Today, April 24, is the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, the horrific building collapse at a huge garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people, mostly young women.
I’m on a delegation organized by the International Labor Rights Forum (I serve on the board) that is looking into problems injured workers and surviving family members are experiencing in getting the money raised for them.
Yesterday, we met with thirty injured workers and surviving family members. The stories workers told were horrific. On April 23, a crack was discovered in one of the main columns of a nine story building. (We heard that factories are only supposed to be five stories, so not sure how this one got to be nine.) Workers were sent home and inspections were done. The crack was considered very dangerous.
The next morning, workers showed up at 7:30 a.m. for work, but were worried about going inside. They were fearful about the safety of the building. The building held multiple garment companies inside the building. Lots of managers and supervisors were outside telling the workers to go inside. The workers said some were told they would lose their overtime wages if they didn’t work that day. Others were told they’d lose the entire month’s pay if they didn’t work. And then, the managers pushed them inside the building.
Around 8:40 a.m., the electricity went off. Then when the generators started up a few minutes later—vibrating and shaking the building—it collapsed. More than 1,100 workers were killed and more than 2,500 were injured.
When I saw the coverage two years ago, I personally focused on the 1,100 killed. I really didn’t think much about the more than double that number who were injured. And these were not small injuries. A concrete building collapsed on workers. People lost limbs. Most everyone I talked to seemed to have had a head injury. Many had serious back injuries.And everyone seemed to show symptoms of post traumatic stress. Understandable.
Approximately $24 million dollars has been raised for a fund for injured workers and family members of victims, but it is terribly unclear what has happened to all that money. Workers are clueless as to what the process is, why some folks are getting some amounts of money and others getting different amounts. There appears to be little transparency in the process and the amounts of money given to workers who lost an arm or a leg or a family members was often $1,000 or less, at least according to the papers we were shown. For a garment worker who survived on sewing or perhaps an entire family that depended on that income, getting $1,000 is pitiful when the worker has lost his or her ability to earn a living. Even though the government claims there is rehabilitation and training, none of the workers we met with had gotten any.
Up until now, the International Labor Rights Forum had been advocating for more money for the victims’ fund. Although the fund clearly still needs more money, we also are going to see what we can do to argue for more transparency, communication with workers and more assistance for injured workers and deceased workers’ dependents.
Bangladesh has no workers compensation program. There is beginning to be some conversation about the need for such a program, but it likely will be a while before it could be implemented. I’m very aware that at the same time Bangladesh is talking about setting up a program, there are efforts to dismantle workers compensation programs across the country – limiting dollars given to injured workers, not letting them see their own doctors and not letting juries handle awards. We must preserve the U.S. programs, while we support efforts to strengthen worker supports in Bangladesh.
We also must hold employers in Bangladesh and the U.S. responsible for blatant disregard for workers’ health and safety. As one person said in describing what happened at Rana Plaza, “This wasn’t a tragedy, it was a killing.”