments Workers Federation, an organization fighting for the rights of textile workers in Bangladesh.

The two women spoke to DW in Frankfurt, Germany.

DW: What is the aim of your visit to Germany?

Safia Parvin: The objective of my visit to Germany is to convince the German and international brands and retailers, who ordered clothes from the five factories at Rana Plaza, to pay compensation to the victims of the April 24, 2013 tragedy.

What happened at Rana Plaza?

Shila Begum: I was a senior operator at Ether Tex, a garment factory that usually sews shirts and trousers for foreign buyers. Our factory was on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building at Savar, near Dhaka. On April 23, some workers spotted cracks in the wall of the building. So we hurried to the manager and wanted to leave the building. They closed the factory for that day, but ordered us to return to work next morning. They even threatened us that our wages would be stopped for two months if we did not return to work.

Shila Begum (R) and Safia Parvin
'Won't they show us just a little mercy?' asks Shila Begum (R)Image: DW/J. Kabir

On April 24, about 5,000 workers, including myself, entered the building at eight am. After half an hour, the electricity went off and the generator kicked in. Then I felt the building shudder and the ceiling came down on me. My right hand got stuck between bits of rubble and a concrete beam fell on my stomach.

One of my colleagues died right in front of my eyes. The Almighty saved me probably because of my 10 year old daughter Nipu Moni. After sixteen hours, rescue workers found me and carried me out of the building. After emergency treatment in Labzone hospital in Savar, I was transferred to Dhaka Medical College hospital where they removed my uterus completely.

Now I am under treatment in the Centre for the Rehabilitation for the Paralyzed (CRP) in Savar. I still cannot move my right arm a year on. I cannot use my arm even to eat food or to do other household chores. My daughter Nipu Moni is top of her class, but probably she will not be able to continue at school because I am unable to pay the tuition costs. My younger sister is helping me to get treatment. The National Garments Workers Federation is also helping me. But, we, the Rana Plaza workers are so helpless. We hope to get treatment, to get compensation. We want a fair wage, we hope for a better life. But nothing has happened.

Did you receive any compensation?

Shila Begum: I have received 45,000 Taka (420 euros) from companies like Primark and others. Other people also gave me some money. All in all I have been given about 70,000 (653 euros). But I am unable to work and do not have any more money. Two months ago a garment worker named Salma committed suicide to escape a similar fate. What do the twenty-nine foreign buyers who purchased garment products from the five factories at Rana plaza expect? Do they want me to kill myself like Salma? Won't they show us just a little mercy? I hope for and I request compensation so that we can live our lives and our children can continue their schooling.

What do you want of German consumers and international companies with regard to the textile industry in Bangladesh?

Safia Parvin: International brands buy cheap garments from Bangladeshi factories and make millions of dollars profit by selling them in foreign markets. So they cannot ignore their responsibility regarding the workers in Bangladesh. They should influence the factory owners to improve working conditions, building safety, health and the other things. And German consumers should put pressure on international retailers, so they cannot escape from their responsibility.

How powerful are the trade unions in the textile sector in Bangladesh?

Safia Parvin: Bangladeshi trade unions representing the garment workers are not in a very strong position. The unionization rate in the garment and textile sector is below three percent. So you can imagine the scenario. Nonetheless, the National Garments Workers Federation is fighting for workers' rights. The unions try to put labor issues to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the Bangladeshi Government. They also organize the workers so they can voice their demands. When the payment of wages is delayed in a factory or the owner tries to cut jobs, the unions protest.

What kind of difficulty do they face in improving the conditions of the workers?

Safia Parvin: Union activists have to overcome many difficulties in Bangladesh. Sometimes, they have to face the factory owner's hired muscle whose job it is to keep union workers outside the factory. Sometimes, the government supports the factory owner instead of the workers. But the situation is a little better now because the present government seems to be pro-worker.

What have the trade unions achieved so far?

Safia Parvin: In the 1980s, there were no regular holidays for workers in the garment sector. They even had to work on May Day. There was no festival bonus, no maternity leave for female workers. After a long struggle, the workers of Bangladesh have won these rights. It is now easier to set up trade union representation.

Safia Parvin is General-Secretary of the National Garment Workers Federation, Bangladesh, and Shila Begum is a Rana Plaza survivor.

The interview was conducted by Jahidul Kabir.