Two years later, more than 1,100 dead, and millions of dollars in unpaid compensation. Amid the social toll of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh, activists can now count a modest victory in the victims’ struggle for justice. The government this week announced 42 criminal prosecutions against clothing factory owners and officials, including the leading businessperson behind the giant compound, Sohel Rana. They are charged with causing workers’ deaths through neglect and the regulatory failure to act on evidence of severe building hazards. But taking stock of the lingering aftermath of the country’s worst industrial atrocity, activists now demand a different form of accountability—from both industry and the state.
“It’s outrageous that it took more than two years for these charges to be filed, particularly given the number of people who were killed and the clear evidence pointing to the fact that the death toll could have been prevented and that the collapse wasn’t simply an accident,” says Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter in an e-mail to The Nation.
The charges coincide with two lawsuits filed in the United States and Canada against fashion brands implicated in the factory collapse—raising the possibility that the ongoing compensation efforts could be boosted by civil litigation.
Yet, whoever pays the financial cost, the industry still gets away with murder every day.
Despite international outrage, global efforts to fix the labor crisis in garment factories have been hobbled by corporate and official impunity, according to the International Labor Rights Forum’s field report from Bangladesh. Victims’ families still struggle to meet basic needs despite the millions that multinational companies have donated into a still-underfunded compensation trust.
The analysis reveals ongoing systemic problems in the industry’s low-cost export production chain, with thousands of factories paying millions of impoverished workers—mostly women—pennies an hour.
Life is still cheap in the industry. According to ILRF’s research, “The amounts of money given to workers who lost an arm or a leg or a family members was often $1000 or less.… For a garment worker who survived on sewing or perhaps an entire family that depended on that income, getting $1000 is wholly inadequate when the worker has lost his or her ability to earn a living.” (Even before the disaster, many victims were so desperately poor, they apparently returned to work at a compound clearly on the verge of collapse.)
The government, advocates say, is also failing to provide survivors with sorely needed rehabilitation and retraining.
Meanwhile, the ILRF has criticized the compensation scheme as inadequate to address “the long-term healthcare and post-traumatic stress counseling they need”; some six in ten victims require ongoing medical care and many be unable to work due to injuries. Others are still reeling from the psychological trauma, which is aggravated by the stresses of the opaque bureaucracy surrounding the claims process.
It’s not just the fund that lacks accountability. The report identifies shortcomings of the Bangladesh Accord, the landmark factory-safety agenda agreed to in 2013 by more than 200 apparel companies and brands from Europe, North America, Asia, Australia, and several unions. It established a five-year plan to inspect hundreds of factories—and has over two years managed to identify more than 50,000 safety hazards and develop hundreds of costly renovation plans. (Most of the planned fixes are not yet completed, however.) It has also engaged unions in the safety-monitoring process, while enabling workers to formally refuse to work under dangerous conditions. Still, many workers at non-Accord factories remain shut out of these protections (including those at suppliers for companies participating in a weaker voluntary, alternative safety plan founded by Walmart and other big retailers, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety).
Although Bangladeshi officials bowed to public pressure by raising garment-industry minimum wages and facilitating the creation of more unions, workers continue to face systematic violence. “Very few of those unions…have been able to exercise their right to bargain collectively and several of their leaders have been brutally beaten,” the ILRF reports. In a meeting with the heads of new union locals, “nearly all named harassment of organizers as their top concern at work.” The seeming pattern of officially sanctioned brutality against activists dims the prospects for building a sustainable indigenous labor movement.
“While parties responsible for the disaster are finally facing charges, it’s important to not forget about the ongoing plight of the victims,” states ILRF’s Director of Organizing Liana Foxvog. Her organization points to the need not only for more contributions by international companies into the compensation fund, but also for an extension of the program’s five-year timeline in order to ensure the implementation of a worker-led “democratically-elected health and safety committee” in all the remediated factories. There’s concern that nascent reform efforts may stagnate amid political inertia, coupled with fading media scrutiny and lagging international awareness of conditions in Asia’s factories.
So as Bangladesh moves toward prosecuting those involved in the sector’s abuses, the impunity apparently extends beyond the symbolic culprits—it bleeds through the official hierarchy and the industrial model that’s been manufacturing disaster since the country’s neoliberal modernization exploded in the early 1980s.
Chaumtoli Huq, an attorney researching labor issues in Bangladesh, says the prosecutions should be viewed in the context of the government’s other political troubles, including the migrant labor crisis that has left many impoverished Bangladeshis stranded at sea attempting to flee to Malaysia.
In Huq’s view, “The Government of Bangladesh’s labor record is abysmal…. In both migrant sector and garments, workers are vulnerable to abuse, and I think the timing of the action by Government now probably relates to a need to show some action. The current government has appealed to the public on the grounds that it has improved economic conditions for the average working class citizen, but what is being consistently shown is that the government is not protecting workers from precarious employment.”
Putting factory owners behind bars may sate the public’s appetite to avenge the Rana Plaza deaths. But as more than 4 million people return to their buzzing factories tomorrow morning, it will be all too clear to the workers that the real culprits are not only deftly avoiding paying for their misdeeds; they’re actually still making a killing.