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

Author: Dana Thomas, The New York Times, Published on: 27 April 2018

24 April 2018

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... 

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. [The workers] came back because they feared if they didn’t, they would not be paid at the end of the month. Mr. Hridoy [a 32-year-old survivor of the Rana Plaza factory collapse] 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.”

Already, there has been union repression, with the jailing of labor leaders, which, Mr. Nova [executive director of the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium] 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. Worker unions will demand an increase to about $175 a month. Few outside the industry believe they will succeed. 

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