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A year later, Bangladesh’s garment factory disaster is still an open wound

The mother of a missing garment worker stares at the ruins of Rana Plaza on August 2, 2013. (Photo by Jason Motlagh for The Washington Post)

Last year on April 24, an eight-story garment factory in the environs of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers inside and injuring some 2,500 more. It was one of the worst industrial disasters in modern memory and, for a brief moment, drew Western attention to the often terrible conditions that underlie the global garment industry.

Significant compensation was promised to the wounded survivors and the grieving families of the victims. Both activists and politicians in various countries called on international clothing companies to revise and revamp their policies regarding worker rights and factory monitoring. Memorandums were signed. 140 unions were allowed to register in Bangladesh, a country where unrest in the garment sector is common. The minimum wage was raised for garment workers, though to what globally can only be considered a pitiable level. Progress, still, was being made.

But one year since the calamity at Rana Plaza, the name of the collapsed building, there are many reasons to feel gloomy. The manufacture and export of garments are a critical part of impoverished Bangladesh's economy and the workers who keep it ticking come from mostly poor, rural backgrounds. Many of the 2,500 or so pulled out alive from the rubble last year are now struggling to make ends meet. A recent survey carried out by ActionAid Bangladesh, an NGO, found that nearly three-quarters of survivors have been unable to work again due to either their injuries or the lingering trauma of the accident. (One survivor told the Wall Street Journal that the "sound of sewing machines made me want to vomit.")

Moreover, as a Human Rights Watch report released on Wednesday elaborates, many survivors as well as the families of the victims have not received the compensation promised them in the wake of the disaster. A fund organized by the International Labor Organization was meant to pool $40 million from the international clothing brands that sourced goods from factories housed in Rana Plaza. But only $15 million has been raised so far, half of which comes from British retailer Primark. The Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign puts this in stark terms: the 29 international brands that had ties to Rana Plaza are being asked to contribute 0.2% of their annual $22 billion in profit to aid victims of the disaster.

The HRW communique includes some rather depressing testimony from Rana Plaza survivors:

“I have four children and my husband can no longer work because he needs to look after me. We are now only living off the money I received when I was in hospital. This is about to be finished and I don't know what we will do once we spend this money.” – Rabeya Begum, 35, whose legs had to be amputated eight months after the accident due to the injuries she sustained.

“After I left the hospital I took a job at a factory, but I could not continue for more than four months. Whenever there was a fire alarm I started screaming. Even if there was a small sound I had to run away. People thought I was going mad. I had to leave the job, now I am struggling to support my wife and a kid.” – Alamgir Hossain, 27

“We knew there was some problem with the building. When I went inside with my sister, I realized the problem was serious. Some of us wanted to leave but the production manager would not allow us. He threatened to tell our fathers. Two minutes later the power went out and the building collapsed. My sister's body was never found.” – Rozina Begum, 24

But this is just the plight of those immediately affected by the disaster. Myriad doubts hang over the ability and will of the Bangladeshi government to monitor and improve safety standards elsewhere. Two competing international coalitions spearheaded by American and European retailers -- dubbed the "Alliance" and the "Accord" -- have set in place new measures to ensure safety in Bangladeshi factories. But these initiatives, according to a report issued this week by the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University's Stern Business School, only scratch at the surface of the vast, informal network of workshops and factories that comprise Bangladesh's garment industry. ("The universe of factories encompassed by [the European and American] programs is less than 2,000, while the total base of factories and facilities producing for the export garment sector is likely between 5,000 and 6,000," it reads.)

In The Post's Outlook section this weekend, Jason Motlagh, reporting from Dhaka, documented this reality:

The open secret in Bangladesh is that there’s a vast underworld of off-the-books operations that backstop the export industry. Sandwiched inside apartment buildings, in basements and on rooftops, underpaid and overworked employees finish orders from larger companies under fierce pressure to stay apace with fast fashion. Hidden from view, bosses are free to abuse workers and cut corners on safety.

And so, one year after the world mourned the tragedy at Rana Plaza, the conditions remain rife for the disaster to repeat itself.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.



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