Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Remembering Rana Plaza

 Yesterday, Bangladesh marks the fifth anniversary of the deadliest disaster in the garment industry, which killed more than 1,130 and injured around 2,500 workers, when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka. The building had housed five garment factories that manufactured clothes for many international clothing brands in Europe and North America. Investigations would later reveal that besides shoddy construction, the building had too many floors and too much heavy equipment for the structure to withstand.

Five years after the biggest industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history, no relief seems to be in sight for the thousands of survivors who are suffering from severe physical and psychological trauma.

"I can't even think of going near a multi-story building. I become scared and feel nervous. It reminds me of the horror I faced when the Rana Plaza building collapsed," says Lufta Akter, a 36-year-old sewing machine operator, who was on the building's 5th floor when disaster struck on April 24, 2013. But Lufta Akter received only a donation of a few hundred euros after the incident. She has yet to receive any compensation for the accident that has ground her life to a halt. "Since the accident I can't remember faces anymore, I forget things easily. I am paralyzed by fear and memory loss," she said.  Her only hope is to get compensation, which could help her livelihood in the future.

Mahbuba Akter was on the 7th floor of the Rana Plaza when it collapsed, sustaining injuries to her neck, back and left knee when she fell as the roof caved above her. Nevertheless, the 30-year-old single mother has had to fend for her family and now works at a single-story garment factory as she fears working in high-rise buildings.

"Whenever I hear a loud sound around me, I panic. I don't know what to do. I feel like I'm dying and there's nobody to help me out," she told DW. Mahbuba now earns far less than what she did at Rana Plaza, as she has turned down job offers from bigger factories because of her psychological trauma. She hopes to open a tailoring shop one day. However, the few hundred euro donations she received after the tragic incident are not enough to fulfill her dream. "I have heard that a discussion is going on to compensate us for the damage caused by the collapse. But we haven't received anything even five years after the incident. Had I received a good amount of money as compensation, I would have built my own shop," she said.

Mahmudul Hasan Hridoy was stuck under the debris for 20 hours, resulting in the loss of his right leg. He drank urine and blood from the dead bodies around him to stay alive. Having lost everything because of this disaster, he decided to fight for victims like himself and formed an organization called the "Rana Plaza Survivors Association." Mahmudul told DW that the victims of the accident have yet to receive any compensation. "We have received donations from various sources, but no compensation as yet. Each victim of the disaster should receive €48,000 as compensation," he demanded. Mahmudul believes that the Bangladeshi authorities have received vast sums of money meant for the survivors, none of which has reached the victims. While the victims believe that compensation might help in their rehabilitation, Bangladesh has no standard form of compensation for the death or injury of garment workers.

 A recent survey by ActionAid Bangladesh, an international non-profit federation, reveals that nearly 48 percent of the survivors of the Rana Plaza incident are out of employment due to their physical and mental weaknesses. The report stressed that apart from mental trauma, many survivors suffer from headaches as well as hand, leg and backaches, which left them unable to return to work in Bangladesh's multibillion-dollar garment industryBangladesh's garment industry has been growing at a reasonable speed. The $24 billion generated in garment exports in 2013 is projected to increase to $30 billion this year. The sector contributes nearly 80 percent to the nation's total export earnings.

Farah Kabir, the country director of ActionAid Bangladesh, says "A high-level committee that was formed on the order of the High Court in 2013 had submitted a standard for compensation, but the High Court's verdict on the proceedings is pending till now. Thus even after five years, there is yet to be any standard in paying compensation to garment workers." 

"Workers in thousands of subcontracting factories, many of them young women, continue to work under unacceptably dangerous conditions," Michael Posner of New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights said in a statement.

A  report - "Five Years After Rana Plaza: The Way Forward" estimated that up to 3,000 subcontractors help "mother factories manage their export workload". For many suppliers, subcontracting is a vital business practice that helps to compensate for ever-increasing production pressures, said report co-author Doroth√©e Baumann-Pauly.

"With falling prices and faster fashion, the need to rely on subcontractors may be greater than ever for suppliers, despite the risks involved in the practice," she said. Among the risks for workers, the report said, are that many smaller factories ignore safety rules, and operate out of unsafe buildings that lack fire exits, alarms and extinguishers. 

Despite the progress on safety, Bangladesh's garment workers remain among the worst-paid in the world, a compensation report released by Fair Labor Association (FLA) stated. The legal minimum wage of $66 is below the World Bank's global poverty line of $85 and the Asia Floor Wage of $454. That means many workers must work overtime to supplement their wages, the FLA's report said. Overtime income accounts for 20 percent of their salary, it said, and half of the workers put in more than 60 hours a week despite the impact on their health. 

"The work pressure, production targets, forced overtime and lack of social security makes the garment worker very vulnerable even today," said Babul Akhter of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers' Federation.

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