Dhaka, Bangladesh – In April 2013, more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh were killed when the factory they were working in collapsed.
One year after the deadliest garment factory accident in history, most survivors and family members of those killed face serious economic hardship, according to a survey published this week.
ActionAid, an international non-government organisation, interviewed 1,436 survivors and 786 family members of deceased workers, and found that two-thirds of respondents face significant difficulties buying food, paying rent and making loan payments.
Almost three in four Rana Plaza survivors have not been able to work due to physical ailments and trauma. Seventy-six percent of them continue to visit doctors for follow-up treatment, and nine percent said their physical condition continues to deteriorate. Four percent of the respondents are not able to meet their daily needs, the report found, and others have been driven into debt.
Thirty-two-year-old Mohammad Milon was one of those working at Rana Plaza when the structurally unsound building collapsed. He injured his back and spine in the accident, and now cannot walk for more than 10 minutes. As a result, his wife Ambia Begum has become the sole breadwinner for the family, which includes a 13-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.
Begum, herself an operator at an apparel factory for the past 15 years, earns a fixed monthly salary of 6,200 takas ($80), in addition to as much as 4,000 takas ($52) in overtime pay. She said this sum is not enough for her family, which lives in a tin-shed room in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka.
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“Without my wife’s income, we would have been on the streets today,” said Milon.
Rana Plaza victims have been paid an average of $1,086 in compensation, according to the ActionAid report – and in some cases as little as $20.
Mohammad Hatem, the first vice president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), stressed that the garment industry made good-faith efforts to help the victims.
“Soon after the incident, the BGMEA [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] and BKMEA had gone to the hospitals where Rana Plaza victims were being treated,” Hatem told Al Jazeera. “We had asked the hospital authorities and victims to refer any other victims from the incident that they come across to us. We assured that we will finance their treatments. We even circulated this offer through the media. But very few came to us seeking help.”
He added that the two groups had also offered survivors work, and to pay for the education of deceased workers’ children. “But we did not get enough response in this effort either,” he added. “How then can we be held responsible?”
More pay but fewer benefits
In addition to the human toll, the Rana Plaza disaster delivered a blow to Bangladesh’s $21.5bn apparel industry, the dynamo driving the country’s economy.
Along with the Tazreen factory fire in November 2012, which claimed the lives of more than 100 workers, the incidents have been a wake-up call for the Bangladeshi government and stakeholders in the country’s apparel sector.
Following protests by garment workers and international pressure to improve pay and conditions, a new minimum wage was set at 5,300 takas ($69) a month, following discussions between workers’ representatives, the government and factory owners.
But even paycheques above this new minimum wage are often not enough for workers. Salma Akhter Mim, who has worked as an operator at a factory in Dhaka for the past 11 years, earns a monthly salary of $88. “I have to send money to my family in the village. As this is not enough, I have to work part-time, when I can,” she said.
Kalpana, also a factory operator in Dhaka’s Rampura area, has to support her six-member family including her parents, siblings and two children on a monthly salary of $72. “My father’s income from his business and my monthly salary is inadequate to support the whole family,” she said. Kalpana said she had to work after her husband abandoned the family more than five years ago.
Before the new minimum wage was adopted, workers had demanded a hike in the monthly minimum wage from the previous level of 3,000 takas ($39) to 8,000 takas ($103). Labour rights experts and economists deemed the demand to be acceptable, based on the cost of living in Bangladesh.
But workers did not get the minimum wage they had demanded – and now complain that certain employee benefits are being curbed by their employers.
For instance, Ambia Begum said her factory no longer provides transport to and from workers’ homes, as it had done in the past.
And Kalpana noted that factories are now making more demands on their workers. “Following the wage hike, we are being given nearly impossible [production] targets every week, driving us to work more hours daily,” she said. “Also, now our employer is no longer paying for leaves, and only a fourth of festival bonuses are being paid.”
‘No environment for labour unions’
Kalpana is the president of the labour union at her factory, while Salma Akhter Mim is the secretary of the union at hers. The two women said they have long tried to act as a bridge between the workers and the factory owners. But, they said, their efforts have not been fruitful.
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“Because of my involvement with the union, the management has an adverse attitude towards me,” said Kalpana. “I feel insecure when out on the streets and even at home. Our management does not want the union to operate in the factory.”
Akhter has had similar experiences. “The management at my factory has time and again tried to create rifts between the workers and the union, just so that the union can become ineffective. The management does not even want to listen to our demands.”
Moshrefa Mishu, the president of the Garments Workers Unity Forum, said certain factories in Bangladesh take punitive measures against union members.
“As soon as factory owners learn that a worker is a member of a labour union, then that worker is fired in the shortest possible time,” she said. She alleged that most unions are more inclined towards the owners’ interests than those of the workers. “There is no environment for labour unions to operate freely in the factories yet.”
‘The current wages are appropriate’
Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, the assistant executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, said, “The sector has been important towards women empowerment as it gave rural women an opportunity to come out of their homes, work at a factory and thus make important decisions in their lives.”
Nevertheless, he added: “The working conditions need to be improved to see further enhancement in their financial situations.”
“These cost-cutting procedures are going to affect the sector in the long run,” he warned. “The government should monitor the situation to ensure that the workers, especially female workers, are motivated towards their work as their efficiency will ensure overall growth of the sector.”
Akhter echoed Ahmed’s sentiments, saying: “We, as workers, value the sector and want it to grow. This will happen effectively if the workers through trade unions, factory owners and the government can work together.”
But Bangladeshi Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed denied the allegations made by garment workers and union leaders. “No factories have withdrawn employee benefits,” he told Al Jazeera. “Also, the current wages are appropriate. There has been an increase by more than 200 percent for garment workers over the past five years.”