More needs to be done
As the dawn breaks, shanties surrounding the garment factories on the outskirts of the capital wake up. Within an hour or so, footpaths and streets swarm with young female workers marching towards their factories.
To many the sector is a symbol of pride and hope. Sadly to some others, it is a symbol of disgrace and source of despair.
Pride because the sector brings home $25 billion in export earnings and employs 44 lakh poor people on top of giving a solid boost to women's empowerment.
Disgrace because its poor safety measures and working conditions, aimed at exploiting abundant cheap labour, have led to repeated deaths inside factories violating workers' basic rights. The collapse of Rana Plaza, which claimed lives of 1,134 garment workers on April 24 two years ago, bears testimony to this.
Trade unions have termed the Rana Plaza disaster "mass industrial killing" for forcing workers to work in the faulty building where a crack was noticed the day before.
Rights bodies believe that inordinate delay in bringing the perpetrators of previous disasters (such as the ones at Tazreen Fashion and Spectrum) to justice, poor enforcement of labour laws and inadequate monitoring of factory safety rules by government agencies are responsible for such industrial crimes.
"Trials of cases from the Spectrum disaster to Rana Plaza collapse are still on," said Barrister Sarah Hossain at a programme on Rana Plaza collapse early last week.
Charge sheets of lawsuits filed in connection with the Rana Plaza collapse are yet to be placed and injured victims and families of the dead workers are yet to fully compensated.
Some 53 percent of the survivors have asked for compensation from the international brands and other "duty bearers", said ActionAid Bangladesh last week in a survey report.
"Many of them also believe that bringing perpetrators to the court will ensure justice to the victims of Rana Plaza collapse," it said.
Some 55 percent of the Rana Plaza survivors are still unemployed, said ActionAid.
The collapse raised calls to improve building and workplace safety, and ensure labour rights. It also called into question the international clothing brands' role.
As a result of a global outcry following the disaster, two groups -- Accord, a platform of 190 clothing brands in Europe, and Alliance, a body of 26 American brands -- launched large-scale safety inspections on factories. More than 2,500 factories have been inspected so far.
IndustriALL Global Union, an international body fighting for better working conditions and trade union rights, said Bangladesh still cannot claim that even one of its 4,000 active garment factories is 100 percent safe for workers.
IndustriALL also rued the lack of funds needed to compensate the injured workers and the dependants of the dead.
The compensation fund is still missing $6 million out of the targeted $30 million.
UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings said, “It's outrageous that families who lost their mothers and breadwinners have still not been fully compensated because a group of multinationals can't find it in their hearts or deep pockets to pay the $6 million missing from the compensation fund.”
The movement for workers' rights has nonetheless seen a few achievements since the disaster happened.
Some 32 factories have been closed down for inadequate safety arrangements and the government has taken some steps to strengthen the factory inspection office. Workers' minimum wage has been increased and the labour law amended.
Furthermore, around 300 trade unions have received registration, which is less than 3 percent of the total garment factories in the country, said Alonzo Suson, Bangladesh country director of Solidarity Centre.
Noting the activities, the CPD last week said there have been some positive changes in improving workplace safety and labour rights after two years of the disaster.
However, rights body Human Rights Watch last week said garment workers in Bangladesh still face poor working conditions and anti-union tactics by employers, including assaults on union organisers.
It said the government and Western retailers can and should do more to enforce international labour standards to protect workers' rights, including their right to form unions and advocate for better conditions.