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After Bangladesh Factory Disaster, Efforts Show Mixed Progress

Garment workers and relatives of Rana Plaza victims stage a demonstration on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 24.
Shariful Islam
Garment workers and relatives of Rana Plaza victims stage a demonstration on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 24.

One year ago Thursday, an eight-story factory building in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. The disaster at Rana Plaza brought new attention to safety conditions in the country's booming garment industry.

In the year since then, some of the world's biggest retailers have begun inspecting Bangladesh's factories more aggressively. But in other ways efforts to reform the industry have fallen short.

When sewing machine operator Aklima Khanam arrived at Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, some of her coworkers were milling around outside. A visible crack had formed in the building and people were afraid to go inside. But her boss warned that anyone who didn't get to work wouldn't get paid. So she reluctantly went upstairs.

"A half hour after we started work the electricity went out and they started the backup generator," she says. "When they did this the building collapsed. The roof fell onto a machine and the machine fell onto me. I was trapped there with three or four coworkers for 12 hours. A man right near me was killed by a falling beam."

One year later, she still suffers from injuries to her chest and head — and hasn't been back to work. For Bangladeshis like her, the collapse at Rana Plaza was a watershed moment.

"The world changed on April 24th, it really did," says Ian Spaulding, senior adviser to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. "The garment industry here, the government, the stakeholders, the trade union community and the foreign buyers ultimately recognized that the previous model didn't work."

The clothes made at Rana Plaza were sold to major brands like Benetton and Zara. After the disaster, many of these retailers signed an accord promising to inspect the factories they use for safety violations and pay for necessary repairs. They have found many fire code violations and in some buildings structural problems.

"They have sent many, many inspectors, engineers out because of the realization that if another big event occurs that gets the international press, they know they're going to have to pull out of Bangladesh," says Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, an associate professor of economics at Yale.

But most big U.S. retailers, including Wal-Mart and Target, refused to sign the accord. Instead they are carrying out their own inspections. So, today two separate and competing teams inspect conditions in thousands of Bangladeshi factories.

In some ways, working conditions have improved in the garment sector. In December the minimum wage was increased. But labor organizer Aleya Akter says only about half of factories are paying it.

"Some factories are disregarding the law and if we put pressure on them to increase the wage they say that they cannot pay the higher wage and they will shut the factory down if we continue to demand it," she says.

Akter says after the Rana Plaza collapse many families were left without their primary breadwinners. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, says a $40 million compensation fund was set up by the government, the industry and some retailers. But he says it's less than half full.

"There were 1,137 workers who lost their lives and still to this date most of the families have not received substantial compensation," Nova says. "And the biggest problem has been the failure of certain key brands and retailers that produced at Rana Plaza to make meaningful contributions to the fund."

The list of companies that have not contributed is long and includes JC Penney and Benetton. The bad publicity generated by Rana Plaza left many people in the garment sector worried that big retailers would flee the country. There's no evidence that's happened.

Still, Akter, the labor organizer, says the disaster has taken an emotional toll on the people who work in the industry.

"Now when factory workers see a small crack or hear that something is wrong they run into the street because they are afraid there will be another disaster," she says. After Rana Plaza there is always a fear in workers' minds.

Today people still come to stare at the Rana Plaza site, even though the rubble has been cleared away and only a big hole remains. There's talk about setting up a memorial one day but it hasn't yet gotten off the drawing board.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.