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.)