On 24th April this year, more than 1,100 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh and around 2,515 more were pulled injured from the wreckage.
Fast forward six months: a pile of grey factory rubble still stands in Dhaka, the country’s capital. Families are still searching for loved ones who worked at Rana Plaza; their bodies never recovered.
Retailers were complicit in the disaster; as was Pakistan’s government. Substandard construction as a result of negligent building regulations and government-business corruption contributed to the collapse. Workers could see cracks in the structure the day the factory fell but returned to work upon instruction by their manager, unable to lose a day’s wage.
In the months following the disaster, on the ground work by NGOs and trade unions has been promising. Compensation negotiations and top level talks between unions, brands, government and employers are ongoing, and a week of action on safety and working will coincide with the six month mark since the collapse of Rana Plaza.
A garment factory fire in Dhaka took the lives of at least 9 people earlier this month. A recent undercover investigation into garment factory life revealed back-breaking conditions for child workers – their boss just nine years old.
Demonstrations have been banned by the government in Dhaka. A candle lit vigil for victims of the disaster, intended to be held in the capital took place in Savar instead. Tom Grinter of IndustriALL Global Union, a group advocating the rights of workers in countries like Bangladesh, said the unions’ long term aims are:
“Building on the four cornerstones for development - enforcing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, trade union rights, labour laws and International Minimum Wage increases – aiming to establishing a sustainable future for Bangladesh, rather than dealing with individual accidents as they happen.”
Previous labour laws made it difficult to organise trade unions; staff were forced to submit the names of union members to employers, consequently being used as a tool for repression. A law passed in July outlawed the practice, but much of the garment industry operates in export processing zones, tax free havens for multinationals to encourage business to the area, and establishing trade unions remains difficult.
Workers have been more vocal in demands for fairer work lives. On 14th October, employees at a Bangladeshi garment factory freed their boss after trapping him in the building for 18 hours, demanding their promised bonuses. In September, tens of thousands of garment factory workers protested for the right to minimum wage, with strikes affecting nearly a fifth of workshops. Minimum wages are now expected to rise by 50 to 80 per cent, with official wage board rates to be set at 4,500 to 5,500 taka (under £44) per month.
Things are far from perfect; the lives of thousands have been torn apart in Bangladesh. Children are orphaned; parents have been forced to pull their children out of school; once healthy workers will never return to work following crippling injuries. A garment factory fire in Dhaka took the lives of at least 9 people earlier this month. A recent undercover investigation into garment factory life revealed back-breaking conditions for child workers – their boss just nine years old.
As it stands, 100 global brands have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, enforcing basic health and safety principles to be complied with by employers.
Primark led the way in paying six months worth of wages to the families affected by the disaster, but compensation from most western retail brands has yet to surface. In September, just nine of the 29 implicated companies attended a meeting in Geneva to discuss financial reparations for those involved in the collapse.
Unions are vital to end oppression and violence against workers in Bangladesh – who tend to be vulnerable females, precariously balanced on the edge of society.
The response from corporations has been disappointing but unsurprising for many. Sustainability must come from within, explains the TUC’s Rosa Crawford, who says their “ground up – top down approach” in Bangladesh is essential to maintain international attention:
“Unions are vital to end oppression and violence against workers – who tend to be vulnerable females, precariously balanced on the edge of society. Enhancing the role of unions in Bangladesh will increase the voice of workers – who may be a marginal section of society but one whom the government is dependent on and who form a crucial part of the economy.
The more workers have a say, the more political influence they will have, and the more safety issues can be addressed to prevent another disaster from happening.
It took more than 1,000 deaths to move the world to action. The influence and support of external agents is admirable, but arguably unsustainable. There is a long way to come yet: allowing workers the simple right to govern their own working lives is an essential step towards disaster reduction.
Read Daisy's article posted at the time, When will clothes factories stop collapsing?