As the death toll mounted from the building collapse at Rana Plaza in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh, the outcry locally and around the world got louder on Thursday.
This story first appeared in the April 26, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
With the city and the apparel industry in turmoil, efforts continued to rescue victims trapped under debris at the eight-story building that housed several garment factories.
The number of deaths reached 230, according to estimates from officials of the fire department in Savar, leaving hundreds injured. According to police officials, the owner of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, is being held liable in a case filed at the police station in Savar. The building housed five garment factories, a branch of Brac Bank and a shopping complex.
The five factories included Ether Tex, New Wave Bottoms, New Wave Style, Phantom Apparels and Phantom Tac, with New Wave Style being the biggest, with more than 1,000 employees. All the companies catered to export production.
The situation on Thursday was an eerie reminder of the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka in November when 112 people were killed — violence incited by mobs protesting working conditions, angry speeches by labor leaders demanding the arrest of the factory owners and placating announcements of money for the families of the dead.
“We’ve all been through this so recently,” said garment worker Mariam Sheikh, who works in Savar and had friends in the building. “And we’re still fighting for survival. Is basic safety too much to ask?”
Union leaders gave speeches, including one by Mahbubur Rahman Ismail, president of the Bangladesh Textile Garment Workers’ Federation, in which he said that keeping costs low comes at a high human cost. “Fatal health and safety faults remain,” Ismail said. “Faulty electrical circuits, inadequate escape routes and unsafe equipment are some of the major causes of deaths and injuries in accidents.”
The latest tragedy is leading to demands for greater action. Although none of this is new, passions have been heightened by the deaths, with growing demands that factory owners confront and tackle compliance issues. There were mourning processions and separate rallies by union leaders across the city. Mantu Ghosh, president of the Garments Workers’ Trade Union Center, called for the arrest of the owner of the building, a sentiment echoed by Abul Hasan Rubel, acting chief coordinator of the Ganasanghati Andolan. Although compensation is one of the demands, many labor leaders said that it is hardly ever done to the right extent and often takes too long to process.
Compensation was one of the demands the government responded to immediately, revealing a donation of 5 million takas, or $70,500 at current exchange, to victims; 20,000 takas, or $250, to the families of the dead, and 5,000 takas, or $65, to the injured, officials of the labor union said.
An official of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association told WWD that although the agency is working to improve the situation of the garment workers, it also faced the wrath of the mobs as textile workers pelted their office with stones on Thursday. All five of the companies located in Rana Plaza were members of the BGMEA.
BGMEA also held a press conference on Wednesday in which it unveiled the formation of three committees to oversee rehabilitation, compensation and proper treatment of the injured. Other action items included the opening of two centers, one at the BGMEA offices and another at Savar, to collect information on the workers at the factories affected, and three blood collection units.
Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, Bangladesh home minister, said a five-member committee had been formed to investigate the situation and submit its report within seven working days. The report, which will probe the cause of the collapse and check on the number of casualties, will include a police official and be headed by an additional secretary of the home ministry.
Labels found at the location included those from Joe Fresh, the Canadian company owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd. A Joe Fresh spokeswoman said, “We remain persistent in our effort to reach our vendor in Bangladesh to understand what caused this tragedy and to determine precisely how best to help the employees and their families. We are committed to supporting local authorities in the rescue and care of affected families.”
She said parent company Loblaw “has robust vendor standards designed to ensure that products are manufactured in a socially responsible way, and ensuring a safe and sustainable work environment.
“We engage international auditing firms to inspect against these standards,” she said. “We will not work with vendors who do not meet our standards. Our audits align with those of industry around the world, however in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh, we recognize that these measures do not address the issue of building construction or integrity. Loblaw is committed to finding solutions to this situation by expanding the scope of our requirements to ensure the physical safety of workers producing our products.”
International organizations have been demanding that other companies whose labels were found at the location, including Primark, Matalan and Mango, be held accountable as well.
The British mass-market clothing chain Primark confirmed that one of its suppliers used the second floor of the Bangladesh factory. “The company is shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident at Savar, near Dhaka, and expresses its condolences to all of those involved,” a Primark spokesman said. “Primark has been engaged for several years with NGOs and other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry’s approach to factory standards. Primark will push for this review to also include building integrity,” adding that the retailer’s ethical trade team is “working to collect information, assess which communities the workers come from and to provide support where possible.”
The Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights said the workers want the factory owner — described in news reports as a local politician — to be imprisoned or they will go on general strike.
Delwar Hossain, the owner of the Tazreen factory that burned to the ground killing 112 workers in November, is still walking free, it noted, and the government has not brought charges against him. The workers say they will not allow Rana to go uncharged, said the institute, which is run by longtime labor rights activist Charles Kernaghan.
The institute noted that the workers in the factories toil from 8 a.m. to as late as 10:30 p.m., often seven days a week. The workers are paid what the institute described as “starvation wages — 12 cents an hour for helpers, 22 cents for junior sewing operators and just 26 cents an hour for even the most senior sewing operators.” About 80 percent of the workers are young women 18, 19 and 20 years of age.
The Bangladeshi garment workers also want the U.S. government to deny Generalized System of Preferences trade benefits to Bangladesh until the Bangladeshi workers finally have the right to organize independent unions. The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office is currently reviewing Bangladesh’s GSP status to determine if it should be renewed or revoked.
The institute said, “One-hundred percent of the workers want a union. But the owners and Bangladeshi government have refused to allow it. Rather than support the workers, the owners hire thugs to beat the workers, firing and blacklisting any worker who speaks up.”
Reps. Joe Crowley (D., N.Y.) and Sander Levin (D., Mich.), members of the House Ways and Means Committee, who were part of a group of House lawmakers that have pressed USTR to complete its review of Bangladesh’s compliance with labor eligibility requirements under the GSP, said in a joint statement, “This tragedy mandates the need to immediately do more to address safety conditions in Bangladesh’s garment sector in a way that helps Bangladeshi workers and respects their rights. We urge that anyone responsible for these deaths be prosecuted to fullest extent of the law.”
Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Education & the Workforce Committee, called on Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which was also said to subcontract at the facility, to commit to improving conditions.
“The recent actions taken by the company on a voluntary basis are not working to alleviate the deadly negligence that continues to cause so much human loss and suffering,” wrote Miller, referring to Wal-Mart’s recent letter to its suppliers for improved factory health and safety initiatives, including a “zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized subcontracting.”
A Wal-Mart spokesman said, “We are saddened by this tragic event. Our investigation has confirmed Wal-Mart had no authorized production in this facility. If we learn of any unauthorized production, we will take appropriate action based upon our zero-tolerance policy on unauthorized subcontracting. We remain committed to promoting stronger safety measures in factories and that work continues.”
In his letter, Miller wrote, “What is needed are the binding commitments that are included in [the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety] Agreement. As one of the nation’s wealthiest and largest employers, Wal-Mart has a unique role and responsibility to do the right thing and set the best standard not just here in America, but in the rest of the world. The situation in Bangladesh remains unacceptable for any employer much less our nation’s largest.”
Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said, “We need the brands to make significant changes in how they monitor their suppliers and to make a meaningful commitment to worker safety.” Gearhart said the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, a binding agreement that has been endorsed by two global brands, would create rigorous inspections, transparency and oversight and ensure that workers and their organizations are an integral part of the solution.
The Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production organization said, “As Bangladesh’s garment industry has grown into one of the largest in the world, so too have the challenges of establishing ethical working standards there. It is of the utmost importance to us to ensure that all WRAP-certified facilities maintain socially compliant practices on an ongoing basis so that responsible and safe manufacturing is interwoven into their daily operations.”
WRAP said none of the five factories located in the Rana Plaza building were currently certified by the organization. One of them, New Wave Style Ltd., had been certified in the past. Their first certificate expired in 2007, after which they did not renew until 2011. An unannounced follow-up audit conducted at the facility by a WRAP auditor in March 2012 revealed that the facility was failing to maintain compliant practices in accordance with WRAP’s “12 Principles.” The factory failed to appropriately address these issues, and their certification expired in October and was not renewed.
“WRAP remains dedicated to promoting socially responsible manufacturing around the world and will continue to devote significant resources to this goal in Bangladesh,” it said. “While we see progress being made in this arena, this tragedy at Rana Plaza serves as a stark reminder of the immense work that still needs to be done. As major stakeholders in the global garment industry, we will continue to be a responsive and effective supply chain management partner that helps factories maintain safe, responsible and ethical working environments.”