DHAKA: Their factories are safer, but many Bangladeshis who sew clothes for major Western brands say they still endure poor wages and working conditions ten years after the Rana Plaza collapse.
Ripon Das makes 15,000 taka ($141) per month as a machine operator, just a few blocks from the scene of the calamity, one of the deadliest industrial tragedies in history. It is insufficient as his family’s main breadwinner.
“I choose to work overtime without holidays to supplement my scant wages,” said Ripon, 27, whose sister was forced to retire from her job at the same factory after becoming unwell since she was not eligible to paid sick leave.
While labor groups believe safety at the world’s second-largest textile exporter has improved significantly since the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, they claim progress on better pay and conditions — from sick pay to insurance coverage — has been far slower.
As yearly inflation nears 10% raises living costs, union officials representing the sector’s 4 million workers are calling for an increase in the sector’s minimum salary to 23,000 taka from the 8,000 taka fixed in 2018 and updated every five years.
“Previously, I could buy food for two to three days with 100 taka, but now I can’t afford the same items with even 500,” said Jolly Akter, 27, a union representative and garment quality inspector.
The government-led minimum wage board, which comprises factory owners and labor groups, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to Christie Miedema of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a global alliance of trade unions and non-governmental groups, global fashion brands that acquire goods from Bangladesh should back the employees’ pay requests.
She also urged them to support another crucial demand, insurance coverage for workers injured on the job, after the government launched a pilot program last year.
Miedema believes that brands should include the costs of the accident insurance program in the price of their garments, and that the pilot should become a permanent system incorporated in the country’s labor laws.
The former site of the eight-story Rana Plaza building is now an open meadow overgrown with luxuriant foliage. A modest cement sculpture with a clinched fist grasping a hammer and sickle honours the disaster’s victims.
Rajib Das, 27, who lost his brother in the building collapse on April 24, 2013, frequently visits the site.
“Sanjit, my closest sibling and only two years older than me, supported me because I was the only one in the family to pursue higher education,” he explained.
The family received a one-time compensation payout as part of an agreement struck between the government and companies that supplied from the collapsed factories, but Rajib stated that there was no long-term recovery program for survivors and victims’ families.
More than $30 million in compensation was awarded to victims, but the payments ended in 2015.
Many injured Rana Plaza survivors were left to fend for themselves due to a lack of effective social protection programmes in Bangladesh, according to Amirul Haque Amin, head of the National Garment Workers Federation, a trade union.
“Many of the survivors are struggling to find a decent livelihood,” he explained.
Around 2,500 workers were hurt, many of them critically, in the textile industry’s bloodiest known catastrophe.
According to labor groups and industry officials, the accident put pressure on worldwide companies to improve production conditions, and significant safety improvements have been made.
“The Rana Plaza collapse was a never-again moment for Bangladesh’s garment sector,” Amin of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Federation stated.
Around 200 fashion businesses, including household names like H&M and Zara, formed the Accord agreement on fire and building safety, which included government authorities, factory owners, and labor leaders.
According to labor activists, the legally binding Accord conducted thousands of inspections and prohibited dangerous firms from supplying its signature buyers, thereby helping to make 1,600 facilities safer for 2 million workers.