Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lest We Forget - Rana Plaza

To-day we remember Rana Plaza, Dhaka, Bangladesh when the eight-story building which housed factories supplying garments to major brands in the US and Europe collapsed. On the morning of the disaster, the workers said, managers ordered workers to enter the Rana Plaza building, even though it had been closed the day before for safety reasons after large cracks appeared in the walls. In some instances it is said that the managers threatened workers who hesitated to comply. None of the five factories operating in Rana Plaza had trade unions, which could have stood up to factory managers and prevented the workers from being compelled to go back into the dangerous building.

1,130 died, twice that number were injured and at least 800 children were orphaned. More than a hundred bodies had still to be identified as of April 9, almost one year after the tragedy.

“We did not want to work but the general manager came and threatened us, and said that if we did not work we would not get paid next month’s salary. He slapped one of my friends, and dragged me out of where I was hiding under the staircase, and took me to work.” – Reshma, 21, Ethertex Ltd.

“We knew there was some problem with the building. When I went inside with my sister, I realized the problem was serious. Some of us wanted to leave but the production manager would not allow us. He threatened to tell our fathers. Two minutes later the power went out and the building collapsed. My sister's body was never found.” – Rozina Begum, 24, New Wave Bottom.

The target for the disaster fund, which is chaired by the International Labour Organization (ILO), is US$40 million, but only $15 million has been raised so far. Primark, has donated $8 million, according to the fund’s website. Some companies that were not doing business with Rana Plaza have also contributed to the fund. By contrast, 15 brands whose clothing and brand labels were found in the rubble of the factory by journalists and labor activists have not paid into the fund. The fund will establish a systematic and transparent claims process so that all victims, their families, and dependents will receive the long-term support they need.

The 29 brands that sourced from factories in Rana Plaza boast combined profits of more than $22 billion a year, and are being asked to contribute less than 0.2 percent of that amount to compensate those whose labors generate the profits, says Ineke Zeldenrust of Clean Clothes Campaign. h

On April 22, 2014, the government announced that victims would receive their first payments of $645 each from the fund. Survivors and relatives say they continue to suffer from life-changing injuries, psychological trauma, and a loss of income. Some said they were struggling to feed their families and send their children to school.

“One year after Rana Plaza collapsed, far too many victims and their families are at serious risk of destitution,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “International garment brands should be helping the injured and the dependents of dead workers who manufactured their clothes.”

Those survivors who lost limbs received saving certificates from the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office, guaranteeing a monthly income of $130-$190. But doctors amputated both of Rabeya Begum’s legs in December, months after the saving certificates were distributed by the government. So instead of receiving a guaranteed monthly income, Rabeya, said she had about $4,500 from various donors; money, she says, that has already almost run out. “I have four children and my husband can no longer work because he needs to look after me,” Rabeya told Human Rights Watch. “We are now only living off the money I received when I was in hospital. This is about to be finished and I don’t know what we will do once we spend this money.”
Workers also described working conditions in the factories prior to the collapse. They alleged that children worked in four of the five factories: New Wave Bottom, New Wave Style, Ethertex, and Phantom Apparel. They said that factory managers forced children to work long hours and sought to conceal them from external monitors. In these same four factories, it has been alleged that managers used physical and verbal abuse to pressure workers who failed to meet production targets or made errors, survivors said. Factories also denied workers toilet breaks or prayer breaks, refused to give sick leave, and required them to work overtime, which was sometimes not compensated.

“Terrible, verbal abuse was common. We were not allowed to use the bathroom or offer prayers. Often they forced us to do some extra work without pay. Three months ago I was told to work until 11 p.m., and when I refused the general manager hit me with a stick.” – Reshma, age unknown, Ethertex Ltd.

The condition was bad. Just seven days before the collapse, the production manager took me into his office. He slapped me in the face and used abusive words. Someone had supplied the wrong cloth for a pocket I was sewing. It was not my fault. I felt shocked, I could not understand what I had done wrong.” – Sabina Begum, 25, New Wave Style.

“Fifteen days before the collapse I was suffering from fever. I had asked for leave, but it was not approved. So, I had to work despite being sick. Naturally, I could not meet the target. So the line chief insulted me for this.”– Aliron Begum, 40, New Wave Bottom.

“My duty was sew loops into trouser pants. Every day I had to sew 1,200 of them. It was a big target, so I avoided drinking water so I did not have to go to the toilet.” – Shilpi Begum, 22, New Wave Bottom.

“There were three other girls of my age. The usual working hours were 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The environment was not nice. If I could not complete my work, the line chief would hurl abuse at me.” – Yaa Noor Akhter, 14, Ethertex Ltd.

There were some child workers. Whenever a buyer would come they would be asked not to come to work for the day or were told to hide in the toilet. – Abdur Rouf, 35, Phantom Apparels.

“There were a few child workers. When a buyer would visit the factory they were kept hidden in the toilet. I knew one girl, she was not yet 15.” – Ajiron Begum, 40, New Wave Bottom.

The garment and textile industry, worth more than $3tn per year and producing around 80bn new garments a year – whether we need them or not – is booming – and fast fashion is booming the most. Despite the environmental footprint (from cotton production to dyeing and spinning and finishing a single garment) and the human capital, clothes are made and sold as perishable goods. It's not surprising top retailers advise their design teams that mid-priced clothing only has a lifespan of five weeks in the average wardrobe. That makes £4 T-shirts and £10 jeans disposable. Fast fashion is the merchandising phenomenon that has built up steam over the past 15 years and now dominates our wardrobes and high streets. It ripped up the traditional fashion calendar (the period from conceptualising a piece to delivery into store) and pulverised lead times. Famously it was Inditex-owned Zara that really broke the mould, bringing in a super-responsive timetable in the form of some 12,000 new styles each year.

According to a Guardian report elements of the industry are already referring to the "Bangladesh blip", are nw eyeing new places to produce, including Burma. But unless the business model, predicated on a form of slavery, is forced to change, there will be another Rana Plaza in the future.
However, investment in Bangladesh does not seem to have been affected by the global attention after Rana Plaza, and the Tazreen fire which preceded it. Export earnings increased 12.88% year-on-year to $22bn in the first nine months of the fiscal year, on the back of the continued high demand for the country's clothing from Europe and the US. Garment exports between July and March rising 15.15% year-on-year to $18.05bn, according to the Export Promotion Bureau. Bangladesh is now the world's second-largest clothing producer after China. Stores including Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour, as well as the US military, source large amounts of their clothes from Bangladesh, home to around 4,500 garment factories and employing some 4 million workers.

Meantime, the Western consumers rather than seek a solution in a Socialist Revolution can join instead Fashion Revolution Day which as their mission statement explains seeks to value people, the environment, creativity, and [of course, not forgetting], the profits in equal measure, where according to its website "fashion lovers, fashionistas and fashion students will unite in saying enough is enough, lets do things differently from now on.” ....but not too differently, though, that will effect the industry’s profits !! After all we are told “it is simplistic to look for the protagonists to blame this human tragedy on: Cartoon parodies of an evil factory owner whipping his staff like a pantomime villain, or greedy corporate executive – the 1% – looking no further than his stock options....” Nope, capitalists  are not to blame according to Mark Lissaman of the menswear brand Arthur & Henry, because “... there is good and bad in all of us...”

 In a way he is right for we are all culpable if we make no condemnation of the very system that encourages cost-cutting to the production of clothes just as much as it does the cloth-cutting and if we do not try to change such an exploitative world but instead think a few pence, a few cents,  more paid for clothes will suffice.

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