On 24 April 2013, a building housing factories supplying major brands collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people, most of them women. Despite some initial progress, wages continue to be low, unions have little room to operate, and survivors are hard-pressed to find work because of persistent health problems. Bangladesh is the world's second-largest garments exporter after China.
Dhaka (AsiaNews) – On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza, a commercial building in Dhaka Division, collapsed. It housed factories that employed up to 5,000 workers, mostly women. Amid the rubble, the bodies of 1,100 people were recovered while another 2,500 were injured.
The day before the collapse, cracks were reported in the walls and the workers evacuated, but only the shops on the lower floors were closed. Without a union to represent them and threatened with losing a month’s of their already low wage, the garment workers went back to work despite the lack of safety.
Bangladesh’s textile and garment industry represent over 80 per cent of the country’s exports, up from 78.2 per cent 10 years ago, worth US$ 35.87 billion in 2021, making the South Asia nation, the world’s second-largest exporter after China.
While great progress has been made in terms of workplace safety legislation, salaries are stagnant and most survivors of the collapse are unable to find stable employment due to health problems.
"Abiti Puliti” (Clean Clothes), the Italian branch of an international network advocating on behalf of garment workers, reports that work safety has improved since 2013 after major brands and trade unions agreed in September 2021 to the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile Sector, which replaced the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, signed right after the Rana Plaza disaster.
The two-year accord includes factory inspections, corrective actions monitoring, informing workers about occupational safety, and an independent complaint mechanism.
However, while the minimum wage for garment workers has been raised, it remains set at 8,000 taka (US$ 75), half of workers' demand, which even in 2018 represented a poverty wage. Since then, the wages of garment workers have remained the same, this despite inflation and the rising cost of living.
Likewise, workers’ right to form associations continues to be trampled upon. After the Rana Plaza tragedy, some unions were created, but since 2016 their activities have been under increasing pressure from the government and today workers organise at their own risk.
The compensation survivors and victims' families received was also very low. The funds arrived two years later only thanks to an intense campaign, and not all the brands supplied by the factories at Rana Plaza have paid up, “Abiti Puliti” reports.
Last but not least, survivors’ fate has been largely ignored. According to a study by ActionAid Bangladesh, which interviewed 200 female workers, most (54.5 per cent) are unemployed, 89 per cent in the past five to eight years.
About 21 per cent of respondents said they could not find suitable work due to their health and physical conditions – such as respiratory problems, hand or leg injuries, walking or eye problems – which continue to be a significant obstacle to finding and maintaining employment.
The psychosocial health of female workers has also worsened. About 57.8 per cent live in fear due to the experience of the collapse, while 28.9 per cent reported strong concerns about their safety.
The study confirms that the collapse of the Rana Plaza had consequences on family incomes due to poor compensation and lack of savings, while current workers continue to report concern for their safety at work, highlighting several risks (related for example to ventilation and poor lighting) and the lack of firefighting equipment and emergency exits.