A foreign visitor is never left alone to contemplate the ruins of Rana Plaza. On a searing hot August morning, sorrowful people gathered with fistfuls of documents and pictures, jostling for my attention. They were desperate for some acknowledgment of the daughter, son, wife or husband they had lost when the eight-story factory building pancaked on April 24, crushing more than 1,100 people—most of them garment workers filling orders for Western brands. As the crowd swelled around me, faint pleas became full-throated demands, and I soon found myself backed against the barbed wire fence that fronts the disaster site, now a pool of dark water. My only way out was to write down the name and phone number of each and every person, with a vague assurance that something would be done.
One woman, Rashida Begum, kept her distance. She wore a bright-orange sari and clutched a laminated picture against her chest. “My daughter,” she said when I approached. Her name was Nasima; she was 16 years old and had earned $110 a month sewing pants for New Wave Bottoms. The day before the accident, Nasima and her fellow workers had been sent home early when huge cracks were spotted in the walls. Her mother said Nasima was so scared that she couldn’t eat, but as the family breadwinner, she had little choice but to return to work when her bosses ordered her back. She didn’t want to lose her job.
Now in dire need of financial help, Rashida returns to the site with the hope that someone may be there to offer answers. Some days, she rides a bus to Dhaka from her home in Savar to join the protesters rallying for compensation in front of the downtown headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Exporters Association (BGMEA), the powerful trade body that represents the $20 billion-a-year industry. A black banner out front reads: We Will Not Forget You. But Rashida has little chance of being compensated. Because Nasima’s body wasn’t recovered intact, she lacks proof that her daughter was among the dead. So she goes home empty-handed.
I would run into Rashida several times in the next few weeks, always wearing the same ragged clothes and vacant look, her daughter’s picture facing outward. Her presence came to symbolize for me the failure of authorities and foreign companies to adequately address the single deadliest event in the history of the garment industry. Five months on, sweeping promises about improving factory safety and cracking down on illegal subcontracting remain hamstrung by scant resources and a near-total lack of coordination among parties. Victims’ compensation ranges from inconsistent to nonexistent. According to the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, none of the 4,000 families affected by the tragedy have received the full payments promised by the government or the BGMEA. Although several dozen amputees have, amid great fanfare, received payouts from an ad hoc relief fund administered by the prime minister, the money has all but dried up.
Although they’ve been promised more, families of the confirmed dead have received settlements of just $1,250 so far from the government relief fund, a paltry sum for human life “even by [Bangladesh’s] low standards,” says Sara Hossain, a lawyer working on behalf of victims. Families could potentially get more via a special tribunal if the government would convene one. But the influence of the garment industry is too great.
Abroad, the apathy shown by big-box retailers is equally breathtaking. Of twenty-nine companies summoned to Geneva in September for a weekend conference aimed at attaining a compensation deal for the Rana Plaza disaster—as well as for victims of a fire last November in the Tazreen Fashions factory, which killed some 117 people—only nine came. Among those who did not attend were Walmart and Sears, both of which were later discovered to be sourcing from the Tazreen factory. (Walmart, one of the largest buyers from Bangladesh, has refused to pay victims and their families on the grounds that its orders were being subcontracted without its knowledge.) Disney was linked to the tragedy but insisted it was done so in error. Only one company that used a Rana Plaza supplier, the Irish budget-fashion chain Primark, agreed to provide aid over six months.
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In the immediate aftermath of Rana Plaza, there were promising signs. Dozens of well-known European and American companies signed on to separate safety accords to finance comprehensive renovations and fire-safety training, make audit results public and uphold a ban on subcontracting. Although the pledges made by the largely American alliance are nonbinding and leave no meaningful legal recourse or space for workers who wish to organize, committed labor-rights activists initially called the agreements a “turning point” for millions of Bangladeshi workers.
I first traveled to Bangladesh in February to investigate what, if anything, had changed in the wake of the Tazreen fire. The scale of deaths had been so significant, and the media coverage so intense, that the tragedy prompted pledges of “never again.” What I found upon arriving, though, was business as usual.
Tazreen’s owner, Delwar Hossain, was a free man (although he has since been barred from leaving the country). And according to figures compiled by the Solidarity Center, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO, an average of two to three fires were occurring per week, some of them deadly. At a subcontracted factory built above a bakery on the outskirts of the city, I saw the result of one myself. Charred sewing machines and winter vests were scattered across the floor. Weeks after the fire, no one had bothered to clean up the brand labels and order forms or erase blackened hand marks staining the walls leading to a locked gate where eight people died in a stampede.
When I returned to Dhaka this summer, I assumed that the authorities and foreign buyers would be eager to publicize their efforts to keep their promises and improve safety. I was wrong. I spent a month trying to get permission to observe an official factory inspection. The fire division, civil development authority and structural engineers from the University of Dhaka all refused. I had little choice but to enlist a Bangladeshi journalist instead, who secured permission to tag along on a whirlwind compliance check and agreed to share his notes with me. When he reported back, I knew why I had been shut out.
The facility he toured, the Al Muslim garment factory, sits just a few minutes’ drive from Rana Plaza. A “frontline” facility housing operations for a registered manufacturer working with established foreign brands, its wrought-iron gate features a sign that reads: No to Child Labor. Inside, state inspectors discovered a shortage of emergency exits—just the type of violation that warrants an immediate shutdown. Yet under Bangladeshi law, they have no enforcement mandate when such hazards are identified; they can only make recommendations. In the end, this factory’s fire-safety report card was 12 out of 26—enough for an “A” rating.
