An open wound: In front of the Rana Plaza site, Abdur Rahman holds a photo of his wife, Cahyna Akhter, who was killed there. (Photographs by Andrew Biraj/Reuters)
A foreign visitor is never left alone to contemplate the ruins of Rana Plaza. On a searing hot August morning, sorrowful people gathered with fistfuls of documents and pictures, jostling for my attention. They were desperate for some acknowledgment of the daughter, son, wife or husband they had lost when the eight-story factory building pancaked on April 24, crushing more than 1,100 people—most of them garment workers filling orders for Western brands. As the crowd swelled around me, faint pleas became full-throated demands, and I soon found myself backed against the barbed wire fence that fronts the disaster site, now a pool of dark water. My only way out was to write down the name and phone number of each and every person, with a vague assurance that something would be done.
One woman, Rashida Begum, kept her distance. She wore a bright-orange sari and clutched a laminated picture against her chest. “My daughter,” she said when I approached. Her name was Nasima; she was 16 years old and had earned $110 a month sewing pants for New Wave Bottoms. The day before the accident, Nasima and her fellow workers had been sent home early when huge cracks were spotted in the walls. Her mother said Nasima was so scared that she couldn’t eat, but as the family breadwinner, she had little choice but to return to work when her bosses ordered her back. She didn’t want to lose her job.
Now in dire need of financial help, Rashida returns to the site with the hope that someone may be there to offer answers. Some days, she rides a bus to Dhaka from her home in Savar to join the protesters rallying for compensation in front of the downtown headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Exporters Association (BGMEA), the powerful trade body that represents the $20 billion-a-year industry. A black banner out front reads: We Will Not Forget You. But Rashida has little chance of being compensated. Because Nasima’s body wasn’t recovered intact, she lacks proof that her daughter was among the dead. So she goes home empty-handed.
I would run into Rashida several times in the next few weeks, always wearing the same ragged clothes and vacant look, her daughter’s picture facing outward. Her presence came to symbolize for me the failure of authorities and foreign companies to adequately address the single deadliest event in the history of the garment industry. Five months on, sweeping promises about improving factory safety and cracking down on illegal subcontracting remain hamstrung by scant resources and a near-total lack of coordination among parties. Victims’ compensation ranges from inconsistent to nonexistent. According to the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, none of the 4,000 families affected by the tragedy have received the full payments promised by the government or the BGMEA. Although several dozen amputees have, amid great fanfare, received payouts from an ad hoc relief fund administered by the prime minister, the money has all but dried up.
Although they’ve been promised more, families of the confirmed dead have received settlements of just $1,250 so far from the government relief fund, a paltry sum for human life “even by [Bangladesh’s] low standards,” says Sara Hossain, a lawyer working on behalf of victims. Families could potentially get more via a special tribunal if the government would convene one. But the influence of the garment industry is too great.
Abroad, the apathy shown by big-box retailers is equally breathtaking. Of twenty-nine companies summoned to Geneva in September for a weekend conference aimed at attaining a compensation deal for the Rana Plaza disaster—as well as for victims of a fire last November in the Tazreen Fashions factory, which killed some 117 people—only nine came. Among those who did not attend were Walmart and Sears, both of which were later discovered to be sourcing from the Tazreen factory. (Walmart, one of the largest buyers from Bangladesh, has refused to pay victims and their families on the grounds that its orders were being subcontracted without its knowledge.) Disney was linked to the tragedy but insisted it was done so in error. Only one company that used a Rana Plaza supplier, the Irish budget-fashion chain Primark, agreed to provide aid over six months.