Two years ago on 24th April 2013, Bangladesh witnessed its biggest RMG sector disaster with the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar which killed 1,134 people and wounded more than 2,000 workers. We now know how overcrowded the building was, and how its management ignored warning signs and failed to conduct proper inspections. Today, while we remember the second year of this mishap which traumatized the whole nation and perhaps the whole world with shock, many questions come to our mind. First of all, do we actually know why on that day the building collapsed? And if we do know then what are the initiatives which have been taken by the authorities to prevent another similar disaster in future? Secondly, what changes actually took place in our RMG sector after that disaster regarding the much talked about workers’ rights? Finally, what is the present condition of those people who survived from that doomed building? And where are those international brands who promised a lot? What happened to the welfare funds which were to be distributed among the victims of the tragedy? We will try to find out the answers to these questions.
According to an assessment report of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC, 2013), the column sizes of Rana Plaza were comparatively small, compared to a standard 8-9 storied industrial building, which might have been responsible the sudden collapse. Storage of heavy equipments at the upper floors, poor construction and use of low-strength materials; all these led to the collapse. The ill-constructed building was built on marshy land filled in with garbage and loose soil.
Following the tragedy, it was also alleged that Rana Plaza was constructed according to a faulty design, using poor quality construction materials and violating the all regulations. The strange thing is that constructing such kinds of buildings here in our country is nothing new. Surveys say that there are many other buildings here in our suburbs and even in our city which have been made violating the building code. Though, according to the Ministry of Housing and Public Works, they are working to enforce the Bangladesh National Building Code in newly constructed structures to make the structures earthquake-resilient. Another good news is that the government launched an initiative under the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) to build an emergency force of 62,000 community volunteers across the country to carry out rescue operations immediately after a disaster like an earthquake. The government has also taken a step to procure equipment under the “Procurement of Equipment for Search and Rescue Operation and Other Disasters” to carry out the rescue operations immediately after disasters. It has already procured equipments worth Tk60 crore and handed them over to the concerned agencies. The collapse of Rana Plaza reminded us how fragile our buildings are.
Learning from Rana Plaza tragedy, we should take the following steps to prevent the repeat of similar tragedies or even bigger ones in scale during an earthquake. Bangladesh National Building Code should be properly implemented and proper authority to oversee the implementation. We should increase the capability of emergency response agencies in terms of skills and equipments as well as their structures. Disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures should be institutionalized in every government institution at every level, especially in the urban context.
However, when Rana Plaza collapsed Global apparel brands formed two initiatives that conducted mandatory, periodic inspections. While the initiatives – the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – were well-intentioned, they rely on audits and inspection as a way to enforce change. But while auditing is valuable, it is not sufficient, and it often addresses the problem when it may be too late to resolve, leaving the foreign brands with limited options, such as terminating the contract, where workers bear the burden through lost jobs. Bangladesh belatedly amended its 2006 Labour Act, which gave workers the right to form unions without seeking approval from their employers. The government’s decision to increase the minimum wage is also a good step, but there is a need for a complete cultural change. Reforms have been slow because many factory owners are politicians themselves.
Again, when the Rana Plaza fund was opened it was believed a big amount of money will be raised quickly. After all, many brands produced their products at Rana Plaza. Many could have paid the whole amount outright without facing so much as a blip in their profits. But this has not happened: to date, less than half the money needed has been donated. Benetton has not paid a penny to the compensation fund. Others, including Mango, Matalan, Walmart and its British subsidiary, Asda, have made payments so small that they are an insult to those families. On the other hand donations, offered mainly by global retailers, have overshadowed the issue of ensuring compensation to the surviving Rana Plaza workers and the families of their deceased colleagues. The issue was raised by Garment Sramik Shonghoti (BGSS) on last Saturday (18th April), which said that the money handed over to the workers and families of the dead workers by the Rana Plaza Donor Trust Fund came from both public and private sectors as donations and not as compensation that workers are legally entitled to. The organisation, citing the Rana Plaza Arrangement, said nowhere in the English version of the 'Rana Plaza Agreement Terms and Conditions of Donor Trust Fund' does it contain the word ‘compensation’. Instead, there is a mention of the words 'financial support'. There is also no mention of compensation in payment letters, sent by Rana Plaza Claim Administration to the victims. The letters of payment receipts contain the words grant, it said. “So, it is clear that the Rana Plaza victims are not getting any compensation,” said Taslima Akhter, coordinator of the BGSS while presenting a paper at a discussion at Dhaka Reporters Unity on last Saturday. Following the disaster, the $40 million-Rana Plaza Trust Fund was formed to provide financial support and medical care, as per the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention. However, not all the global retailers have paid the amount they had committed to the fund. Taslima Akhter said, 70 percent of the amount put into the fund so far has been handed over by the authorities to the survivors and families of dead workers. But, the victims are getting meager amounts of financial support. As a result, a division has emerged among the families of the victims. The BGSS also wanted to know what happened to the donations by different persons and organizations to the Prime Minister's fund after the disaster. Only Tk 19 crore has been disbursed so far, said Sultana Kamal, referring to the labour ministry's disclosure, at a programme arranged by Transparency International, Bangladesh commemorating the Rana Plaza incident last Tuesday. She also claimed that the government should publish a statistic to inform the world that who are the workers that were helped and how much they received. When asked one worker what compensation she thought she should receive, she replied: “It doesn’t matter what I think. Our opinions don’t matter – they will never pay us anyway.” The numerous projects that sprang up in response to the disaster have had little impact on this community. Wherever the money went, little of it made it to them. Some help has arrived, but it is so haphazard that no one knows where it came from, or why some people got it while others did not.
It has been two years since the nation heard the screams of those thousands of workers trapped under Rana Plaza. It was us, the common people of our nation, who got united and came forward to save those innocent people. Perhaps it is time for us once again to raise our voices for the rights of those unfortunates whom we dug out from the rubbles of Rana Plaza. And again, perhaps it is also our responsibility to make our authorities bound to take initiatives and actions, otherwise the whole world will think that there is no value of human life in Bangladesh!