Rage among Dhaka’s ruins

By R. N. Ghosh Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-4 0:08:02

Lamia Begum, who lost her daughter in the factory collapse, cries holding on to a barbed-wire fence in front of Rana Plaza building on 24 June. Photo: CFP
Lamia Begum, who lost her daughter in the factory collapse, cries holding on to a barbed-wire fence in front of Rana Plaza building on 24 June. Photo: CFP

A barbed-wire fence barricades the near-empty plot of land in the Dhaka suburb where the eight-storey Rana Plaza building once stood. Back then it bustled with the chatter of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers and the hum of huge generators.

The sense of hopelessness has deepened for the garment workers left unemployed since the Rana Plaza building came crashing down over two months ago. Compensation has been meager and not enough to cover hospital expenses for the injured.

The April 24 building collapse killed 1,129 people and injured about 2,500. The injured workers were paid 5,000 taka ($63) each while the kin of the dead got 20,000 taka to pay for funerals. The government and union representatives have promised more money, but the workers feel left out in the cold. Many of the injured have lost an arm or hand, their only way to earn a livelihood in an industry where deft hands and nimble fingers are needed.

But when hundreds of the workers decided to take to the streets of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, a month ago to demand compensation and overdue salaries, they were met with a police charge that injured around 50 people, further stoking public rage.

The protest was one among many wracking the country following the disaster. Two days after the Rana Plaza collapse, garment workers across the industrial areas of Dhaka, Chittagong and Gazipur staged violent protests and targeted vehicles, commercial buildings and garment factories. On May 1, International Workers' Day, thousands of workers took to the streets in central Dhaka to demand safer working conditions and the death penalty for Sohail Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza. 

A few days later survivors of the building collapse, many of them on crutches and with bandages swathed on injuries, blocked a city highway to demand the wages for April and for another three months of lost work. They ended their protest only after they were promised they would be paid.

Harsh US decision

The Bangladeshi garment industry's problems have been further compounded by the decision of the US government in late June to suspend Bangladesh from a program that provides tax breaks to developing countries. The move is being seen as a warning to Bangladesh to improve safety conditions for garment workers.

Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) President Atiqul Islam has termed the decision unfair. "I can see no logical reason for the US decision. They said we need to improve our working conditions. We are doing that. The government has amended the Labor Act. We are working on improving the workers' lifestyle. We have informed the US about it," said Islam.

The Bangladesh foreign ministry said that while it respects the US' decision it is apprehensive that the "harsh measure" could create obstacles in their booming bilateral trade.

The US is the single largest importer of Bangladeshi goods. According to official figures, exports during 2011-12 to the US stood at $5.1 billion, of which apparel export was worth $4.53 billion.

Bangladesh is the world's second-biggest apparel exporter after China. While the industry caters to global brands like Wal-Mart, Walt Disney Co, H&M and Inditex, the workers are among the most poorly paid in the world, at $37-$38 a month. A Bangladeshi garment worker makes between 25 to 27 cents per hour.

Deadly conditions

In the country's estimated 4,500 garment factories, the people work for long shifts, sometimes 14-15 hours at a stretch, in cramped quarters. The windows are mostly barred off with thick iron grills and only one door is kept for entry and exit to prevent possible theft of the expensive apparel they create.

According to a government probe released on May 22, extremely poor construction materials and violation of construction rules contributed to the Rana Plaza collapse. It has recommended that building owner Rana, his aides, and the owners of the garment workshops be tried under the law for manslaughter and that they be sentenced to life imprisonment if found guilty.

The poor condition of the building was obvious to many workers, but they had little choice if they wanted to keep their jobs and feed their families.

Mohammed Usman, 28, one of the lucky survivors, was on the sixth floor a little before the collapse, and became scared after seeing cracks. "I was unwilling to go up. But our overseer told us there is nothing to worry about. I also did not want to lose my salary by angering him," he noted.

"This monumental tragedy was due to a nexus between politicians and factory owners, with the poor workers being used as fodder. They were all aware of the lurking dangers, but nobody really cared as good money was coming in from foreign buyers," said Dhaka University professor Imtiaz Ahmed.

"I have seen many garment factories being run professionally in Dhaka. They are so well maintained, so impressive. If factory owners want they can easily improve working conditions and abide by the rules. The Rana Plaza tragedy was due to simple callousness," Ahmed added.

Workers' pacts

After the collapse, around 40 international companies like H&M, Benetton, Inditex, Carrefour, Marks & Spencer, El Corte Inglés, most of them EU-based importers, signed a pact to improve working conditions with regard to fire and building safety. The only US based importers that agreed to ink the pact are Abercrombie &Fitch and PVH. The pact also calls for them to pay $500,000 a year to improving safety and to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to improve fire and building safety conditions.

Wal-Mart, one of the largest purchasers of apparel from Bangladesh, has said it will develop its own plan to address the safety issue. It has so far identified 300 factories with whom it will not place orders, a move that industry analysts are not very happy about. Disney has pulled out entirely from Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh government has announced it will review the minimum wage and has already drafted a new labor law. But labor leaders said it may not be acceptable to them because they were not consulted before it was drawn up.

Following the international outcry and demands to improve worker safety, the Bangladesh government launched a preliminary survey of the thousands of garment factories surrounding the national capital in the Ashulia industrial belt.

The surveys are aimed at building a database of every factory, including collecting photocopies of the building plans and approval certificates and spotting structural faults. Then actual inspections would follow, including testing of the steel beams and quality of concrete. The remedial plans would come later.

blog comments powered by Disqus