I have known the site of Rana Plaza in Savar for almost four decades now. I have to cross Savar to and from the Jahangirnagar campus every day but never noticed the building that later became infamous worldwide, i.e. Rana Plaza. So many changes have taken place here in the last two decades. Rivers and canals have almost disappeared, the remaining water bodies have turned ugly and poisonous. Instead the landscape is now scattered with high-rise buildings, factories and shopping malls. Land grabbers and environmentally hostile development have taken over.
Rana Plaza was an example of this. The land it stood on was grabbed, and all rules and regulations were flouted to build it.
I noticed the building site that housed five garment factories only after the horrific incident on April 24, 2013. Since then I have rarely missed stealing a glance at the site every time I pass it by. I find many women and men standing near the site – some crying, some praying, some looking blank. For many months, the remains of the dead would be found in the wreckage of Rana Plaza.
Within a month of the building's collapse, some young activists voluntarily erected a sculpture as a memorial. Many workers, organisations and citizens demanded confiscation of the land to build a permanent workers' memorial and create something to support the survivors, but the government, the BGMEA and the brands showed little interest. It was evident that these parties, which were either directly or indirectly responsible for the disaster, wanted to dissolve the very memory of it.
Recently, associates of Sohel Rana have begun building and renting out shops there. There are only a few tireless activists who regularly visit the place to remind everybody that we should not forget the killing field of a thousand workers – that they are lives, not numbers.
Despite global attention on the unprecedented disaster, the simple issues of compensation and rehabilitation have not yet been settled. I talked to many survivors and family members of the deceased workers, many of whom were betrayed by local powerful middlemen and given false promises. Many are still suffering from trauma and most of the survivors have not yet found a regular job. There is also a lack of transparency regarding the funds deposited and distributed.
After the Rana Plaza disaster, citizens around the world voiced their outrage about the conditions of workers in this billion-dollar industry. In response to citizens' protests some initiatives were taken by global brands and retailers in garment-importing countries. Most important is the formation of the 'Accord' and the 'Alliance'. Both initiatives were planned for five years. They have created a short-term inspection and monitoring system among selected factories, and they “conduct trainings for management and workers on fire and building safety, and provide some level of resources to their primary suppliers for remediation efforts.”
Other than some model factories, which are merely eyewash, there has been little to no change. Deaths due to unsafe working condition and safety oversights continue – nothing has changed. On September 10, 2016 at least 32 people were killed in the Tampaco Foils factory fire. The list of clients of this deadly factory shows how an irresponsible, profit-driven global chain creates unsafe jobs. Their clients included British American Tobacco, Nestle, Essential Drugs Company, Akij Group, Pran Group, Ispahani, Cocola Food Products Ltd., Fu-Wang Foods Ltd., Abul Khair Group, Molla Salt, Haque Biscuits & Bread, ATN Food, Nabisco Biscuit, Aftab Foods, and BD Foods. As anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed writes after visiting the factory, “Even though Tampaco claimed it met international safety standards and was fully compliant, the building did not have a proper staircase. A steel stairway had been added on the outside of the five-storied building structure, as had two lifts, which were used to convey ingredients for cigarette packet foils. Workers were not issued any appointment letters, there were no benefit schemes like provident fund, pension or insurance; workers were only issued ID cards with photos, no designation was mentioned. No service books either; employees and workers could only claim two months overtime pay, nothing else.” (April 16, 2017, New Age).
Any attempt to form unions and organise protest against injustice is met with harsh measures. Workers are not allowed to protest against unsafe working conditions, abuses or low wages till today. Recently, when workers walked out of factories to protest unsafe working conditions and low wages in Ashulia, the police and other forces swooped down on them and some 1,500 workers were sacked. The factories of the manufacturing hub in Ashulia produced clothes for brands like H&M, Gap, Walmart, C&A, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Tommy Hilfiger. More than 25 labour activists were charged with criminal complaints, some under the country's sweeping 1974 Special Powers Act. They were taken to police remand only to be given a 'lesson' through torture. It should be noted that till today more than 90 percent of Bangladesh's more than 4,500 garment factories do not have registered unions, conditions are worse in other factories. The minimum wage has not been raised since 2013. There is little doubt that “the crackdown is clearly intended to intimidate workers and keep Bangladesh a low-wage country” that benefits global brands and local owners (February 1, 2017, The New York Times).
Different estimates show that for every garment that is sold at USD 100 in the western market, the governments of those countries earn around USD 25, brands and buying houses make at least USD 50 and most of the rest go to owners, raw material suppliers, etc. For workers it comes down to less than USD 1. Monopolies like Walmart use their leverage to drag down prices of garments which has disastrous effects for workers in supplying countries. In order to maximise profit, local owners cut their cost in wages and security measures. It ultimately becomes a vicious global chain of high profits and abuse of workers' rights. Local and global profiteers share the cake at the cost of millions of workers. This obsession with profits of state-sanctioned groups from home and abroad perpetuates the horrible conditions of workers in garment-exporting countries. Yes, the readymade garment industry is the mainstay of the manufacturing sector in Bangladesh. But the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 exposed a structural problem not only in the factory building but also in the whole sector.
The industry is characterised by contradictions; it is booming yet disorganised, it is the highest export earner yet vulnerable. Growth and deprivation go hand in hand, like high profits and low wages, and more industrial police and limited factory inspectors.
Anu Muhammad is Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University, public intellectual, columnist, writer, editor, and political activist.