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Bangladesh: 5 Years on, Rana Plaza Disaster Victims Still Seek Justice

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
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Garment factory workers, relatives and friends of the Rana Plaza disaster victims place wreathes near where the building collapsed in Dhaka, April 24, 2018.
Garment factory workers, relatives and friends of the Rana Plaza disaster victims place wreathes near where the building collapsed in Dhaka, April 24, 2018.

Mahmudul Hasan Ridoy’s backbone cracked and he suffered rib fractures when the Rana Plaza building collapsed on April 24, 2013. But five years after Bangladesh’s deadliest industrial accident, scores of garments factory survivors like Ridoy say they still are seeking employment and justice.

On Tuesday, family members and relatives of the victims placed wreaths at the site of the former garment factory complex to remember those who died and demand a trial for the factory owner suspected of forcing the workers to remain in an unsafe building.

As many as 1,135 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured in the building’s collapse, which labor unions here have called a “mass industrial homicide.”

“I was employed as a quality specialist with the New Way Style Limited at that time. Now nobody is giving me a job,” Ridoy told BenarNews. “I approached some garment factories for work. But nobody is hiring me.”

Ridoy’s right leg was paralyzed as a result of injuries in the disaster. He said he did not get medical support from the government.

“Doctors told me that I will not recover,” he said. “I will remain disabled for the rest of my life.”

The eight-story Rana Plaza building in the Dhaka suburb of Savar housed five factories that produced ready-made garments sourced by international brands.

Deep cracks had appeared in the building the day before, and workers had begged not to be sent inside, according to a charge sheet filed against the owner and 41 other suspects. But managers declined and thousands of people filed in – until floors began to vanish.

The building’s collapse spotlighted global inequality in the garment trade and underscored the world’s appetite for cheap clothing, but it also sparked revulsion over the failure of major brands to act on labor issues.

As an offshoot of the tragedy, about 250 companies signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally-binding worker safety initiative that led to identification of thousands of safety issues, officials said.

On Monday, Mohammad Nasir, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told a roundtable discussion with industry executives that the apparel sector had withstood tremendous pressure after the disaster, as demonstrators staged human chains worldwide and called for a boycott of garments made in Bangladesh.

“Bangladesh is now a role model for ensuring a safe environment in the factories,” Nasir said during the event organized by the Institute of Labor Studies at the Daily Star Auditorium in Dhaka.

It’s not clear which brands were sourcing clothes from the building, but British retailer Primark had agreed to pay U.S. $12 million to 581 workers, or their families, who were working for New Wave Bottoms, Primark’s main supplier. London-based clothing chain Matalan also made a donation to a U.N.-backed compensation fund for the victims.

The accord, Nasir said, helped ensure a safe working environment and led to the closure of at least 1,200 factories. There were now 3,900 factories that had been declared safe for workers, he said.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel exporter of western fashion brands, after China. Exports of textiles and garments provide the principal source of foreign exchange earnings for Bangladesh, generating U.S. $28.1 billion from 2016 to 2017, according to the Financial Express.

‘It was murder’

In July 2016, a Dhaka court filed murder charges against Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, and 37 other people. But the trial, which was supposed to begin on Sept. 18, 2016, did not start after the High Court, Bangladesh’s highest tribunal, suspended the legal proceedings.

According to the charge sheet, investigators found that Rana and management officials had required factory workers to enter the building against their will even though the building had developed major cracks on the eve of the collapse.

Investigators said 18 of the accused had violated building safety codes by constructing four additional floors on top of the original five-story structure, allowing them to rent out the extra floors to five factories.

At least 5,000 workers were housed in the building during its collapse, according to the charge sheet.

Labor leaders have been demanding Rana’s prosecution.

“I do not term it an accident. It was murder,” labor leader Nazrul Islam Khan told BenarNews.

“The building was marked with cracks the previous day. The laborers went out,” he said. “But the garment owners in association with Sohel Rana forced them to go inside again the following day. How reckless. What a tragedy!”

Roy Ramesh, an adviser at the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS), blamed government corruption for the collapse.

“The Fire Service issued an A-Category license to such a wrongly structured building,” he said, with the license implying that the building fully complied with safety requirements.

As a result of the Rana Plaza disaster, most factories in Bangladesh now have emergency gates for workers to get out in case fire breaks out, said Gagan Rajbhandari, officer-in-charge of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Dhaka.

But despite the safety improvements, at least 48.7 percent of the survivors have been left unable to work, while 51.3 percent of them are engaged in various types of wage and self-employment, according to a survey conducted by Action Aid Bangladesh.

Remembering the victims

On Tuesday, leaders and members of labor groups gathered in front of the former Rana Plaza site to remember the victims.

Family members and relatives of the victims also held a protest rally near a highway in Dhaka. On Monday, workers also lit candles in front of the building to pray for the victims. Others paid their respects by placing wreaths at the victims’ graves at a cemetery in the country’s capital.

But yearly memorials only serve as a poignant reminder of Rana Plaza’s “unfinished legacy,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“It’s a strong reminder of the human cost of negligence in the garment sector,” Aruna Kashyap, HRW’s senior counsel, wrote on the New York-based group’s website Tuesday.

“These garment workers died making the clothes we wear, and we as consumers owe it to their legacy to make sure the reforms enacted in their names are durable and effective,” she said.

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