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A lingering tragedy

Grahame LucasApril 28, 2014

On April 24 last year, a factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 textile workers. A year later, the survivors are still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.

Grahame Lucas
Image: DW/Matthias Müller

Workers at the Rana Plaza complex first became alarmed when large cracks appeared in the building's walls. Staff left the building hastily after consultations with the management. But after a cursory inspection, supervisors dismissed their concerns and threatened wage cuts if the staff did not return to work the next day. The textile workers on some of the lowest wages in the world duly flocked back into the factory complex next morning for the start of the 8am shift. What they did not know was that the factory complex had been built in breach of construction regulations. The owner, a local Awami League party youth-wing leader, had had several floors added illegally to the original plans.

Shila Begum was a senior machine operator at Ether Tex, one of the five garment factories in the building. She was one of some 5,000 textile workers who arrived for work that fateful morning. After she had made her way to her workplace on the fifth floor, there was a power cut, a regular feature of life in the capital. To enable work to continue during power cuts, factories are equipped with power generators usually located on the top floor. Shila Begum, mother of a nine-year-old daughter, recounts what happened next: "The generator kicked in. Then I felt the whole building shudder and the ceiling came down on me. My right hand was trapped between bits of rubble and a concrete beam fell on my stomach. One of my colleagues died right in front of my eyes (…). After sixteen hours, rescue workers found me and carried me out of the building."

Shila Begum was one of the lucky ones. Later, investigators ascertained that the vibrations caused by the heavy duty generators had shaken the already overloaded structure until the outside walls simply gave way.

The collapse was the worst disaster in the country's history. A year later, the police investigation has just concluded that the building's construction was approved by engineers and officials who never even took the trouble to visit the site to check for compliance with the buildings plans. Lead investigator Bijoy Krishna Kar has spoken of "irrefutable evidence" of "greedy and irresponsible" conduct on the part of the owners of the building and the factories involved. On April 15, 2014, the police announced that the owner of Rana Plaza, who attempted to flee to India after the building's collapse, would be charged with murder. A total of 40 people are to face criminal prosecution for their roles in the tragedy including the owners of factories located in Rana Plaza.

The tragedy has galvanized labor rights activists in Bangladesh to campaign both at home and abroad for improvements to working conditions and wages in the textiles industry, which has an abysmal safety record. Just six months before the Rana Plaza collapse, the Tazreen Fashion factory burned down with the loss of over 100 lives. The textiles industry is important to Bangladesh. After China it is the biggest in the world employing some four million workers in 4,500 factories making it the country's largest export sector. It sells most of its products to clothing chains in the USA and Europe.

A year after the tragedy, Sirajul Islam Rony, coordinator of the Bangladesh Garment Workers' Unity Council, speaks of substantial change for the better: "The working environment in the factories has seen considerable improvement after the Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza incidents. After these two disasters, a government investigation was carried out; qualified inspectors were appointed to control safety measures in factories."

Textile workers also believe that things are changing for the better. "Previously there was no safety at all. We did not even know how and what to do in an emergency situation. There was a kind of 'fire training' once in a blue moon. Now, there is a training every month, explaining how we should react if there is a fire, how we would leave the factory safely, from which gate etc," says Bilkis Begum, who is employed at the Versatile Garments factory.

Minimum wages have risen by 79 percent to 49 euros a month as a result of pressure from abroad. But there is a downside. With higher wages, costs have increased, making the final product more expensive. And after the negative publicity surrounding the disaster, Western buyers have become wary of products "Made in Bangladesh."

Bilkis Begum explains the situation: "At present, the main problem is with the number of buyers. They are much less now. This invariably means that there is less work, less overtime, and, of course, at the end less income."

Owners say they must increase productivity to compensate for shrinking profit margins. Meanwhile, Western companies are now placing orders in Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia instead.

Only half of the 29 Western clothing companies that purchased textiles from Rana Plaza have so far paid into an international compensation fund set up by the International Labor Organization for the families of the 1,136 dead and the 2,500 seriously injured workers. The fund has raised just 10 of the planned 28 million euros.

The compensation for the terrible injuries hardly suffices, says Shila Begum, a survivor. "I cannot use my arm even to eat food or to do other household chores. My daughter Nipa 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. 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 Taka (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 29 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?"

A question that goes right to the very heart of the responsibility for the consequences of globalization.