DHAKA, Bangladesh — Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed Khan is a courageous man.
This story first appeared in the April 22, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
His fire service uniform is decorated with the medals and colors befitting his rank, but yet his eyes glisten as he recalls the horrific days of the rescue mission among the rubble of Rana Plaza, the eight-story garment manufacturing building here that collapsed just a little over a year ago, killing 1,133 people and stirring a global outcry that has put working conditions in the nation’s apparel industry permanently in the spotlight.
“We were this close,” Khan told WWD, using his hands to show the distance. “Shahina was struck under a beam and she was calling to us to save her. It appeared that we could pull her out. My team had the horrible task of having to save people by cutting [off] their arms or legs and we were prepared to do whatever it took. But we lost her.
“My men are tough; it is their job to rescue people but at that point they broke down and cried. ‘We could not save her’ some of them sobbed over it. ‘She was calling to us and we could not save her.’ It was my job to remind them that they had to get back to work,” Khan said.
His emotion is overpowering, even a year later.
Khan told his team what has been a recurring motif in the country’s garment industry since then: “You cannot give up hope. You have to keep fighting for every little thing that you can save.”
That ode to hope brought in some extraordinary results: as Khan’s team continued to pull out bodies of the dead 18 days after the building collapsed and there was no longer hope of finding workers alive, they spotted Reshma. The 19-year-old worker had managed to stay alive. It was almost an impossible feat.
Another round of frantic rescue began. This time their efforts defied the weakness of the equipment that they worked with, with a team of volunteers who sometimes used their bare hands. As Reshma was hoisted onto a stretcher, weak but breathing, the firemen and rescue workers began their celebration.
If death has a message, they told each other, it would be that great tragedy can foster compassion, foresight, and, in some cases, incredible opportunity.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dhaka.
As a week of prayer and remembrance begins here, another way of marking the one-year anniversary of Rana Plaza is the numerous multistakeholder dialogues that have been happening. It has been almost a year of intense, and sometimes vicious, dialogue in which “multistakeholders” has become a word integral to the garment industry, one that is meant to include employers, workers, government, nongovernmental organizations and international bodies such as the International Labor Organization.
In some cases action has preceded dialogue — as in the calls for the shutdown of factories and violent attacks on factories in Ashulia and Savar as workers called for higher wages, improved safety and the indictment of the owner of Rana Plaza.
At other times, action has followed dialogue, as in the case of the brands and retailers coming together to form the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Governments, too, have stepped up pressure on Bangladesh to improve working conditions.
Obama administration officials, in a conference call press briefing Monday, said they continue to engage the government of Bangladesh in two main areas — improving fire and safety conditions in its factories and labor-law reform — and that high-level meetings were set to take place in Dhaka next week to discuss the progress and shortfallings.
U.S. officials said significant progress has been made in both areas, but more needed to be done. They noted that several organizations have been conducting inspections of Bangladesh garment factories, with many still to be completed, and that the administration was following that process closely. In addition, while some labor-law reform has been enacted, “there is still a lot that needs to be done” in the areas of “giving workers a voice and collective bargaining.” This is especially true in the country’s export processing zones, where labor laws differ and reforms are behind the country’s efforts to improve workers’ rights in mainstream factories, and will be a key point of discussion at next week’s meetings.
They noted that the U.S. revoked Bangladesh’s preferred trade status under the general system of preferences in July and did not renew it in January because officials did not feel enough progress had been made. The next review will be conducted in May and June and a decision to renew or not would come then. However, they also noted that renewal of the GSP program itself is still pending in Congress, so a decision could be impacted if Congress does not act before then.
On Sunday, at the BRAC auditorium, a multistakeholder dialogue titled “Remembering the Toiling Workers of Rana Plaza” brought together the heads of different organizations, workers and employers, and compensation fund and trade union leaders. At the meeting, it appeared there was a real will to listen to each others’ points of view and to make note of how they could help each other.
“Has anything changed after Rana Plaza?” asked Srinivas B. Reddy, Bangladesh country director for the ILO. “Each of us is trying to reflect how the four million workers can have better and safer work conditions.”
The question in Dhaka is whether, after the colossal upheaval the industry has gone through over the last 12 months and unprecedented fear on all sides, the country has collectively passed through the worst and is making its first steps on the other side.
Export figures that came in last week appear to show it has. Figures for the nine months to March showed total exports of $22.24 billion, with $18.05 billion of that garment exports. Knitwear exports totaled $8.83 billion, up 16.4 percent, while woven shipments rose 14 percent to $9.22 billion.
