Farah Kabir is the country director, Bangladesh, of Action Aid, one of the many international non-governmental agencies that have been looking at the situation of the nation’s garment workers from both the ground level and the macro perspective. A study done by the organization six months after the Rana Plaza disaster last April outlined some of the key points faced by industry workers and gave a human sense of the aftermath. Kabir spoke to WWD about some of the key issues.
WWD: Looking back, would you say that the garment industry in Bangladesh has seen both extreme tragedy and intense change?
Farah Kabir: I wish I could say that there have been amazing changes, but it has been a very mixed bag. As you follow the story of the fires, of the collapse of the building of Rana Plaza and the deaths of so many workers, the story of 2013 has been full of tension. After the Rana Plaza incident as well, it has been how survivors are rehabilitated, how the injured have come back to work and how many of the families of the dead have not been compensated — these are issues that continue to haunt the survivors.
We are very pleased to see contributions that have been made by the national manufacturers fund that have supported 18 workers and have contributed towards their treatment; the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has provided support to a larger number of workers by allocating 45 million taka [about $562,000], which includes medical expenses. However, this is far below the expected compensation as per trade union needs. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of haggling over the issue of how much money has to be given to the workers as adequate compensation. The responses from the government and other agencies have been very slow in terms of funds and monetary compensation and the response has been quite ad hoc and I would say it’s more a form of tokenism.
WWD: Yet are the other changes — in terms of legislation and the wage board — more than tokenism?
F.K.: Yes, the wage board has been a step forward; in 2010 the minimum wage had increased to $38 and in 2013 it went up to $70 depending on the conversion rate. The argument that many manufacturers have made for not raising above this amount is that the workers make so much extra in overtime and that employers provide lunch, etc. But if we look at it in terms of inflation and the cost of living, it is still not possible to maintain a decent living. A dozen eggs cost 100 taka today; the cost of rice, oil, vegetables and gas really adds up and so many of the workers support a family of five or seven — not just their spouse and kids but their parents and brothers or sisters. So it’s very disturbing.
WWD: Employers have said that as workers continue to agitate for their demands, they pay a heavy price for this as well.
F.K.: The employers have said that a lot of the unrest has been caused by jobless workers. We would question as to how much of this unrest is caused by actual workers and how much is part of the political unrest and it is opined that there are many actors other than the workers themselves. But overall, if outside elements are causing the damage to the industry, it would be really sad.
WWD: How much of compensation has actually been paid to the affected workers from Tazreen and Rana Plaza?
F.K.: The Supreme Court has been revising the figures and the amount proposed was finally settled at 1.8 million taka [for each person killed, or $23,400 at current exchange] and 700,000 taka [$9,100] for the injured. Twenty families were compensated for the Tazreen incident. There has been other financial support as well. Primark paid 150 pounds [$247.50] each, which is equivalent to three months’ gross salary at the rate of 5,000 taka. Based on that, Loblaw said they will follow the Primark model. Moreover, they have given $1 million for the Center for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed. So there has been some compensation.
But is it enough? That is the main question. There are also a lot of other issues that have to be dealt with. Some of the workers have suffered emotionally and while there is work going on for their rehabilitation, some workers don’t want to go back to work in the garment industry. The trauma has also extended beyond the immediate survivors. There has been some panic and fear among other workers about going into factories. So certain measures need to be taken so as to rehabilitate them. All of this becomes part of the compensation.
WWD: Do you feel that some lessons have been learned, despite the terrible cost?
F.K.: There has been a huge amount of awareness in the industry — not only because it was in the news but in terms of the important agenda for the industry. The government has taken some action and worked in consultation with many different elements; there has been the tripartite committee with the Accord and the Alliance, with companies like Wal-Mart, Loblaw, etc., and there have been many conceptual agreements and sharing of thoughts. But on the ground level, the workers continue to work at low wages and prove to be vulnerable to their environment and their aspiration for association/trade union remains largely unfulfilled.
WWD: What have been some of the major changes at the ground level in the apparel industry?
F.K.: Well, the work environment may be more enabling for workers in some ways — the political situation aside — and the manufacturers may be more supportive with a better wage structure, but the changes at the ground level have been so slow that there is a lot of anger at the ground level. Some of the workers are feeling more empowered, but overall there is a lot of sense of insecurity because they have suffered.
WWD: The study done by Action Aid at the six-month mark after the Rana Plaza collapse listed many more action items that need to be addressed.
F.K.: Yes, long-term goals are being taken into account, but you also have to look at more short-term and immediate measures. The garment workers’ community is no different from any other community, so there has also been a fair amount of corruption that delays the process of compensation. For example, there are false claims of dead bodies, a husband reappears when there was none, claiming compensation, and it takes time to sort these things out. But on the other hand, our study found that many of the affected workers and their families were quickly slipping into a debt situation. People are suffering and are not necessarily going to be able to keep up the fight for a long time.
Overall, though, the fact is that the garment sector has been there for so long it has to sustain and be improved and we hope that there will be a resolution to find the best way forward.