Asia
2:37 am
Thu April 24, 2014

After Bangladesh Factory Disaster, Efforts Show Mixed Progress

Originally published on Thu April 24, 2014 6:30 am

One year ago Thursday, an eight-story factory building in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. The disaster at Rana Plaza brought new attention to safety conditions in the country's booming garment industry.

In the year since then, some of the world's biggest retailers have begun inspecting Bangladesh's factories more aggressively. But in other ways efforts to reform the industry have fallen short.

When sewing machine operator Aklima Khanam arrived at Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, some of her coworkers were milling around outside. A visible crack had formed in the building and people were afraid to go inside. But her boss warned that anyone who didn't get to work wouldn't get paid. So she reluctantly went upstairs.

"A half hour after we started work the electricity went out and they started the backup generator," she says. "When they did this the building collapsed. The roof fell onto a machine and the machine fell onto me. I was trapped there with three or four coworkers for 12 hours. A man right near me was killed by a falling beam."

One year later, she still suffers from injuries to her chest and head — and hasn't been back to work. For Bangladeshis like her, the collapse at Rana Plaza was a watershed moment.

"The world changed on April 24th, it really did," says Ian Spaulding, senior adviser to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. "The garment industry here, the government, the stakeholders, the trade union community and the foreign buyers ultimately recognized that the previous model didn't work."

The clothes made at Rana Plaza were sold to major brands like Benetton and Zara. After the disaster, many of these retailers signed an accord promising to inspect the factories they use for safety violations and pay for necessary repairs. They have found many fire code violations and in some buildings structural problems.

"They have sent many, many inspectors, engineers out because of the realization that if another big event occurs that gets the international press, they know they're going to have to pull out of Bangladesh," says Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, an associate professor of economics at Yale.

But most big U.S. retailers, including Wal-Mart and Target, refused to sign the accord. Instead they are carrying out their own inspections. So, today two separate and competing teams inspect conditions in thousands of Bangladeshi factories.

In some ways, working conditions have improved in the garment sector. In December the minimum wage was increased. But labor organizer Aleya Akter says only about half of factories are paying it.

"Some factories are disregarding the law and if we put pressure on them to increase the wage they say that they cannot pay the higher wage and they will shut the factory down if we continue to demand it," she says.

Akter says after the Rana Plaza collapse many families were left without their primary breadwinners. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, says a $40 million compensation fund was set up by the government, the industry and some retailers. But he says it's less than half full.

"There were 1,137 workers who lost their lives and still to this date most of the families have not received substantial compensation," Nova says. "And the biggest problem has been the failure of certain key brands and retailers that produced at Rana Plaza to make meaningful contributions to the fund."

The list of companies that have not contributed is long and includes JC Penney and Benetton. The bad publicity generated by Rana Plaza left many people in the garment sector worried that big retailers would flee the country. There's no evidence that's happened.

Still, Akter, the labor organizer, says the disaster has taken an emotional toll on the people who work in the industry.

"Now when factory workers see a small crack or hear that something is wrong they run into the street because they are afraid there will be another disaster," she says. After Rana Plaza there is always a fear in workers' minds.

Today people still come to stare at the Rana Plaza site, even though the rubble has been cleared away and only a big hole remains. There's talk about setting up a memorial one day but it hasn't yet gotten off the drawing board.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One year ago today, an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh collapsed. More than 1,100 workers killed in the disaster at Rana Plaza. There was a call after that for safer working conditions, and some of the world's biggest retailers did begin inspecting Bangladesh's factories more aggressively. But other efforts at reform have fallen short.

Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: When sewing machine operator Aklima Khanam arrived at Rana Plaza last April 24th, some of her coworkers were milling around outside. A visible crack had formed in the building, and people were afraid to go inside. But her boss warned that anyone who didn't get to work wouldn't get paid. So, she reluctantly went upstairs.

AKLIMA KHANAM: (Through translator) A half hour after we started work, the electricity went out and they started the backup generator. When they did this, the building collapsed. The roof fell onto a machine, and the machine fell onto me. I was trapped there with three or four coworkers for 12 hours. A man right near me was killed by a falling beam.

ZARROLI: One year later, she still suffers from injuries to her chest and head and hasn't been back to work. For Bangladeshis like her, the collapse at Rana Plaza was a watershed moment. Ian Spaulding is senior adviser to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

IAN SPAULDING: The world changed on April 24th. It really did. The garment industry here, the government, the stakeholders, the trade union community and the foreign buyers ultimately recognized that the previous model didn't work.

ZARROLI: The clothes made at Rana Plaza were sold to major brands such as Benetton and Zara. After the disaster, many of these retailers signed an accord, promising to inspect the factories they use for safety violations and pay for necessary repairs. They have found many fire code violations and, in some buildings, structural problems. Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak is an associate professor of economics at Yale.

AHMED MUSHFIQ MOBARAK: They have sent many, many inspectors, engineers out because of the realization that if another big event occurs that gets the international press, they know that they're going to have to pull out of Bangladesh.

ZARROLI: But most big U.S. retailers, including Wal-Mart and Target, refused to sign the accord. Instead, they are carrying out their own inspections. And today, two separate and competing teams inspect conditions in thousands of Bangladeshi factories. In some ways, working conditions have improved in the garment sector. In December, the minimum wage was increased. But labor organizer Aleya Akter says only about half of factories are paying it.

ALEYA AKTER: (Through translator) Some factories are disregarding the law, and if we put pressure on them to increase the wage, they say that they cannot pay the higher wage, and they will shut the factory down if we continue to demand it.

ZARROLI: Akter says after the Rana Plaza collapse, many families were left without their primary breadwinners. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, says a $40 million compensation fund was set up by the government, the industry and some retailers. But, he says, it's less than half full.

SCOTT NOVA: There were 1,137 workers who lost their lives, and still, to this date, most of the families have not received substantial compensation. And the biggest problem has been the failure of certain key brands and retailers that produced at Rana Plaza to make meaningful contributions to the funds.

ZARROLI: The list of companies that have not contributed so far is long, and includes JCPenney and Benetton. The bad publicity generated by Rana Plaza left many people in the garment sector worried that big retailers would flee the country. There's no evidence that's happened. Still, Aleya Akter says the disaster has taken an emotional toll on the people who work in the industry.

AKTER: (Through translator) Now when factory workers see a small crack or hear that something is wrong, they run into the street, because they're afraid there will be another disaster. After Rana Plaza, there's always a fear in workers' minds.

ZARROLI: Today, people still come to stare at the Rana Plaza site, even though the rubble has been cleared away and only a big hole remains. There's talk about setting up a memorial one day, but it hasn't yet gotten off the drawing board. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.