Workers of the recently closed Swan garments factory shout slogans during a protest outside the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association office in Dhaka, Bangladesh. CREDIT: AP
The owner of a collapsed garment factory building in Bangladesh that’s 2013 collapse killed more than 1,100 people has been charged with murder. Sohel Rana is among 42 people who face criminal charges for ignoring warnings not to allow workers into the Rana Plaza building the day before it collapsed.
Government officials responsible for safety inspections were charged with murder alongside various factory stakeholders. They all face the death penalty if convicted.
“It is the biggest industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history,” lead investigator Bijoy Krishna Kar told AFP.
“They [the factory owners] discussed and decided to keep the factory open,” Kar said. “They sent the workers to their deaths with cool heads.”
According to survivor testimony, workers had not wanted to enter the 9-story building after cracks began to emerge along its walls. Rana, the building owner, added three floors to the structure, which was initially approved as a 6-story shopping center.
A Bangladeshi government investigation into the Rana Plaza collapse found that it has been built with “extremely poor quality” materials and rested on an unstable foundation.
“A portion of the building was constructed on land which had been a body of water before and was filled with rubbish,” Khandker Mainuddin Ahmed, who headed the investigation, said.
While the efforts to hold individuals accountable for the tragedy is ongoing, many companies that purchased garments produced in Rana Plaza have taken steps to shift their policies to help prevent future disasters in Bangladesh’s expansive garment industry.
In the aftermath of the disaster, many clothing retailers considered pulling out of from Bangladesh. Workers’ rights advocates and industry groups alike pushed foreign companies to keep their business in the country. The garment industry is responsible for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports and has improved living standards across the country, especially for women who make up 80 percent of its 4.4 million workers.
While some, like the Walt Disney Company, ceased production of its merchandise in the country, others including H&M, Benneton, and the owner of Zara have signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh requiring inspection of the factories in which their goods are produced. Twenty-six of the largest American clothing retailers including Wal-Mart, Target, Gap, and H&M have signed on to a non-binding inspection agreement called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Together with a third initiative backed by the Bangladeshi government and the International Labor Organization, nearly three-quarters of the country’s 3,500 export-oriented garment factories have been inspected and dozens have been shuttered due to imminent risk.
Under terms of the Accord and Alliance agreements, factories have nine months to improve conditions. If they fail to bring working conditions up to snuff, the clothing companies must cease to do business with them.
But, as Amy Yee reported last month for the Washington Post, bringing factories up to par with inspection standards isn’t easy – especially since the industry had such little oversight in the past.
Costly equipment such as fire doors and hydrant pumps must be imported. Fire doors cost $2,000 a pair, and hydrant pumps cost $60,000 each. Fire safety equipment and standards are generally alien concepts in Bangladesh and have caused confusion at many factories. However, more progress has been made with upgrading familiar and less expensive electrical systems. About 70 percent of garment factory fires are electrical in origin, so improving electrical systems can have a big impact on safety.
While larger, more lucrative factories can take such additional costs in stride, they pose a high hurdle to smaller operations.
“We’re losing money every minute,” said Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, the co-owner of Adorn Knitwear, a small factory.
Earlier this year, the factory’s production lines fell silent during the long process of checking the building for the sort of structural weakness that caused Rana Plaza to collapse.
According to the World Bank, bringing individual factories up to safety standards can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million. Accord and Alliance agreement members have said that they’ve made investments to help their manufacturers improve work safety conditions and industry groups have asked the government for low-income loans to help smaller scale operations meet costs.
“We all want a safer industry and lots of people are making a big effort to achieve this,” Abdul Mukit Khan, the head of the National Coordination Committee for Workers Education said. “However, union registration remains very low and there are still barriers to the formation of new unions.”
Training workers to monitor safety concerns – and to bring up potential lapses to employers is key for meany rights’ organizations, especially since workers were coerced by employers into entering Rana Plaza despite their better judgement.
“If Bangladesh wants to avoid another Rana Plaza disaster, it needs to effectively enforce its labor law and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch saidafter the organization released a report on labor conditions there.
Less than 10 percent of Bangladeshi factories have labor representation, and efforts to form them have been met with abuse and firings.
“When I submitted the [union] registration forms, local gangsters came to my house and threatened me,” a female union leader told Human Rights Watch. “They said, ‘If you come near to the factory we will break your hands and legs.’”