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April 22, 2014

Spotlight on Safety One Year After Bangladesh Building Collapse

by Anjana Pasricha

Nearly one year after a deadly building collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1100 garment workers, efforts have begun to improve safety in the world’s second largest supplier of clothing. Many of the victim’s families still are waiting for adequate compensation, however, while hundreds of survivors are unemployed and coping with the trauma of that tragic day.
 
For the last 15 years, the owner of Bangladesh’s Softex Sweater plant, Rezwan Selim, had been manufacturing clothes in a rented building in Bangladesh's capital. But in early March, his booming business screeched to a grinding halt when international inspectors told him to stop work because the factory was not structurally safe.     
 
“I had no option but to evacuate. That is what I have done. The building needs to be retrofitted, and the retrofitting -- who is going to do it, who is going to pay for it? All these issues are being discussed,” said Selim.
 
The closure is a result of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an initiative launched by 150 mostly European retailers after hundreds of workers were crushed to death or injured when the eight-story Rana Plaza building  collapsed a year ago. Although the factory on Dhaka’s outskirts had developed cracks, workers were told to continue sewing clothes. It was the garment industry’s worst-ever disaster.    

Rana Plaza legacy

The pile of rubble which still sits at the Rana Plaza site turned the global spotlight on the poorly-built, unsafe workshops that churn out apparel sold by global retailers in Europe and the Americas. The collapse put pressure on multinational retailers to ensure that the garment factories producing their labels are safe.  
 
The tragedy has prompted key first steps to ensuring the protection of garment workers. The accord has resulted in the inspection of about 300 of 1500 buildings it plans to survey by September. Eight, including Selim’s factory, have been completely or partly closed in an effort to avert another Rana Plaza type of disaster.
 
The accord is not alone in its safety inspections, reviewing structural, electrical and fire safety systems. Another group of more than 20 American and Canadian retailers is leading a similar effort and has ordered one factory to close. The two initiatives have created confusion, but observers say the efforts are headed in the right direction.  

The executive director of the accord, Rob Wayss, sees the recent factory closures as an indication that change is taking place. But he admits that with much at stake for garment manufacturers, there is a measure of resistance.  
 
“I think in some ways, though, it is unfortunate, the requirement that suspension of production and evacuation of factory buildings is another indicator that progress is being made.," said Wayss,. "There is a price tag on the fixes, and so there has been a little bit of anxiety and a little bit of effort to try to push it back or slow it down.”

Making improvements

Garment industry owners have expressed concerns about the expense of renovating buildings, saying the efforts could hurt Bangladesh’s competitive edge and take business away to other Asian manufacturers. They want retailers to share some of the costs.
 
Activists point out that fears of global retailers reducing their footprint in Bangladesh in the wake of the disaster have not come to pass, and business has boomed in the past year. They are calling on garment factory owners to do more to improve the industry.   
 
Among them is Kalpona Akter, who heads the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
 
“These days they are shouting that we don’t have money and the accord is closing down our factory or the alliance is closing down our factory," said Akter. "They should not shout that they don’t have anything and they cannot make changes. They should do their own inspections and shift all those unsafe factories to safe buildings.”
 
The global spotlight since the Rana tragedy also has put pressure on government to improve working conditions for garment workers. The monthly minimum wage has been raised from $36 to $68. Additionally, a law has been passed that allows workers to form labor unions.   

Helping survivors

Many feel that amid the focus on safety, though, the plight of those who were working on that fateful day in Rana Plaza has been overlooked.  
 
For hundreds of them the nightmare continues.  
 
ActionAid Bangladesh has surveyed more than 2,200 family members of victims and survivors. The group's deputy director, Aamanur Rahman, said many of them have not found alternate employment. The few hundred dollars they got as compensation from the government or welfare organizations has long been spent, and they need money for food and to pay off outstanding house rent and loans.
 
Rahman said many survivors are still coping with physical injuries or mental trauma suffered on that fateful day.  
 
“Many of them still say they have a kind of phobia to work in a closed environment. Some of them are still suffering from insomnia," said Rahman. "Some of them are sometimes shocked by loud shouts. This kind of trauma still makes them panic [and prevents them] to return to their regular lives.”  
 
The question is whether the Rana Plaza disaster will become a turning point and ensure that the nearly 4 million workers in the industry never have to suffer a similar fate -- or will it be business as usual?