Bangladesh Tragedies’ Next Chapters: Charges Filed, Relief Fund Created

Four retailers and apparel brands, the government of Bangladesh and labor rights groups have signed an agreement to establish a $40 million compensation fund.

A $40 million compensation fund for victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy is being developed as the Bangladesh authorities have charged 13 people with culpable homicide in the Tazreen Fashions fire.

This story first appeared in the December 26, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Thirteen months after the blaze at Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia where 112 people were killed, a charge sheet by police officials submitted to a Dhaka judicial code on Sunday listed 13 employees of the company of culpable homicide under Section 304 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

“It is a sub judis matter and will now take its course,” Shahidullah Azim, vice president, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) told WWD. Soon after the incident, several investigation committees were instituted, including an 11-member investigation by BGMEA. The report last year noted that “the factory had no emergency exit and on top of that the ground floor was being used as a warehouse, which was full of inflammable cloths, yarns and garment accessories,” says the report. “Therefore the fire quickly spread from the warehouse to level one, two and three.” Azim said that the report had noted earlier that some of the management was liable and that a supervisor was behind bars on that account.

The charges preceded the news Monday that four retailers and apparel brands, the government of Bangladesh and labor rights groups have signed an agreement to establish a $40 million compensation fund for the victims’ families and injured workers of the Rana Plaza building collapse, which claimed the lives of 1,132 people in late April, according to an announcement late Monday night.

European firms El Corte Inglés, Le Bon Marché and Primark, and Canadian-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd., were the only four companies to sign the agreement. No U.S. retailers or apparel brands signed the agreement.

As part of the agreement, the parties will set up an international trust fund that will begin making payments in February to families of the dead as well as to injured workers from the Rana Plaza collapse. The families of those killed will receive on average more than $25,000, according to the labor rights groups. The payments will be made in installments to ensure that the families receive a steady source of income. Injured workers are set to receive cash compensation and ongoing medical care if necessary.

In addition to the four companies, the pact was signed by the government of Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the Bangladesh Employers Federation, IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, IndustriALL Global Union and the Clean Clothes Campaign, which coordinated with other international labor rights groups, including the Worker Rights Consortium, the International Labor Rights Forum and the Maquila Solidarity Network.

Labor groups estimated that another 25 companies had production in Rana Plaza at or near the time of the collapse but did not sign the compensation agreement. A coalition of labor groups has been pressing U.S. retailers and brands, as well as other European companies, to pay compensation to the Bangladesh victims and injured workers since September, but to date no other companies have agreed to contribute to a fund, they claimed.

Tuesday marked eight months since the Rana Plaza tragedy. The owners of the garment factories were arrested soon after, without being granted bail.

That the owner of Tazreen Fashion Ltd. had not yet been held liable had become an increasingly controversial in the circumstances.

Workers have been protesting for months, demanding the arrest of the owner and managing director of Tazreen Fashions Ltd. — Delwar Hossain — who was named in the charge sheet, along with his wife and Mahmuda Akter, chairman of the company, plus security guards, an engineer and the firm’s managers.

Hossain and his wife were charged for constructing the building on a faulty plan and illegally using the ground floor walkway for storage.

“Everyone is very pleased to see the course of law and the court taking action,” said Farah Kabir, country director, Bangladesh Action Aid. “It is reassuring to some extent that the courts and systems are working.”

The focus now is centered on the judicial system and the course of action is expected to become clearer on Tuesday when warrants for the arrest of the accused may be issued, along with a call for witnesses to testify in the case, according to legal experts, who explained that a charge sheet under Section 304 is considered a serious offense.

The charge sheet is being hailed by trade union leaders and workers as a sign of the changing times — as Altaf Mohammed, a worker at a garment factory in Ashulia pointed out. Many of the politicians also own garment factory owners and the other way around so an owner is never held responsible or indicted in any situation.

“It is a sign of change in the industry,” he said.

Although the progress in the case is being termed as “reactive,” raising questions about the fact that the situation should have occurred, the charge sheet made by the police is being marked as a step forward.

“It is a very difficult lesson to have learned, at a very heavy cost,” Kabir noted, pointing out that she did not want to undermine the progress and the fact that it has pushed the government, the buyers and the workers to come together to get the industry moving. “But the truth is that accidents like this should not have happened at all. A short circuit can take place, but there were no emergency exits. Even though a fire drill took place just a week before the accident there was a drill, but there was no firefighting equipment at the location,” she said.

Several workers said that the charge sheet was the first step in the process of healing — one deeper than the physical loss — but one that allowed a system in which the value of workers lives was not high enough. They said that it was time that the more than 3.8 million workers in the garment industry came to be recognized as more than simple numbers, but rather key to the fact that Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of ready-made garments in the world, after China, in an industry that is worth more than $22 billion.