Today marks the six-month anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,200 garment workers, primarily women, and injured 2,500 more.
In the wake of this catastrophe, several steps have been taken to address workplace safety at the country’s thousands of garment factories: Some 100 major corporations have signed on to the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety, a binding agreement that commits brands and the companies they source from to addressing building and fire hazards and ensuring unions are a key part of this process; and the Bangladesh government has moved toward allowing registration of unions at garment factories.
But on the factory floor, garment workers are reporting a torrent of employer resistance when they seek to form a union to ensure they have a collective voice to fight for workplace rights like job safety and health. Workers who spoke recently with Solidarity Center staff in Gazipur, Bangladesh, described the difficulties they face when seeking a union, even though forming a union would allow them to address deadly working conditions, such as those that led to the Rana Plaza disaster, where a multistory building pancaked in on workers.
Workers are the best monitors of conditions in their factories because they are on the shop floor every day, and many of those at Rana Plaza factories have told the Solidarity Center that they were threatened with the loss of their meager wages if they did not go back to their machines. If they had had a union, they could have had the strength to resist being forced into a death trap.
Workers also told Solidarity Center staff that at the center of what they want from their employers boils down to this: “respectful treatment.”
They know that with respect, all the rest—clean drinking water, sufficient wages to support their families, unlocked fire escapes—will follow.
The Bangladesh government has re-registered the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), a move that means the organization can fully function again and pursue its mission of educating workers about their rights.
The Bangladesh government revoked the organization’s registration in 2010 and arrested its leaders, Babul Akhter, Kalpona Akter and Aminul Islam, on criminal charges following protests by garment workers against unsafe working conditions and poverty-level wages. All three, who were held in custody and later released, say they were tortured in prison. In 2012, Aminul’s body was found dozens of miles from his home, severely beaten and tortured.
The government last month dropped charges against Babul and Kalpona and announced it would step up the search for the people who tortured and murdered Aminul. All these actions follow the decision by the U.S. government in June to suspend preferential trade benefits with Bangladesh because of chronic and severe labor rights violations. The Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) reduced tariff benefits agreement is worth $34.7 million a year for Bangladesh.
Despite international outcry, including a U.S. congressional hearing and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for justice in the case, Aminul’s murder has gone unsolved. He had sought to improve the working conditions of some 8,000 garment workers employed by Shanta Group, a garment manufacturer based in Dhaka.
Since his murder, two massive garment factory disasters in Bangladesh have killed more than 1,000 workers, including the April building collapse of Rana Plaza, where 1,133 were killed. On Thursday, another garment worker Monwar Hossain, 22, died from his injuries at Rana Plaza. In the past eight months, there have been more than 40 fire and fire-related incidents at Bangladesh garment factories, according to data compiled by Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka, the capital.
More than 500 people have now been confirmed dead in last week’s building collapse in Bangladesh, the country’s worst industrial disaster on record. The dead are among the 2,868 victims pulled from the rubble of the eight-story building, which housed five garment factories where thousands of workers toiled on the upper floors. No one has been rescued alive for the past three days, and estimates of the number remaining in the rubble vary widely, from less than 200 to more than 1,000 people.
The mayor of Savar, where the Rana Plaza building is located, has been suspended on charges of failing to take proper action after several cracks developed and were reported by a structural engineer a day before the April 24 collapse. The mayor, Md Refatullah, also was charged for “irregularities” in approving the design.
A government inquiry concluded today that substandard construction materials and the vibration of heavy machinery in the five garment factories were prime triggers of the building’s collapse. The building owner, Sohel Rana, a prominent leader in the nation’s ruling party, was arrested over the weekend and his assets frozen. Despite the engineer’s warnings, Rana told factory operators the building was safe. Factory owners then demanded workers return the next day.
A 16-year-old garment worker whose right hand was amputated after she was pulled from the wreckage told the Solidarity Center that the factory owner said she would lose a month’s wages if she did not go to work. Solidarity Center Bangladesh Country Director Alonzo Suson and local staff are speaking with survivors, ensuring that they understand their rights and that their stories are not forgotten.
“If those workers had a collective voice to stand up to factory managers, this tragedy might never have happened,” says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Program Director Tim Ryan.
Thousands protested in Dhaka, the capitol, on May 1, internationally recognized May Day, demanding justice for those killed and injured at Rana Plaza. But garment workers from a variety of factories have been out on the streets of Dhaka for days, “demanding more safety” at the workplace, Suson told the Rick Smith Show. “Without a union at the workplace, there is no workers’ voice in making sure that safety of working conditions happen.”
While global apparel brands have taken steps to demand factories observe the nation’s job safety and health laws, they have not pushed for strong unions at the workplace—and without freedom of association, say Ryan and Suson, individual workers cannot press for safe workplaces. Nor can they demand wages they can live on. Bangladesh garment workers are paid $37 a month, the lowest in the world, to toil in conditions Pope Francis this week described as “slave labor.”
