Four years ago, over a thousand workers lost their lives and 2500 were injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building. We showed a strong resolve to rescue the injured trapped under the debris of bricks and steel. Ordinary men and women worked alongside Fire Service Volunteers and military, and ambulances whistled past Ashulia to the nearest hospital. We responded to the emergency… But since then have workers been compensated, and are they safe at work?
The nine story building collapsed because it was constructed on swampy land fill, and two floors had been added when permission was granted for seven floors only. This sparked demands for greater safety and accountability from both suppliers and buyers of ready-made clothing from Bangladesh. We expected that the industrial damage would lead to a structured response from the fast growing export industry for compensation to affected workers. We hoped Rana Plaza would be a turning point for workers' safety.
Four years on, workers still await justice. The lower courts took note of the violations in obtaining permission for the building and arrested the owner, Sohel Rana. But four years on, trials have not been concluded, although bank accounts of five factories located in the building were frozen to prevent misappropriation. However, an exception allowed for payment of workers' wages.
Workers' claims for compensation are yet to be resolved. Merely weeks after the incident, under instructions from the courts, a Compensation Committee was set up to calculate an appropriate range of compensation based upon ILO Convention 121, taking into consideration suffering and pain or workers' disability to work and so on. The Committee's recommendations were to compensate for losses due to industrial deaths, grievous injuries, etc. Four years later, the Court has yet to settle the terms of compensation for Rana Plaza workers which could set the standard for compensation to workers for further industrial disasters.
Instead, the Rana Plaza Arrangement, set up under the sponsorship of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and including representatives from government, RMG industry, international trade unions and global brands, initiated a claims process which was able to assess over 4000 claims from families of deceased, missing and injured survivors.
While these voluntary payments may have helped workers and their families survive over the last few years, they are no substitute for a fair and just compensation. This is why trade unions and human rights organisations have petitioned the High Court for legal compensation, and for raising the paltry amount retained in the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 to an amount in conformity with ILO 121.
In an export industry, accountability for safe work has to be a joint responsibility of suppliers and buyers. So far both parties have been neglectful. After Rana Plaza, campaigns by international and local trade unions have led to some acknowledgment of responsibility by global brands. The legally binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (formed by European buyers) promised to finance a programme for safety inspections, remediation and fire safety training, all of which are urgently needed. The Alliance for Workers' Safety formed by US companies has also agreed to identify safety hazards at each factory that supplies to them.
The Accord partners had agreed to finance factories willing to implement the Corrective Action Plan. However, several factories have complained that they were not compensated for the cost of remediation. There were also complaints from workers that they did not always receive promised wages when their factories were closed.
These gaps need to be corrected in the interests of the industry and its workers. Both the Accord and Alliance were formed in response to a global movement by trade unions and citizens' groups. Collective campaigns in Bangladesh and outside led to promises of corrective action by both the Accord and Alliance agreements. However, a collective activism by trade unions and citizens' groups needs to be sustained to make the industry respond to justice for workers and ensure accountability of the Accord and Alliance.
Bangladesh garment exports are reported to have risen to $28.09 bn in the fiscal year 2015-16, showing a 10.21 percent growth from the previous year. In addition, the industry has obtained deductions on tariffs and other charges. There are financial gains for buyers and suppliers which need to be invested in workers' safety and health. Or the costs of such industrial accidents will be high for the industry.
Hameeda Hossain is Convenor, Sramik Nirapotta Forum.