This week, another important visitor who helped bring the multistakeholders together, Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, the ILO’s deputy director general for field operations and partnerships, is expected in Dhaka. Last May, as the country and the world watched in shock while bodies were being pulled out of the debris of Rana Plaza, Houngbo visited Dhaka to express solidarity and engage with officials from government, labor and industry to help identify the immediate next steps to be taken. These included a labor-law reform package, which was subsequently introduced in parliament.
On Sunday, Action Aid Bangladesh brought out the results of a survey that took stock of data on survivors of the tragedy, which noted that even a year later, 73.7 percent of the 1,436 respondents had not returned to work. The reasons cited included physical ailment, trauma and employers’ unwillingness to hire them.
The report also brought up the issue that is foremost on the agenda in Dhaka this week: compensation and the difference between charity and compensation. The 222.10 million taka, or $2.9 million at current exchange, that has been distributed from the prime minister’s emergency fund is being dismissed as charity, while the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has spent the equivalent of $1.85 million in treatment expenses, salary and other allowances. International brands have paid $17 million, compared with the extrapolated requirement of $40 million called for by Thursday, toward which Primark has made a key contribution, giving short-term support of nearly nine months’ salary to all 3,639 victims of Rana Plaza: 45,000 taka, or $580, each. The British retailer will also make long-term payment to the 580 workers of the New Wave Bottoms factory in the building that used to supply it.
Thursday’s deadline for the $40 million payment is now the main concern, as is the frenetic activity at the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee in Savar. Since it was set up Sept. 13, the committee has been working toward finding a final solution to the losses and needs of the victims of Rana Plaza.
“This is the first time that money is being divided among family members, with accounts opened for each member of the family,” Dr. Mojtaba Kazazi, executive commissioner of the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee, told WWD.
The BGMEA this week is organizing initiatives to detail the changes within the industry — including factory inspections; higher wages that were agreed upon in October and implemented from Dec. 1, and a change of law in June that allowed the formation of trade unions by workers. The BGMEA building will be draped in black and a prayer meeting at factories across Bangladesh at 12.01 p.m. Thursday will commemorate the dead and the injured.
Perhaps the biggest change over the last year has been the unification of brands and retailers from around the world — the accord from Europe and the alliance from the U.S. — to invest in improving working conditions in the Bangladesh industry, a binding agreement in the case of the accord and a nonbinding one by the alliance.
“All I can say is that the accord is an unprecedented initiative on an enormous scale in a fairly short period of time — the accord was signed in May 2013, the interim team issued their report in July,” said Rob Wayss, executive director of Bangladesh operations for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. “There was a lot of governance and structural issues that took place over the summer and fall and it has very quickly got on the ground and in operation.”
The accord, with its 160 members, and the alliance with its 26 members, have both set up offices and teams in Dhaka in the past months and there is a flurry of activity of inspectors and changing ways of doing things — as well as heartache among Bangladesh apparel firms about how they will meet the costs of all the changes.
After the Jan. 5 election, the political situation has stabilized somewhat, giving employers relief and one less thing to be up against. “We’re sandwiched between the different elements,” said Fazlul Hoque, former president of the Bangladesh Employers Federation. “The workers want us to do things differently, as do the brands and the government. Meanwhile, we are faced with rising costs, higher wages, and the prospect of our factories being shut down on charges of imperfect conditions.”
As the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy nears, there are a host of reminders of the lost lives, but also of some lessons learned.
Although doubts have since been cast about the authenticity of Reshma’s story, the lone survivor 17 days later, the hope finding her gave the fire teams remains indicative of the industry’s attitude. At the site of Rana Plaza, which stands vacant in Savar, Abdul Kuddus started a tea shop to cater to the many media people and protesters who arrive. Families still throng outside the corrugated tin wall and the barbed wire designed to keep people out. They stand despite the burning sun, clutching passport-size photos of sisters, daughters and mothers who lost their lives in the disaster.
What makes them stand on at this place?
“Just the hope that they may return, an association with the last place that she stepped upon,” said Rahima Begum as she talked about her daughter, Reena Akhtar.
Not far, within the small byways of Savar, other survivors try to remake their lives, besieged as they are by journalists who visit several times a day.
Impervious to all of this, 17-month-old Rihan plays with every object that comes his way, drawn equally by the glitter of a mobile phone and the stones around his house. Both his parents died at Rana Plaza — the body of 25-year-old Rehana Begum, his mother, was found the day the building collapsed, and that of his father, Mansur Sheikh, 30, was pulled out nine days later.
Held dear by his grandparents, who pore over old photographs of his parents, and by his aunts, Rihan, with his bright eyes and mischievous smile, appears symbolic: Despite the loss of his entire world, he looks brightly out into the future.