Bangladesh makes strides in factory safety

Two years after the Rana Plana disaster killed 1,134 workers, observers say factory safety has improved

Relatives of missing garment workers take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24, 2014.
Munir Uz Zaman / AFP / Getty Images

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Two years ago, on the morning of April 24, 2013, 15-year-old Anna Khatun walked into one of the five factories in the nine-story Rana Plaza building just outside Dhaka, the capital, and started her day’s work marking out pockets on garments to be sold in Western stores.

The previous day, employees were sent home early when cracks were noticed in the building. That morning, however, they were told that they should continue work as usual.

It was not long after Khatun got to her workstation that the building started to collapse.

“The first thing I knew, the roof was suddenly falling in,” she said a few days after the disaster. “My hand got caught between the machine and the collapsed roof, and I could not get it out. I thought I would not get out alive.”

Each floor fell into the one below, killing at least 1,134 factory workers and seriously injuring many hundreds more. 

Investigators later found that the building had been constructed with substandard steel and concrete and that the top floor was overloaded with generators. Although Rana Plaza was designed for commercial office use, it was being used illegally for industrial purposes; up to 5,000 people worked in the building’s five garment factories.

At the time of the collapse, at least 29 global brands — including Walmart, Primark and Benetton — were believed to have placed orders for shirts and trousers with factories housed in Rana Plaza. The building owner is currently detained on charges that include murder and manslaughter. 

Immediately after the disaster, rescue efforts relied on locals and workers from neighboring buildings. After being trapped in the wreckage for over 24 hours, Khatun was saved by one such heroic volunteer, who squeezed through narrow gaps in order to reach her.

However, to get her out, he had to amputate her trapped hand. 

Two years on, Khatun remains in despair. “I feel depressed all the time,” she said. “After the disaster, I don’t feel I have a life anymore. Sometimes I just feel like crying. I don’t know what to do anymore.”

“Before the accident, I used to think about things like getting married and starting a family, but not now. Who will now want to marry someone like me?”

While Khatun and many other survivors have found it difficult to move on with their lives, representatives of Bangladesh’s $25 billion garment industry claim that they have learned their lesson.

“We now have zero tolerance for safety violations,” said Shahidullah Azim, a garment factory director who was elected one month before Rana Plaza as vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA. “We don’t want a repetition of Rana Plaza. We can’t afford it.” 

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar was not the first mass tragedy involving Bangladesh’s garment sector. In 2005 the Spectrum garment factory collapsed, killing 64 workers, in February 2006 a fire at the KTS factory killed 57 people, and in 2012 a fire at Tazreen Fashions killed 123.

After each of these disasters, the Bangladeshi government and local garment manufacturers paid lip service to improving workplace safety. “In the days after each of these disasters, there was always much talk from garment owners that they would not happen again, but they never did very much to make sure that they didn’t,” said Sekender Ali Mina, the executive director of Safety and Rights, a Dhaka-based nonprofit focused on issues of workplace safety. Western buyers, meanwhile, appeared to take no interest in the structural and electrical integrity of the factories manufacturing their garments, assuming that Bangladesh’s regulatory bodies were addressing the issue.

In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, however, international brands have taken a more aggressive stance toward monitoring safety.

Rescue workers and volunteers search for victims in collapsed Rana Plaza building in Dhaka on April 26, 2013.
Jeff Holt / Bloomberg / Getty Images

International garment buyers have set up two organizations to oversee safety in Bangladeshi factories. There is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which includes more than 190 apparel brands, retailers and importers from over 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is made up of 26 North American buyers, including Walmart and J.C. Penney.

Over the last two years, Accord and Alliance have conducted structural, electrical and fire safety inspections of more than 1,800 factories that manufacture for member companies. In addition, the U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO) has supervised audits of nearly 700 more factories. About 670 factories are awaiting review.

The inspections have shown how dangerous conditions were and remain for workers in these factories.

Accord’s head of public affairs, Joris Oldenziel, said that “all of the 1,250 factories [inspected] had electrical, fire and structural faults that need to be corrected.” He added that for Accord alone, there are “more than 60,000 safety issues currently in the corrective action plans” — an average of 48 failings per factory.

Despite these statistics, Oldenziel is convinced that the reviews have already saved lives. “Many fires have been prevented,” he said.

According to ILO data, 47 buildings containing 100 factories — 4 percent of the 2,500 factories that have been inspected so far — were so potentially dangerous that an expert panel was consulted to determine whether the factories should be evacuated.

The panel, headed by Bangladesh’s inspector general of factories and establishments, ultimately decided that 14 of those buildings, housing 32 factories, should be closed.

The committee also ordered the partial closure of 13 buildings containing 26 factories and ruled that 17 buildings with 32 factories should be allowed to continue operating only under “strict observation” while they implemented the recommendations of the panel.

According to Samantha Maher, the policy director of Labour Behind the Label, these efforts have made a significant impact on factory safety.

“The Accord has done quite a remarkable job,” she said. “Everyone can be confident that none of the buildings that have been inspected are now going to fall down, which is a remarkable achievement.”

While inspections might ensure that garment factories in Bangladesh are less likely to collapse or suffer electrical fires, little seems to have changed on a day-to-day basis for the country’s nearly 4 million garment workers.

A report published this week by Human Rights Watch highlights the abusive conditions many factory workers face, including physical and verbal abuse, forced overtime, withheld wages and unsanitary conditions. The findings were based on interviews with more than 160 workers from 44 factories.

A particular concern identified in the report was how workers seeking to set up trade unions to deal with these issues were often subject to violence, intimidation and loss of employment.

Although a post–Rana Plaza legal amendment made it easier to establish trade unions, Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, the assistant secretary general of the Bangladesh Institute of Legal Studies, says most of the 400 factory-level unions registered in the garment sector are barely able to function.

“Employers don’t want these unions to work and will do everything to prevent them [from] doing so,” he said. “Many workers involved in the unions are intimidated or sacked. It is very difficult for workers to stand up for themselves in garment factories at present.”

The BGMEA’s Shahidullah Azim, however, discounted these concerns. “It is not correct that conditions in factories are poor. Since Rana Plaza, the whole environment in factories has changed. Things are moving in the right direction. And nowadays workers can apply for trade union registration without informing the employer.”

Another positive development concerns the question of compensation. After the Rana Plaza disaster, a fund was established to help those injured by the collapse and the dependents of workers who were killed. A plan was devised in which garment buyers would contribute to the fund and money would be paid out in accordance with U.N.-sanctioned compensation principles. The fund has received only $22 million out of an estimated $30 million needed to fully compensate victims and families, and individual claimants have received just 70 percent of what was promised them. The ILO is now seeking to institutionalize this system, unprecedented in Bangladesh, through a national insurance scheme.

Khatun, the worker who lost her hand in Rana Plaza, says she received about $5,000 in compensation from various sources. Though not a large sum, it is far more than she would have normally received under Bangladeshi law, which mandates that an employer pay $1,600 for the amputation of a hand.

Two years on, she is unemployed, living with her parents and still struggling to come to terms with the disaster. “When I think back to that day, I feel sorry for myself and all the other people affected by that incident,” she said. “But sometimes, when I think about what happened, my mind just goes blank.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter