Saddam Hossain lost half of his right arm when the Rana Plaza complex collapsed on the next-door building where he was working.
More than three years after the deadliest incident in garment industry history drew international attention to dismal working conditions in Bangladesh, Hossain is relieved that shadowy factory bosses are going on trial.
He is also cynical that justice will be served, and for good reason: In a country where factories and fatalities are synonymous, no owner has ever been punished.
This is likely to change starting this month , when 41 defendants go on trial for murder, none more loathed than Sohel Rana, the owner of the eight-story structure on the outskirts of the capital whose reckless decision-making was emblematic of a corrupt, politically connected business elite that has long operated above the law.
Rana, the building’s former chief engineer, several factory owners and more than a dozen government officials initially faced charges of culpable homicide for ignoring warnings not to allow workers into the complex, but authorities upgraded the charges to murder due to the gravity of the incident, likening the deaths to a “mass killing”. Some of the accused will also face charges of violating building safety rules for illegally adding extra floors.
“Every single member of the government wants justice for them,” public prosecutor, Khandaker Abdul Mannan told Al Jazeera.
If convicted, he said they could face the death penalty or life imprisonment.
‘Too extreme’ to ignore
While stern convictions may finally send the message that extreme recklessness can have legal consequences in Bangladesh, labour and human rights groups counter that scapegoating owners could shift responsibility away from the authorities and Western brands that abetted dangerous working conditions in the first place.
“[The convicted] will be taking the fall for all of the parties that also bear responsibility: ruthless brands and retailers, heedless auditors, and the feckless government,” says Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, a labour watchdog.
“To the extent there is justice in this case it will only be because the event was too extreme for the government to ignore,” he said.
No one disputes that the April 2013 tragedy that killed more than 1,100 people and left 2,500 others seriously injured was a turning point for the world’s second largest garment industry.
An unprecedented outcry compelled hundreds of western retailers to create a pair of international coalitions committed to carrying out inspections and improving fire and building safety at thousands of factories.
After years of resistance, a group comprising more than 150 mainly European companies such as H&M and Zara adopted the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year, legally binding agreement. Another block of North American companies, including Walmart and Gap, formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is non-binding but can impose financial penalties against suppliers that do not comply, or sever ties altogether.
On the labour side, factory workers successfully mobilised after the tragedy to raise the minimum wage from about $38 a month to $68.
Labour laws were also reformed, nominally allowing workers to organise and push for better conditions, and social media has gained currency as tool to share information about dubious working environments.
A prominent Bangladeshi supplier, who counts H&M among his clients, asserted that buyers who may have once turned a blind eye to violations have “genuinely changed their mindset” following Rana Plaza, investing more in safety upgrades and carrying out better audits of facilities to avoid another catastrophe that could jeopardise their bottom line.
At the same time, he noted: “Our workers are much more informed.“
Quick pledges, slow action
As global attention has moved on, labour and human rights groups insist that most western brands are woefully behind on delivering their promises. Nova pointed out that most of the buildings are still not safe enough because owners are dragging their feet and many brands are not fulfilling their obligations to help pay for renovations, notably on fire exits and vital structural repairs.
Among the factories covered only by the government inspection programme or by the Walmart-led Alliance, which requires factories to pay for their own safety improvements, “the picture is worse,” he added.
Both safety coalitions assert that they have helped factory owners secure loans and reduce the cost of fire safety equipment while acknowledging there’s still a lot of work to be done.
On their website, the Accord says that although more than half of the problems at active factories have been confirmed as corrected, another 1,400 more are behind schedule owing to political unrest and a dearth of engineers.
In its first 2016 quarterly progress report, the Alliance touted a 90 percent reduction in garment factory fires and a threefold increase in its suspension of factories that have failed safety inspections. But the group conceded difficulty in adding fire doors, which are hard to come by in Bangladesh and must be imported.
What both groups still grapple with is the murky matter of sub-contracting.
Despite pledges made by top American and European brands to clean up their supply chains, the directly contracted factories they scrutinise amount to just a third of those operating in the country.
Another 5,000 sub-contracting factories, with an estimated three million garment workers are still without any oversight or safety improvements, according to an April report from researchers at New York University.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the Alliance said that while authorised subcontracting is allowed, these factories must adhere to the same registration, inspection and training standards as member factories.
Whenever a member adds a new factory, it must first be inspected by the Alliance or Accord, have an acceptable plan to make necessary upgrades, and have “made progress” in doing so before it can begin production. This ensures that orders stay in inspected factories and warns members against adding unapproved factories.
“Unauthorised subcontracting by any Alliance member is prohibited, and our members recognise the need to minimise the threat of unauthorised subcontracting,” the Alliance said.
Off-book, outside the law?
In the vast recesses of the garment industry, however, some owners concede that orders are still farmed out to off-book, sub-contracted facilities to meet tight deadlines for fear of losing fast-fashion contracts . In a poor country where garment exports account for nearly 20 percent of the GDP, the resources and political will needed for enforcement are hard to muster.
“Though global brands assert that they have strict policies against unauthorised sub-contracting, in reality, millions of workers at thousands of smaller factories are producing their goods,” Sarah Leibowitz, the lead researcher on the NYU report, said in a public statement. “Working in these factories is highly risky, yet virtually no international resources are being applied to them.”
The enduring risks to garment workers are exacerbated by the fact that although labour laws have been amended to make it easier to form unions, abuse and intimidation makes it difficult in practice.
A 2015 Human Rights Watch report detailed workplace abuses including physical assault, forced overtime, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full.
Those who dare try to push back are routinely fired or face threats and beatings at the hands of factory management or hired third parties, often with active government collusion.
Here again, foreign brands whose purchasing power gives them leverage in the industry “for the most part, sit by and watch,” says Nova. “Bringing buildings up to code, and ensuring that workers can act collectively to protect themselves, are the twin guarantors of safety in a place like Bangladesh.”
The Alliance maintains that it has formed a labour advisory group on all matters related directly to workers, and, along with the Accord, recently began training safety committees – elected groups in every member factory mandated by the government after Rana Plaza – to “ensure workers’ voices get heard”.
Additionally, a 24-hour hotline has allowed them to better address allegations of abuse, notably against those who have attempted to form unions.
None of this will make a difference to Rana Plaza survivors such as Hossain. Handicapped and racked by nightmares, the 31-year-old former salesman gave up on working in the city, unable to set foot in multi-story buildings.
Running low on the $15,000 the government paid him after the collapse, he is now looking for a clerical job in his village, with hopes that his disability will secure him preferential treatment under the state’s quota system.
His faith, however, does not extend to the country’s justice system.
“Of course Rana should be convicted,” he says, “but we all know he’s a very powerful man, with links to the higher-ups in government.”
– Golam Mortuja contributed reporting from Dhaka.