Why Won’t We Learn from the Survivors of the Rana Plaza Disaster?

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After more than 1,100 people were killed in the horrific building collapse, hundreds of factories in Bangladesh were shuttered. Five years later, the garment industry looks set to return to business as usual.

100 Friends - Rana Plaza Disaster article
28-year-old Shila Begum is a former sewing machine operator for Ither Tex Ltd., the fifth-floor tenant. CreditClara Vannucci for The New York Times

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Mahmudul Hassan Hridoy, a sweet-natured, soft-spoken 32-year-old, walks with a crutch and suffers from terrible headaches. Sometimes at night he pulls his hair out while he sleeps. He is single, though he has been married; his wife left him when he was in an accident and permanently injured. He owns a small pharmacy, and, once a month, he holds meetings there.

Not for recovering addicts: for survivors of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, like him.

Shiuli Begum, for example, plump 26-year-old with a little-girl voice, who now lives on a wooden plank bed in a cement-walled metal-roofed shanty a half mile from Rana Plaza. She spends her days watching television and napping thanks to the sleeping pills on which she is now dependent; she cannot read. She can no longer have children and she can barely move, as her spinal cord was crushed. “To go to the bathroom is an ordeal,” she said.

And 28-year-old Shila Begum, a short, stout and fiery widow with a 14-year-old daughter she cannot afford to send to school. Her kidneys were smashed, as was her right hand. “I cannot work,” she said, dressed in a bright fuchsia, orange, and lemon yellow tie-dye head scarf and pants cinched by a medical corset, her forearm in a brace, standing next to the marshy lot where Rana Plaza once loomed.

But like everyone else here, she can remember.

100 Friends - Rana Plaza Disaster article
Mahmudul Hassan Hridoy, 32, is the president of the Savar Rana Plaza Survivors Association. He received permanent damage to his legs during the collapse. Credit: Clara Vannucci for The New York Times

“Nobody was listening”

“‘Help me!’ people screamed,” recalled Mr. Hridoy, absently picking at a thigh of Kentucky Fried Chicken and staring out the smudgy window at the typically epic traffic jam on the dusty highway out front, the relentless barrage of klaxons nearly drowning him out.

He was remembering the moment the seventh floor of the eight-story Rana Plaza retail and apparel manufacturing complex crumbled beneath his feet five years ago today. The catastrophe injured 2,500 and killed more than 1,100. It was the deadliest garment industry accident in modern history.

“‘Save me!’ they cried,” Mr. Hridoy said. “But nobody was listening.”

Mr. Hridoy had worked for Rana Plaza for two weeks: he had quit his post as a nursery schoolteacher, because it was poorly paid, to become a quality inspector for New Wave Style Ltd. As he was good at math, management assured him he would move up the ladder quickly. The promise of increased income was irresistible: his girlfriend of three years was pregnant. “That’s why I joined Rana Plaza,” he said. They had married three days before the collapse.

When he opened eyes in the rubble, he realized he was pinned under a concrete pillar. As everything came into focus, he saw he was face-to-face with one of his good friends, Faisal, who worked on the second floor as a sewing machine operator.

“I’m not sure how,” Mr. Hridoy said. “I guess my floor dropped down to his.”

Faisal’s skull was shattered, he said, in a whisper. “And his brains were spilling out.” He began to cry. “I can’t forget how his head exploded in front of me,” Mr. Hridoy said, as he sobbed. “Those memories still haunt me.” In 2015 and 2016, two of the members of his survivors’ network committed suicide by hanging themselves in their living rooms.

The land where Rana Plaza once stood is now overgrown with weeds. On the street-facing side, a cement monument, topped by an enormous pair of sculpted fists grasping the hammer and sickle, has been erected in victims’ memory. It is usually surrounded by parked cars.

