DHAKA, Bangladesh — If compassion could build a nation, and sometimes it can, Bangladesh is an edifice of renovation.
This story first appeared in the April 25, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The compassion started early Thursday, a day of mourning and commemoration here a year after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building killed 1,135 people. As early as 7 a.m., wreaths had begun to collect outside the site, with survivors and garment worker associations such as OSK Garments and the Textile Workers Federation starting their day with this gesture of solidarity.
Rallies in different parts of the city displayed solidarity as well as strength. Carrying a huge black sign, manufacturers and garment-factory owners and several brand representatives marched together despite the blazing heat of a day that the weather department said was the hottest in a number of years. There were calls by union presidents and spokespeople for the workers to compensate survivors and the families of the dead; justice for the irretrievable losses, and death sentences for the owners of the building and the five factories that were housed in it.
In another part of the city, tears rolled down several cheeks as a packed auditorium heard the stories of orphan children at an event organized by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. When they got together to sing “We shall overcome” in English and Bengali, it was a magic thread uniting those in the hall.
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Throughout Dhaka, there were one-minute pockets of silence as people bowed their heads and remembered the victims. The horror of the deaths and the recovery of dead bodies over a period of several weeks was relived many times with the tales of survivors, but also brought visually alive with a three-day photo exhibition “Aftermath: Rana Plaza.”
The edifice of renovation was apparent, too: following days of roundtables and discussions, a session at the Rupashi Bangla on Thursday afternoon organized by the International Labor Organization and the Ministry for Labor brought together 15 speakers representing different parts of the debate over worker safety.
The speakers included Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, the ILO’s deputy director general, who was in Dhaka with an ILO delegation; Bangladesh Labor Secretary Mikail Shipar; U.S. Ambassador Dan Mozena; European Union Ambassador to Bangladesh William Hanna; British High Commissioner Robert Gibson; Dutch Ambassador Gerben Sjoerd de Jong; Canadian High Commissioner Heather Cruden; ILO Country Director Srinivas B Reddy; BGMEA President M. Atiqul Islam; Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association first vice president M. Hatem; Bangladesh Employers’ Federation President Tapan Chowdhury; IndustriALL Bangladesh Secretary General Roy Ramesh Chandra, and M. Zafrul Hasan, chairman of National Coordination Committee for Workers Education.
While the overall sense was one of praise that much had been done, there were concerns. These included the protection of workers’ rights under Bangladesh’s labor law and its special Export Processing Zone law, intimidation of workers who are beginning to use the freedom of association, the slow rate of hiring inspectors and the transparent databases about the inspections.
Theories of conspiracy were aired, too, especially earlier in the day when Tofail Ahmed, commerce minister, spoke after the rally of employers and factory owners. Ahmed explained that being the world’s second-largest ready-made garment exporters made the nation a target of envy. “But we aim to become the first,” he said with a rousing talk, explaining that the garment sector was expected to be valued at $30 billion by next year and $50 billion in another seven years.
Meanwhile, responding to the calls for justice, to which charge sheets were expected to be released Thursday, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, home minister, said the delays in presenting the charge sheets was to ensure that the investigation was thorough. Four charge sheets are expected to be made for the Rana Plaza case, of which two were made earlier.
Canadian member of parliament Matthew Kellway said, “One of the problems was not just structural, but since workers were threatened and had to go [back in] we’re obviously very concerned about the area of workers’ rights.”
Michael T. Bride, deputy organizing director for Global Strategies, based in Washington, D.C., observed that it was hard to “get a sense of satisfaction when progress has been made on the deaths of 1,100 workers. But, yes, progress has been made. We’ve met with trade unions and workers’ rights organizations, spoken with them, and there has been intimidation and harassment at the workplace as they try to form unions. We were particularly encouraged when we met the minister for commerce, who told us he brought in 19 garment workers and he called the owners and said they could not intimidate workers. There has been progress, but there is a gap.”
As Shipar pointed out, the Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006 had been amended to ensure workers’ welfare, rights and safety and promoting trade unionism and collective bargaining. He said in the last year, 140 unions had been registered in the ready-made garment sector and that the ILO had started a training program for the office bearers of the newly formed unions.
Houngbo, whom many of the speakers described as a “friend of Bangladesh” for his timely arrival and negotiation last year, said training for the new factory unions is essential so that a better future for the garment industry could be built on dialogue.
In conclusion, Houngbo pointed out a key fact that emerged throughout the day: “Much has been done. Now the factory inspections must be completed, compensation claims processed and the labor law implemented in full.”