Bangladesh's Rana Plaza factory collapse spurs change, finger-pointing

A year after the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, families of the thousands of workers affected are still struggling with the emotional and economic fallout.

Only $15 million of a promised $40-million fund committed

Relatives of victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse gather in front of a monument raised in memory of the victims. (A.M. Ahad/The Associated Press)

A year after the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, families of the thousands of workers affected are still struggling with the aftermath.

At the same time, international business and labour groups say they're making progress in preventing a similar catastrophe.

More than 1,100 workers died and about 2,500 were injured on April 24, 2013, when the dangerously built eight-storey Dhaka-area building collapsed, the worst garment industry accident in history.

"There was a huge outpouring of concern and even anger about what happened and how it could possibly happen," said Bob Jeffcott, a policy analyst with the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, which has worked for years with global groups on factory safety.

"We've never had that degree of attention to any issue previous to this."

That attention on the poor working conditions in Bangladesh, where much of the world's big brands make their clothes, has led to unprecedented change.

New laws passed in Bangladesh allow workers to create unions. Monthly wages nearly doubled to $68. About 700 garment factories — about 15 per cent of the country's 5,000 — have been inspected for safety issues. Initial compensation for the Rana Plaza collapse has been doled out to survivors and the families of the deceased.

"There's a lot of energy and a lot of resources being applied, but I think that no one should be naïve," says Ellen Tauscher, chair of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of co-ordination and time. There are cultural issues, there are competitive issues, there are dysfunctional things like the government."

Destined for 'destitution'

Still, at the heart of the disaster are the survivors. Left with amputations, psychological trauma and loss of income, many are struggling to get by.

Human Rights Watch spoke with 44 victims and says all received some money, but it's not enough. Many are "at risk of destitution," says Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia.

Some, plagued by memories of Rana Plaza collapsing around them, fear returning to work.

“Whenever there was a fire alarm I started screaming," Alamgir Hossain, 27, told Human Rights Watch. "Even if there was a small sound I had to run away."

Many others felt the financial brunt of the tragedy, either losing a key family earner or the ability to work themselves.

“A lot of people relied upon my daughter’s salary, and without it we are really suffering,” Runa Rani told the advocacy group. It took months before her daughter's body was identified and they could receive $1,200 from the government. The family still struggles to get by without the added income of her paycheck.

A trust fund has been set up for survivors and the families of those who died, but it's reached only $15 million US, just over a third of its $40 million target.

Pay up, group says

Eighteen retailers and organizations donated money to the fund, but labour rights and advocacy groups say many brands that made clothes in the five factories housed in Rana Plaza haven't given a cent to the trust fund, while some others only gave a little.

A Bangladeshi girl wipes tears from the eyes of a woman who lost a relative in the Rana Plaza building collapse. They were at the site of the accident on the eve of the tragedy. (A.M. Ahad/The Associated Press)

"It is a remarkable act of stinginess on the part of brands and retailers," says Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

Nova says Canadian-based Loblaw, whose Joe Fresh clothing were made in the building, is among the better contributors. According to the Rana Plaza Donor Trust Fund site, Loblaw has given around $3.3 million US.

"That's positive and if we were seeing the same level of positive action, the same level of contribution … from the Wal-Marts and the Children's Places and the Benettons, we'd be already there," said Nova of the $40-million goal.

The fund, chaired by the UN's International Labour Organization, announced on Tuesday that it is giving out initial payments of $645 US, but needs more money in its coffers to properly compensate families.

An international "Pay Up" campaign has been launched by the Clean Clothes Campaign to try to get clothing retailers who rely on the cheap garment industry in Bangladesh, the world's second largest, to open their wallets.

The campaign lists 16 companies who they say are linked to the factory, but have yet to donate to the fund, a group that includes Benetton, J.C. Penney and Carrefour.

"I think we shouldn't belittle the fact that there's some contributions to the fund," says Jeffcott. "None of us would've ever believed that Wal-Mart would contribute anything to this kind of fund…. But they gave $1 million."

The Rana Plaza disaster galvanized the international community, including everyone from retailers to citizens, in a way that no other factory tragedy has in the past. Nova, whose Worker Rights Consortium is a witness to the legally-binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, says that led to a breakthrough.

"It took the single worst disaster in the century and a half-long history of the apparel industry to finally compel many of the biggest brands and retailers around the world to change their approach," he says. 

After the collapse, two five-year agreements were developed, vowing to help make factories safer. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety represents 150 apparel companies, two global labour unions and several Bangladeshi unions, while the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety includes 26 retailers, including Canadian Tire, The Children's Place, and Wal-Mart.

Long-term cleanup

Still, challenges remain. Among them, money must be raised and carefully doled out to families of the victims.

At the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, Tauscher notes also that the situation in Bangladesh is unique. Dhaka is the only place in the world where 19-storey factories exist, a factor that makes it hard to get workers out of a building like this in the event of emergency and important to have fire-suppression equipment at hand.

As well, even once all the factories represented by the accord and alliance member retailers have undergone inspections, more than 2,500 — half Bangladesh's total — will not have been looked at.

Tensions have also arisen when factories shut down for safety concerns, leaving workers without their full pay, and causing factory owners to question whether standards are too high. 

For activists like Jeffcott, who has been around for a while, these are the growing pains. 

"Often, conflict is part of the learning process," he says. "They're going to hopefully be able to see how serious these problems really are, and take them more seriously in the future."

There's also friction between the two groups of retailers. Members of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety accuse the primarily North American retailer alliance on worker safety of creating a similar but weaker initiative with the aim of confusing consumers.

Meanwhile, members of the alliance suggest the accord proponents are subverting Bangladeshi laws by publishing factory inspection reports, and distracting those trying to make progress from the issues at hand.

One thing all of those involved can agree on is that there's a long road ahead.

"It's important to bear in mind that the mess in Bangladesh was created over a period of 20 years by brands and retailers and their local factory partners and the Bangladesh government," says Nova. "It's going to take substantial time to clean it up."