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Protests in Bangladesh on Rana Plaza anniversary

April 24, 2016

Thousands of garment workers have staged a protest in the Bangladeshi capital on the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. Hundreds died when the flimsy factory complex collapsed, but no one has been convicted.

Garment workers protesting in Bangladesh
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Abdullah

Textile workers and relatives of the dead gathered in northwestern Dhaka Sunday to lay flowers at the spot where the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building once stood. Protesters held up photographs of the victims and recited prayers, demanding action to improve industry conditions in the South Asian country.

"The government must shut down all faulty factories to avoid another Rana Plaza," union leader Touhidul Islam told news agency AFP.

More than 1,135 factory workers died and nearly 2,000 were injured when the Rana Plaza complex came crashing down on April 24, 2013. Thousands of textile workers had been forced to enter the building to start their shifts, despite cracks appearing in the structure's pillars one day earlier.

Garment workers in Bangladesh
Women make up the majority of Bangladesh's four million garment workersImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Zaman

Call for justice

Police have arrested and charged the owner of the building with murder, along with 40 other officials who had declared the structure safe. However, 24 of the accused have absconded and no one has yet been convicted. Workers protesting on Sunday called on the government to hold trials as soon as possible.

"Three years have passed and still we don't see any justice. No one has been held to account for one of history's worst manmade disasters," Abul Hossain, who led the protest, told AFP.

Survivors also say the compensation payments completed last year for the 3,000 victims - including the injured and families of the dead - did not go far enough.

The Rana Plaza disaster site
A small lake now occupies the Rana Plaza disaster siteImage: Imago/Xinhua

Slow change

The Rana Plaza collapse sparked international outrage and put the spotlight on the rights and safety of workers in Bangladesh's textile factories. Western clothing brands sourcing their garments from the country also came under pressure to clean up their supply chains.

The tragedy led to the creation of two international coalitions designed to assess and fund improvements to building safety at thousands of Bagladeshi factories. Many European retailers signed up to an Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which oversees structural, electrical and fire-safety plans for more than 1,600 factories used by retailers like H&M, Marks & Spencer and Primark.

But three years on, most of those plans are behind schedule, and only a handful of factories have been certified safe. Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of Business in New York, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that global fashion brands had started working to ensure more transparency in the supply chain.

"But in addressing fire safety, building safety, workers' protection - there aren't enough practical discussions around these issues, not enough financing. So not enough has changed," she said.

More protection needed

Bangladesh's textile industry employs about four million workers - most of them women. The minimum monthly wage for them is $68 (60 euros), compared with about $280 in the world's biggest clothes exporter, China.

According to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, the obstacles workers face to unionization is another issue.

"None of the factories operating in Rana Plaza had trade unions," he said in a statement.

"If their workers had had more of a voice, they might have been able to resist managers who ordered them to work in the doomed building a day after large cracks appeared in it."

nm/se (AFP, Reuters)