In light of a hard-won compensation scheme, Ilona Kelly looks at the human cost behind the garment industry disaster.
In a rare victory for workers’ rights, all those affected by the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013 will receive full compensation for loss of income and medical care.
The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund – set up by the International Labour Organization in January 2014 to collect compensation for victims and their families – reached its funding target of $30 million in June, with a final, large anonymous donation.
‘This compensation will help each person to sustain their lives – enabling some to continue to send their kids to school and, at the very least, now no-one will starve,’ said
Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in April 2013 was the worst industrial accident in the history of the garment industry, killing over 1,000 workers, many of whom were making clothes for Western retailers.
Compensation did not come without a fight. Brands such as Matalan only donated an undisclosed payment to the fund after a campaign by British online pressure group 38 Degrees; Benetton was nudged into coughing up $1.1 million by campaigners Avaaz’ million-strong petition.
A global day of action 2 years after the disaster pushed brands to bring the fund within $2.4 million of its target. These stand-out moments were built on the sustained efforts of a select few in Bangladesh and Western partners outside.
This campaign victory is groundbreaking, with far wider implications beyond addressing the immediate needs of the Rana Plaza victims. The first ever compensation scheme to be created and implemented for the victims of a large supply-chain disaster, it will bolster future efforts to hold brands and retailers to account.
Below are some of the people involved in the day of action, for whom the compensation scheme will be invaluable.
Asha started working at Rana Plaza 6 months before the collapse. She worked every day from 8am until 5pm, and most days would work overtime until 9 or 10pm.
She earned around 3,000 taka ($40) a month, but with overtime she could double her earnings to around 6,500 taka ($83).
The morning of the Rana Plaza collapse, Asha, like many other workers, was too scared to go inside the factory. The workers knew there were cracks in the foundation, but the manager said that if they didn’t go inside, they wouldn’t get paid.
Asha was forced to start working, but soon the building started to shake. As it crumbled, Asha remembers the bodies of women falling around her and seeing the body of her dead auntie.
Then a stone fell on Asha and everything went black. Asha was the main earner for her mother, father and younger sister, and now the family is desperately struggling to get by.
Asha has received compensation for her injuries, but says it’s only been enough to cover her medical costs. Two years after the collapse, Asha says she still can’t eat properly and she feels pain in her head and chest. She is too weak to stand for long periods, so she no longer leaves the house. Asha says she has no hope of getting her life back.
‘I feel like I’m living like a dead person. It would have been better if I died, because now I’m a burden to my family.’
Mossamat Jomela and Mossamat Surjo
Surjo (right) joins her mother Jomela (left) in the rubble of Rana Plaza, 2 years after the factory collapse killed Jomela’s youngest daughter, Parvina.
Eighteen-year-old Parvina was working on the 4th floor of the building the day Rana Plaza collapsed, but her body has never been found.
Jomela says she tried everything to find her daughter, and long after the factory collapsed she would still bring Parvina’s clothes to the site to try to match them to clothes buried in the rubble. All Jomela found was her daughter’s cell phone.
Jomela says she received 45,000 taka ($575) compensation, but was forced to move away from her home because she could no longer afford to live there. She says she feels hopeless, but travelled the 8 hours from her new home to be at the Rana Plaza site for the 2-year anniversary and to continue the search for her daughter.
Mossamat Sharbanu (right) worked on the 6th floor of Rana Plaza. The morning of the collapse, Sharbanu was also scared to go inside the factory, but desperate for payment.
After the building collapsed, Sharbanu was trapped under the rubble for 2 days. She said it was so dark that she thought she had gone blind. She sustained a head injury, lost much of the skin on her back, and still feels pain in her stomach and legs.
Sharbanu was given 45,000 taka compensation ($575), but all of the money has gone to treat her injuries. Sharbanu and her 2-year-old daughter Mohmmad Shaon (bottom right) now live off the earnings of Sharbanu’s husband Mohammad Mominul Islam (left), a rickshaw driver.
The family says that they are in desperate need of the further compensation that has been promised them.
Anowara (middle) found the body of her 26-year-old daughter-in-law, Sewli, 9 days after Rana Plaza collapsed. Two years later, Anowara sits outside the Rana Plaza site with her grand-daughter Shimu (9) and grandson Shimul (7) at her side.
22-year-old Polly Akter (pictured right) started working at Rana Plaza when she was 18 years old because her family was struggling with debt. After the factory collapsed, Polly’s mother Shahana waited 7 days before rescuers found her daughter’s body beneath the rubble.
Shahana was given a compensation payment for her daughter’s death, but is still struggling to support herself and her 4 other daughters, one of whom was also injured in the collapse.
The two daughters’ factory work was the main source of income for the family, but Shanana says she won’t let any of her daughters work in the factories again.
She now struggles to support her family with income from a small vegetable shop.
‘Polly was so good at her job. She was beautiful and was just about to get married. I just want her alive and back with me.’
Rashida Begum (right) had been working at Rana Plaza for 5 years before the factory collapsed. As the building started to fall, Rashida ran to the stairs, but couldn’t get out.
She ran to the window, but was too scared to jump because it looked like the others were falling to their death. Rashida thinks she eventually fell out of the window, but doesn’t remember anything until she woke up in the hospital, where she stayed for 15 days.
Rashida is still haunted by what happened to her. She says she is too scared to be alone, and when she sleeps she has nightmares that everything is caving in on her and she is drowning. She tried to work at another factory, but her injuries prevent her from working properly, so Rashida was let go.
Rashida says she was given 95,000 taka ($1,200) compensation for what happened to her, but says her life is no longer worth living.