It feels strange to be in Dhaka on the 24th of April. This day is Bangladeshi’s 9/11, a day of commemoration where all newspapers headlines refer to the Rana Plaza tragedy that happened five years ago and which claimed the lives of 1138 garment workers and left more than 2.400 injured. The front page headlines aggressively remind us that "promises made mostly not implemented". There are over twenty five events commemorating the human made catastrophe, like rallies, human chains and others, some gathering survivors and family members. The events are filled with frustration and anger and demands.
Invited by WSM's partner, the garment trade union NGWF, I went to a lighting of candles by children orphaned by Rana Plaza. It was a sad affair, with around twenty kids, most under ten years old, who were babies or toddlers when Rana Plaza collapsed, stealing their mother or father away.
A woman still cries recounting what happened, others blink tears away. They share their stories in front of cameras and mikes, highlighting their misery and sadness. And there is a lot of suffering to be shown, there are a lot of cameras and mikes to record. Bangladesh is in no way over what happened, though it sometimes seems the rest of the world has mostly forgotten and needs to be reminded of one of the worst industrial tragedy. It alerted people buying a T-shirt in the West to the world of sweat and exploitation that had gone into bringing a cheap T-shirt to their closets.
How to compensate
People here, gathered by trade unions and civil society are still demanding for better compensation for the victims, because the compensation paid to 5.000 workers had to use as reference their age and salary. While the formula is sound, with a legal minimum wage of currently 53€, this doesn’t amount to much. If a worker dies in a work related accident, family still gets a measly 1.000€, which even after Rana Plaza hasn’t been increased. NGWF demands that the amount would be calculated according to ILO Convention 121, adding compensation for pain and suffering.
What improved and what hasn't
What has improved are the security standards, with inspections and renovations done in almost 4.000 of the 5.000 factories in Bangladesh. This is done by multi-stakeholder initiatives gathering brands, factory owners, civil society and presided over by the ILO. This is an important achievement which was recently reconfirmed, with the Bangladeshi Accord on Fire and Safety renewed, despite resistance from government and employers. Still, it is a slow process and daunting task to improve safety. Since Rana Plaza, almost 100 factory accidents have happened, injuring 450 people and killing 80. But what hasn’t improved are the working conditions and wages. Trade unions like WSMs partner NGWF are an increase from the current legal minimum wage of 53€ to a living wage of at least 160€ per month. Organizing garment workers remains problematic, with half of trade unions which are applying for registration rejected and hampering the freedom of association.
Unlike 9/11, the Bangladeshi government doesn’t like that attention still goes to this tragedy, to the lack of adequate compensation and the ongoing problems in the garment sector. There is no monument at the site of the collapse, demands that the 24th of April would become a national holiday to observe workers safety day were not followed. Authorities are reluctant that events during the commemoration are organized at the site, not even a medical camp WSM’s partner GK wanted to organize for the injured. They are wary of journalists, often imposing they agree to be accompanied. The government is worried negative press will deter brands from ordering from Bangladesh, while the garment sector is very important for the economy.
Beacons of hope
|Rana Plaza site on the 24th of April in the afternoon, |
with only few people and the flowers of the morning ceremony at the monument.
Where the ruins used to be is now a field, where relatives wander, the only way to visit the grave of their loved ones, as several bodies were never recovered. By the afternoon, most have left, the site feels lost again. Just some people mingle about, watching the occasional journalist come to take footage. The only sign of the government is three police trucks full of watchful men. No declarations were made by the government, not even an attempt at defending their actions or show some progress was made.
|A woman I recognize from a physiotherapy session at GK comes to sit at the monument, |
still wearing orthopedic braces on her back and arm.
She is obviously trying to send a message, but I am not sure many are there to listen.