World's worst garment disaster, one year on and little has changed

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It has been one year since a commercial building collapsed killing more than 1,100 garment workers and others on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza disaster was perhaps the worst in the garment industry’s history. More than 2,500 people were injured.

Little has changed since then, partly because it is in Bangladesh’s interest to keep the sector competitive.

The country has some 5,000 garment factories, employing four million people at very low wages. The industry represents 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export revenues. Ten percent of the world’s jeans are made there. Only China produces more. The general cost to produce a teeshirt is one to two euros, for a pair of trousers four to eight euros, and a shirt four to six.

Labour leader Roy Ramesh said the disaster last year embodied the high cost of low prices. He said buyers seeking a cheaper price have an impact on the lives of many thousands of workers: “They are talking too much in a big mouth but in the field they are not doing anything,” he said.

For a time, there were mass demonstrations for the government to act, especially to inspect buildings to evaluate fire and structural risks. The eight-storey Rana Plaza was planned for shops and offices, not factories. An official said the upper floors had been built without a permit.

In the past year, salaries have been raised to around 50 euros per month. Inspectors have ordered around 200 factories to close. Around 150 brand buyers have signed an agreement to respect safety rules. Around 11 million euros has been collected to compensate victims’ families, out of 29 million euros promised.

Exporter representative Shahiduallah Azim explained why many parties have taken minimal or no remedial steps: “The factories have to survive. Without orders they can’t pay workers’ salaries. That’s why we urge our customers and retailers not to take their business somewhere else, but to keep orders up so the workers and factory owners can survive.”

Among the companies that have agreed to help improve conditions only ten have put money towards financial compensation. Others refuse. Many deny they had anything under production in the Rana Plaza, even though their labels were found in the rubble.

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