After more than two weeks of talk, seminars and analysis in Dhaka, mourners, survivors, relatives, trade organizations and workers gathered Friday in memoriam, tears melting into the dusty site of the eight-story building that collapsed two years ago, and where a gaping space remains.
The sense of frustration, the memories of the 21-day rescue operation as the army dug through the rubble of cement and iron to recover bodies was vividly recreated by grieving relatives and hundreds of garment workers.
Others who were severely injured grieved for themselves, for a future lost. Orphaned children and inconsolable parents gathered at the site.
Calls for justice rang out, too.
As garment workers gathered, they shook their fists while shouting slogans, made human chains, and showed their solidarity for the family members clutching photographs of their loved ones.
Holding placards that said “I don’t want to DIE for fashion,” with others that called for specific companies such as Wal-Mart Inc. and Benetton Group to pay more and several placards calling for compensation, there was a sense of urgency and mission once again.
Union leaders called attention to the fact that despite the statistics – 1,135 workers died in the building collapse, and 2,500 are survivors – an estimated 166 people have not been identified yet.
Bangladesh Labor Secretary Mikail Shipar spoke about those missing workers at a press conference on Thursday, a day before the second anniversary of Rana Plaza. He said information had been gathered about 104 of the missing workers, and the Global Donors Trust Fund was working toward addressing this. Meanwhile, the results of DNA tests were being used to help with identification.
On Thursday, a prayer meeting by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association was another one of the many memorials across the city. They gathered in prayer at the Jurain graveyard, and separately at the BGMEA headquarters where the global community, including U.S. ambassador Marcia Bernicat, expressed their support and intention to help.
“The message today is that those of us who heard the cries from Rana Plaza on that tragic day two years ago are still listening,” Bernicat said.
“Consumers, student groups, workers, as well as brands and buyers are watching closely. Amazing things are happening in Bangladesh, and we hope this progress will continue. Today, let us recommit to ensuring that ready-made garment workers enjoy the rights and safety that they deserve,” she said.
While reiterating that the U.S. stood ready to partner with the government, workers and employers to show the world Bangladesh “can set new standards for workers’ rights, that no worker need to fear retaliation for speaking out about a cracked wall,” she called for more efforts to ensure fairness. “The world is looking to the government of Bangladesh to show its commitment to ensure that these women and men in the garment sector can enjoy one of the fundamental labor rights — the right to freedom of association — the right to decide to form a union or not, to elect union leaders, and to collectively bargain with an employer,” she said.
In an effort toward this direction, the Center of Excellence for Bangladesh Apparel Industries was inaugurated on Tuesday. Established with the help of the International Labour Organization, Hennes & Mauritz and the Swedish International Development Agency and driven by BGMEA, the center is expected to help steer the sector toward more consolidated growth rather than its haphazard mushrooming over the last two decades.
Garment union leaders from organizations such as the Garment Workers’ Trade Union Centre and the Garment Sromik Oikyo Forum said, along with such growth of the industry and compensation payments, those responsible for the Rana Plaza deaths must be punished.
“We are all grieving,” said an industry leader, who requested anonymity. “But today, we are still at the crossroads, trying to turn the blame game between workers, factory owners and trade unions leaders and global brands into a growth process. It isn’t easy. But we’re trying.”