As Ryan told Public Radio International, “The brands can also be helpful when it comes to communicating with their contractors, with their companies, and say ‘Look, freedom of association is the law of the land.’
“Many of these brands have codes of conduct, which, again, are often just words on a page, but often they (mandate), ‘implementation (of) all existing labor laws and freedom of association,’ he said. “This is where the brands can put their money where their mouth is.”
For more than two decades, the Solidarity Center has been supporting workers trying to gain their rights in Bangladesh.
More than 300 workers now have been confirmed dead from Wednesday’s building collapse in Bangladesh. Some 2,200 survivors have been pulled from the ruins of what is being called one of the worst manufacturing disasters in history. More than 3,000 garment workers were on the job when upper building floors pancaked on top of each other.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has ordered the arrest of the building’s owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, a local leader of ruling Awami League’s youth front, who told factory operators the building was safe. Hasina also has ordered the arrest of five garment factory owners.
Cracks in the multistory building, located in Savar, just outside the capital, Dhaka, were reported in the local media after they appeared on Tuesday. Although workers in the retail shops on the building’s first floor were told to stay home on Wednesday, operators of five garment factories in the building’s top floors ordered employees to report to work. According to the Bangladesh Daily Star, video shot before the collapse shows cracks in the walls, with some attempts at repair. The video also shows columns missing chunks of concrete.
Bangladesh’s BDB News24 reports workers say factory owners forced them to work on Wednesday, including Aklima, a garment worker. “I did not want to go to the factory since a crack appeared yesterday (Wednesday),” she said. “But the factory’s officers forced us into the building in the morning.” Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Haq told the press that the collapse “was not an accident, it was a killing incident.”
The Solidarity Center has called on the Bangladesh government to enforce its labor and building codes, on multinational companies that source from the country to prioritize health and safety conditions in factories, and on both to respect the rights of workers and to recognize that the only way Bangladesh will have safe factories is if workers have a voice on the job. Human Rights Watch noted to the Associated Press that “none of the factories in the Rana Plaza were unionized, and that had they been, workers would have been in a better position to refuse to enter the building Wednesday.”
Media reports describe Dhaka and Savar as chaotic, with thousands of garment workers protesting the collapse and demanding arrest and punishment of those responsible for the tragedy, and families of missing workers pressing to get access to the ruins to find their loved ones.
The building collapse took place five months after a fire killed 112 garment workers at the Tazreen Fashions factory. Since then, there have been at lest 41 fire incidents at Bangladesh garment factories that have killed nine workers and injured more than 660 others, according to data compiled by the Solidarity Center.
Bangladesh’s apparel industry is the country’s largest source of export revenue—78 percent of the country’s $23 billion in export revenue in 2011. Yet garment workers are paid $37 a month, the lowest in the world, as factories seek to minimize costs to meet the price demands of the global apparel brands. Workers often are prevented from forming unions and these vulnerable and impoverished workers cannot fight alone for their rights.
A New York Times editorial today concisely summed up the solution to Bangladesh’s ongoing workplace tragedies, writing that the government must “enact meaningful changes for the country’s 3.5 million garment workers, many of whom are women.” The most essential change is to “enforce Bangladeshi labor laws and safety standards, which theoretically provide protection but are rarely honored. The laws allow workers to form unions and bargain with management on wages and working conditions, but the government has not defended those rights despite promises to do so to international agencies and the United States.”
Another four garment factories in Bangladesh became death traps today, and the Solidarity Center is mourning the senseless loss of life and the grievous injuries that have befallen hundreds of workers who were simply trying to make a living. The organization is calling on the Bangladesh government to enforce its labor and building codes, on brands that source from the country to prioritize health and safety conditions in factories, and on both to respect the rights of workers and to recognize that the only way Bangladesh will have safe factories is if workers have a voice on the job.
At least 80 workers lost their lives and more than 600 people were injured when the eight-story building collapsed, according to the Bangladesh government. Hundreds remain trapped.
“The status quo cannot be that workers have to face death just to try to feed their families,” said Alonzo Suson, Solidarity Center country director in Bangladesh. “How many more workers have to die before the government, the manufacturers and the companies that source from Bangladesh start to obey the law and respect international labor standards?”
According to local news reports, the building had developed cracks that threatened the structure’s integrity on Tuesday. Workers report being forced into the building to work on Wednesday.
For more than two decades, the Solidarity Center has been supporting workers trying to gain their rights in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage for garment workers is less than the World Bank’s international poverty line of $1.25 a day.
A major fire killed at least 112 Bangladeshi garment workers in late November, almost five months to the day of this latest disaster. Since then, there have been more than 41 fire
incidents at Bangladesh garment factories that have killed nine workers and injured more than 660 others, according to data compiled by Solidarity staff.
This Sunday, April 28, workers around the world will mark Workers Memorial Day, which provides a focal point to remember those killed and injured on the job, highlights the preventable nature of most workplace accidents and reiterates calls for workplace safety.