BGMEA vice president Reaz Bin Mahmood concedes that in a country as cash-strapped and chaotic as Bangladesh, inspections are “a very scratch process.” The BGMEA has just ten inspectors. The fire department has eighty but says it needs ten times that. Teams staffed by engineering teachers struggle with inadequate equipment and the labor ministry is trying to hire and train 200 more inspectors in the coming months. In the meantime, there remains no central coordinating body to keep track of what the various agencies are up to. Manufacturers complain that certain factories have been inspected multiple times while others are ignored.
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Officially, there are about 2,500 export factories operating in Bangladesh, although many news outlets estimate double that. A group of more than eighty mainly European retailers estimates that it will take five years to complete comprehensive inspections and declare the 1,000 factories that supply its brands safe. Members of the North American alliance say they will finish vetting 500 factories by next summer. The Ministry of Labor has pledged to vet about 2,000 more not covered by either of the two accords, in consultation with the BGMEA, which says it has already shut down twenty at-risk factories.
But even the organization’s high-rise headquarters, a modern tower of blue glass surrounded by water, casts a shadow over its commitment to compliance. In 2011, Bangladesh’s High Court ruled that the land on which it was built had been illegally obtained and that the building had been constructed without proper approvals, to the detriment of a natural drainage system that runs through the city center. The court called the building “a scam of abysmal proportions” and ordered it demolished within ninety days. Yet two years later, the building remains, albeit with some broken windows.
In June, the United States rattled the Bangladeshi business community by cutting all trade benefits. Duty-free access to the American market was suspended. The garment industry never qualified for such tax breaks to begin with, but the move followed a harsh warning from the European Union, which buys some 60 percent of the country’s exports. With billions at stake, some owners would prefer to take matters into their own hands rather than allow feckless government agencies to check for compliance. As one owner, who ranks among the top ten exporters in Bangladesh, told me: “These inspectors only want to see licenses; they don’t care about details.” Like others I spoke with, he did not want to reveal his name for fear of jeopardizing his standing among foreign clients.
Another industry leader said that when he asked for schematics for an aging factory, the previous owner refused. “I figured it was because there was something to hide—poor concrete, thin rebar…. At least three-quarters of buildings in this country are not up to code,” he adds, “built by people with no business doing so.” Bribing state inspectors to look the other way would have been “no problem,” he said, noting that Rana Plaza had passed inspection fourteen times before it collapsed. So he hired an independent engineer to do structural X-rays and other intensive tests, and then closed the factory until a costly retrofit is done. “We don’t take the extra steps to show buyers,” he said. “We do it for ourselves,” to avoid even costlier accidents.
Some owners say that even third-party auditors dispatched by the major brands take bribes. And even if they’re legitimate, they never look further than the big factories. One owner, whose office boasts certificates for excellent safety standards from H&M, the second-largest garment company in Bangladesh, admits that, under intense pressure to deliver orders in less time, he still has to outsource some stages of production. “There are so many uncertainties—strikes, shipment delays, holidays, corrupt officers at the port—that subcontracting will always” be a part of garment making in Bangladesh. “The brands know it,” he adds, but “they pretend they don’t.”
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The truth is that nobody really knows how many garment factories there are in Bangladesh. There are the export giants visible from the main roads, and then there are thousands more directly or indirectly involved in the export trade, attaching zippers or trimming threads. These are typically found on the upper floors of gloomy multipurpose buildings, with barred windows, overhead fans and bad lighting. Countless more are hidden from view without so much as a sign above the door.
Off the books and staffed by people willing to work long hours for a pittance, these workplaces remain beyond the scope of inspection. To maintain their razor-slim profit margins, the owners cut corners on safety, often with the protection of officials who have a stake in the business. Should a fire break out or a floor buckle, they can take comfort knowing that in more than two decades, no one has ever been prosecuted for the death of workers. Meanwhile, foreign brands can say they were unaware of the safety violations.
On October 8, a late-night fire tore through a garment factory outside Dhaka and killed ten workers. Shipping records linked a familiar cast of Western brands to the factory—including some with ties to Rana Plaza. Their responses echoed what has been said before: Loblaw, the Canadian owner of the Joe Fresh label, denied that it had placed any orders and claimed to be investigating whether subcontractors had done so. Primark maintained that it had ceased using the factory several months ago; Hudson’s Bay said the same. A Walmart spokesperson told Bloomberg News that it did not have “a direct contractual relationship” with the factory.
This latest fire came on the heels of worker demonstrations in September calling for a raise in the minimum wage from $38 to $100 a month. As the protests multiplied in the garment industry hotbeds of Savar and Gazipur, roads were blocked and vehicles smashed, forcing more than 100 factories to shut down. It took days—along with police tear gas and rubber bullets—to quell the protests.
The last time I saw Rashida Begum, she was waiting with her husband, Azad, in the lobby of a DNA lab on the University of Dhaka campus. More than 300 samples had been collected from the bones and teeth of bodies that were crushed beyond recognition when Rana Plaza collapsed. All these months later, the final results were due, and Rashida was growing despondent.
Azad, unable to open his tea stall to support the family, is shattered by his daughter’s absence. A positive ID would entitle them to the initial $1,250 settlement, which would see them through the year. A negative result means no money.
As with so many things in Bangladesh, the lab was running behind schedule and results were not yet ready. A technician told the couple they would have to wait at least a few weeks more, until a definitive list was published in the newspapers. When Rashida was out of earshot, the technician said that because the number of submissions far outstripped the amount of samples being tested, many relatives would be disappointed. But Rashida was already resigned. “There is nothing for the relatives of the missing,” she said, tucking Nasima’s picture under her arm for the long trip back to Savar.