More than five years after the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashion disasters killed more than a thousand garment workers and injured many more, workers in ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh still struggle to make ends meet. And even now, garment workers often are forced to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
Workers recently interviewed by the Solidarity Center say their employers set harsh production demands with short timelines. In fact, following the government’s recent minimum wage increase from $63 a month to $95, management in some factories pre-emptively set higher production targets. As a result, workers face unbearable pressure to work more quickly and produce more.
Verbal abuse and insults, such as name calling, is routine, workers say.
Many, like Shefali, also suffer from severe health problems after working between 10 and 14 hours per day.
Shefali, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of retaliation, says she is unable to sleep for several hours at a stretch because of pain. Other workers who stand long hours on factory lines say they are unable to sit for extended periods because of joint pain.
Putting Solidarity Center Fire Safety Training into Practice
And for many workers, fire safety is still a danger in many factories. To address the issue, the Solidarity Center’s ongoing fire safety trainings have reached thousands of garment workers, who learn how to extinguish fires, provide first-aid during incidents and safely handle chemicals. They also learn how to identify risks in building safety, abrasions in wiring and machine equipment and how to report those risks to management to help prevent their factories from becoming another Rana Plaza.
The trainings also provide workers with a platform to come together and share their workplace hardships and strategies for improving their work environment.
Lucky, who participated in one of the safety trainings, has put the lessons into practice.
“Once, there was fire in our factory and everyone rushed at the gates to escape. I saw a pregnant woman who was injured, and I could not leave her there alone. It is not by fire that people die but from the struggle during escape that causes death. So, I grabbed another colleague of mine and went to her to help. I wrapped my scarf around her as quickly as possible and pulled her out to safety,” she said.
Lucky added: “In another instance, I helped put out a fire at my neighbor’s home when no one could do it. I dipped a sack in the nearby river and threw it over the gas burner. People were amazed and said, ‘How can a woman do this?’ I learned this from all the training sessions I participated in over the years. It was really fruitful as I implemented what I learned a number of times inside and outside of my workplace.”
My name is Shamima Aktar and I am a responsible member of my society working as an organizer at Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF). This was not the case 10 years back. My father was diagnosed with cancer and our family of seven had difficulty making ends meet. Thus, I had to begin working when I was in eighth grade in a small organization that help street children in my community.
From then on, I never looked back, I worked in a garments factory and still managed to acquire a GPA 5 in SSC examination, and this made my father proud. But I did not forget about the hardship that my colleagues and I went through in the garments factory. We were deprived of our basic rights and even more, we did not even know what our rights were. There were chronic shortage of drinking water, bathroom facilities and space for moving around. I always wished I could do something to improve the conditions, do something so that we could receive the minimal facilities.
Then in 2014, I joined BGIWF. I got the opportunity to struggle toward those goals of mine. Things were already on the move due to the Rana Plaza tragedy just a year back. Infrastructure was improving, emergency exit and fire safety was put in place and many factories were relocated from residential buildings to Ashulia, Savar and Narayanganj.
I believed that the workers must be aware of their rights and they must be united to achieve them. That is what we do at BGIWF—we train them to let them know what they deserve and we empower them so that they can claim their rights from the factory owners.
This work has put me in difficult situations and I would like to share one such event. In one factory where we helped to organize a trade union, the factory management called a meeting with us and the union to talk about a demand made by the worker’s union that the salaries must be paid [in a timely fashion]. The factory management would not grant it, and at one point we were locked and beaten. But what moved me was that hearing about our abuse, 17 trade unions around the community immediately came to our aid and barricaded the factory we were in.
Thus, I gathered my courage that the work we were doing was meaningful to many. The workers needed us on their side to be able to live in peace and I wish to [continue organizing workers] no matter how difficult it is for me.
I am Monira Akter, working with Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) as an organizer for the past six years. I saw how my elder sister was abused and sometimes beaten in her garment factory, and that is when I decided that I wished to work for the rights and safety of all those brothers and sisters of the factory.