100 Friends - Rana Plaza Disaster article
A photo from 2013 shows rescue workers at the site of the eight-story building Rana Plaza which collapsed at Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Abir Abdullah/European Pressphoto Agency

Five years ago, reforms made some working conditions better

Bangladesh has long been among the cheapest places to produce clothes, along with Vietnam and India. More than 4.4 million people — mostly women — work in its 3,000 factories, where the minimum wage is currently 32 cents an hour, or $68 a month. Brands flock here to source $30 billion worth of “ready-made garments,” or RMG, making Bangladesh the world’s second largest apparel manufacturing center, after China.

“Eighty-three percent of our foreign currency comes from the garment sector,” said Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association in an interview this week in his grand, air-conditioned office at the organization’s headquarters in Dhaka. “Fifty million people depend on it, and our economy is dependent on it.” He added that the government would like to double output in the next five years.

But the Bangladesh apparel industry has also been rife with sweatshops — among the grimmest ever, anywhere — and with them come industrial accidents. Between 2006 and 2012, more than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers died in factory fires. The usual cause: faulty electrical wiring.

Nobody outside of Bangladesh paid much attention to these tragedies until the Tazreen Fashions factory went up in flames in the Dhaka suburb of Ashulia in November, 2012. At least 117 died, many burned beyond recognition, and more than 200 were injured. NGOs tried to enlist brands to sign a legally binding agreement to improve factory safety, but only two — PVH and Tchibo of Germany — joined. Five months later, Rana Plaza happened.

After a month of “highly embarrassing media coverage,” as Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium described it, in something of an understatement, international fashion brands who source in Bangladesh announced the creation of two five-year compliancy agreements.

100 Friends - Rana Plaza Disaster article
Survivors and relatives of those who died at Rana Plaza gathered the night before the anniversary. Clara Vannucci for The New York Times

The legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety was signed by more than 200, including American Eagle, H & M and Inditex, the parent company of Zara.

The nonbinding Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was led by Walmart, and signed by 28, among them Gap, Target, and Hudson’s Bay, owners of Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor.

Independent inspectors and engineers identified and corrected safety infractions, such as locked or nonexistent fire exits and dangerous wiring. All told, 97,000 hazards were repaired in 1,600 factories. Mr. Rahman reported that 900 factories that did not meet compliance standards were shut down by the government.

Last week, the Center for Global Workers’ Rights released a study of the impact of the Accord, and heralded both as a success: in five years, more than 97,000 hazards in 1,600 factories were rectified, providing safer environments for 2.5 million workers.

“The Accord has undoubtedly saved lives,” said Liana Foxvog, director of Organizing and Communications for the International Labor Rights Forum, another Washington-based human rights organization.

100 Friends - Rana Plaza Disaster article
A factory that makes clothing for Rivzi Fashion in Dhaka. Clara Vannucci for The New York Times

These safeguards are about to expire again

Improvements don’t mean sweatshops no longer exist in Bangladesh. This reporter visited one in Dhaka, three days before the Rana Plaza anniversary. Fire buckets were filled with trash, emergency water bins were cracked and half empty, no one wore safety masks, most workers — some in their early teens — were barefoot, wiring was exposed, bolts of fabric and scraps littered the floors, window panes were broken, and the lone stairwell out of the tenement-like building was obstructed by cartons of finished product destined for Russia.

And both the Accord and the Alliance are about to expire.

The Accord is set to be renewed for three more years; the Alliance will be dissolved. Advocates are urging former Alliance members to sign on to the new, if brief, Accord. After the extension expires, monitoring is expected to be handed over to the Remediation Coordination Cell, a national initiative that will monitor compliance in garment factories. Advocates as well as U.S. and E.U. diplomatic representatives in Bangladesh are not sure this is a good idea, given that at least 10 percent of the country’s parliament members own factories.

“You can imagine the collusion,” Ms. Foxvog said.

Already, there has been union repression, with the jailing of labor leaders, which, Mr. Nova said, “has had a chilling effect on the industry,” and wage negotiations later this year are expected to be fraught and will no doubt trigger worker protests and unrest. At issue particularly is that minimum wage, “which by our estimates is one-fifth a conservative living wage,” Mr. Nova said.

