Feature

Rana plaza, five years on: safety of workers hangs in balance in Bangladesh

Progress has been made but fire safety initiatives are soon to end, unions are being stifled and wages are still the lowest in the world

A protest in Dhaka in 2013 demanding a minimum wage and compensation for the victims and those injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building.
 A garment worker protest in Dhaka in 2013, demanding a rise in pay as well as compensation for the victims and those injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building. Photograph: AM Ahad/AP

Five years ago, Asma Khatun pushed through the crowds that had formed around the Rana Plaza building, determined to see the destruction with her own eyes.

Deep cracks had appeared in the eight-storey building outside Dhaka the day before. That morning, workers who had been producing clothes sourced by major international brands had begged not to be sent inside. Managers would not relent. More than 2,000 people filed in. Some time before 9am, floors began to vanish and workers started falling.

Rana Plaza took less than 90 seconds to collapse, killing 1,134 people. Unions called it a “mass industrial homicide”. Standing in the rubble, Khatun promised to quit her job in a nearby garment factory. “Even if I don’t have any other work, I won’t do it.”

Revulsion over Rana Plaza forced brands and retailers to act. The full list of companies who were sourcing clothes from the building remains unclear, but had previously included PrimarkMatalan and others. About 250 companies signed two initiatives, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the less constraining Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Both were designed to improve safety dramatically in 2,300 factories supplying western brands. Both complete their terms this year.

Few dispute that the Accord and Alliance worked. “I think right now, of the developing countries with a ready-made garment sector, Bangladesh is the safest,” says Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord.

Progress is less obvious for workers in at least 2,000 factories that do not supply major western brands, and are inspected either by the Bangladesh government, or not at all. Union activity across the sector remains stifled. And, analysts ask, how sustainable are the improvements? What happens when the Accord and Alliance end?

Khatun never did quit. She has worked in garments since the age of 11, one of successive generations of Bangladeshis brought out of poverty, marginally, by an industry that now employs close to five million people, earning the lowest wages of any garment workers in the world.

Yet some things have changed in the factory where she works. “The owners are careful about safety nowadays,” she says. “If we complain, they take action.”

Facing the threat of being cut off by western buyers, thousands of factory owners have invested in fire doors, sprinkler systems, electrical upgrades and stronger foundations, eliminating more than 97,000 identified safety hazards in facilities covered by the Accord alone.

Article first published in The Guardian, read the complete article here https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/apr/24/bangladeshi-police-target-garment-workers-union-rana-plaza-five-years-on

More articles on the Bangladesh Textile Industry http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/features/WCMS_615495/lang–en/index.htm

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