They were forced to work long hours without extra payment, sacked if absent for a day or two and had no trade union to voice their claims. It distressed me when I saw my sister returning home at night tired and sick with no time to spend with us or her husband. But we had no choice as we had five mouths to feed with no father or elder brother.
After the Rana Plaza disaster, there have been major changes which had not occurred in many years. Building and fire safety gave a sense of security for the workers in their workplace. They feel they will not lose theirs or their close ones’ lives in an accident just like Rana Plaza and thus are able to work feeling secured. Moreover, I am proud that we have been able to create leaders among the workers by organizing them into trade unions. In the past this would have been close to impossible.
I have worked day and night, went to gates of factories to talk to the workers, walked with them to their homes to earn their trust and to make them aware of how they are being exploited and deprived of their rights. So far, we have united 2,250 workers into trade unions and they say that we give them courage and hope. For me, these words are enough to encourage me to work on for them.
Some of their stories moved me. Once one of them told me that due to some reason a worker was ordered to leave the job immediately but instead she called our office right away. The manager seeing this told her to come back and keep working! This showed us how relevant we have become to the lives of workers and how we can influence the decisions of factory owners on worker rights.
A second story was about Mitu, a worker who was pregnant and submitted her resignation to management. She requested her benefits, but the manager would not allow it. She came to BIGUF informing us about her situation and we promised her our assistance. After many negotiations and heated conversations, we managed to extract all the dues she [legally] deserved without having to resort to legal proceedings.
This is how the garment workers lives are being transformed. The fact that I receive salary for this work is not my motivation. My husband discouraged me to work in this but I still adhere to my principles and wish to stay beside the workers who need of me.
At least 13 workers were killed and dozens injured when a boiler exploded at a garment factory in Bangladesh on Monday, ripping through the six-story building and causing a portion of it to collapse.
Officials have now called off the search for survivors. The death toll was not higher because most of the factory’s 5,000 garment workers were on holiday and not in the building, officials say.
Harunur Rashid, a worker at the factory, says the boiler’s safety light was flashing danger, but the device’s operators assured them there was nothing to worry about, according to reports in the Bangladesh news media.
“Within 10 minutes after we returned to work, the boiler exploded,” he says. “It’s absolutely the authorities’ negligence.”
Witnesses report the blast ripped doors, windows, machinery and a section of the second floor wall, all of which went airborne.
The plant in the Gazipur industrial district is owned by manufacturer Multifabs.
Bangladesh courts this week charged 38 people with murder for their role in the collapse of Rana Plaza factory building that killed more than 1,130 garment workers in April 2013.
Solidarity Center Asia Region Director Tim Ryan calls the move “a much-delayed step in the right direction,” but adds:
“Over the past three years, the Bangladesh government has approved fewer and fewer union registration applications. Through their unions, workers are able to speak out freely about safety and health concerns at their worksites and prevent horrible tragedies like Rana Plaza. Limiting workers from forming unions puts workers’ safety at risk.”
In 2015, the Bangladesh government rejected 73 percent of union registration applications, according to data compiled by Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka, the capital.
Arim ul-Haq Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, told Australia-based ABC news that he is disappointed it took so long for perpetrators to be held accountable. He called on multinational companies and garment brands to take responsibility for worker safety.
Some brands stepped up after international outrage over the 2013 Rana Plaza and the 2012 Tazreen Fashions Ltd., factory fire prompted creation of the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, a legally binding agreement in which nearly 200 corporate clothing brands and trade unions are supporting garment factory inspections and repairs to ensure safe workplaces. Dozens of garment factories have been closed for safety violations and pressing safety issues addressed.
Many of the 2,000 survivors of the Rana Plaza, and families of those who perished, say they received little or no compensation following the building collapse. Many survivors suffered injuries so severe they are unable to work, and without sufficient compensation, are unable to support themselves and their families.