100 Friends - Rana Plaza Disaster article
Crowds gather in Rana Plaza to commemorate the anniversary of the collapse. Clara Vannucci for The New York Times

Worker unions will demand an increase to about $175 a month. Few outside the industry believe they will succeed.

This morning, nearly 3,000 survivors and supporters — including nurses and doctors who treated victims — gathered at Rana Plaza to mark the anniversary and honor the injured and the dead. Under the blazing noontime sun, they formed human chains across the property, and marched with banners that read “Workers of the World Unite!” Union leaders and activists called for justice and placed wreaths of marigolds and roses on the monument. Hawkers wandered through the crowd with buckets of fresh pineapple and cucumber spears on their head. Police stood discreetly on the fringe, in the shade.

“All will return to how it was”

Locals were not surprised when Rana Plaza went down. The day before the accident, the wall on the third floor split open like a fault line; workers fled en masse into the street. An engineer called to inspect the damage recommended the building be immediately condemned. “The crack was so huge I could put my hand in it,” said Ms. Begum, the single mother, who was then a sewing machine operator for Ither Tex Ltd., the fifth-floor tenant.

Managers heeded the engineer’s suggestion somewhat: they sent everyone home but ordered them to return in the morning. And they did, hesitantly. “I was scared,” Ms. Begum said. “I was really in a panic.” They came back, she said, because they feared if they didn’t, they would not be paid at the end of the month.

Around 8 a.m., Mr. Hridoy heard a knock on his front door: it was his neighbor, who was also his boss, reminding him to report for work. He made his way to the factory, clocked in, and took his position on the denim line. At 8:45, the power snapped off.

100 Friends - Rana Plaza Disaster article
Shiuli Begum, 26, suffers from cracked hip bones and spinal column damage suffered during the accident. She was sewing jeans for the brand Joe Fresh. Her husband Golam Rabbani, right, 30, is a day laborer and her care giver. They have no children and she is now infertile. Clara Vannucci for The New York Times

Management turned the generators on. As they began to rumble, so did the building.

“It felt like the floor under my feet was moving,” Mr. Hridoy said. “Then it was disappearing.”

Ms. Begum, two floors below Mr. Hridoy, was sewing jeans for a French brand — she doesn’t remember which one — when the concrete ceiling fell on her, landing on her torso and her right hand. Her long hair became entangled in the sewing machine, she said, “and I couldn’t free myself because my hand was stuck.” Sixteen hours later, neighbors who joined the hundreds of emergency responders at the site rescued her. “They showed up with iron rods and pipes, and pried me out,” she said. “They said my guts were all over the place.”

She began to weep as she retold the story. “I passed out and came to my senses 27 days later,” she said. She received no government compensation but did get a bit of financial assistance from nonprofits. “Nothing from the brands,” she said. “When I come here,” she said, looking at the void that was Rana Plaza, “I feel like I don’t want to live anymore.”

Housebound Shiuli Begum was a sewing jeans for Joe Fresh and Primark, when, she recalled, “Everything went dark and I felt things falling all over me.” She lost consciousness, and 36 hours later woke up in a hospital. She also received no compensation, not even the 45,000 taka (roughly $530) pledged by brands. “You had to lobby for the money,” she said. “And I was too infirm.” Her husband is a day laborer and her caregiver.

Mr. Hridoy was the only one of the three who was compensated by the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, a $30 million endowment underwritten by brands. He used the $600 he got to open his drugstore, and he also founded the Savar Rana Plaza Survivors Association. It currently has 300 members. He does not, however, hold out hope that anything has really changed. “The labor law in this country is pro-owner, not pro-worker,” he said.

When oversight reverts to local governance, he said, “all will return to how it was when Rana Plaza happened.”

April 24, 2018

Akram Hosen contributed reporting.

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