The third anniversary of Rana Plaza disaster was observed in the country on April 25. The anniversary noted mixed achievements in the implementation of which was the only positive outcome of the sad saga. The sustainability compact agreement required structural improvement in garment factories, compensation and rehabilitation of workers and a substantial rise in workers' wages and right to form trade union at work places.
The agreement, promoted by major brands and facilitated by ILO- JICA, EU and USA with BGMEA and Bangladesh government as local signatories, set certain targets to bring about qualitative change in Bangladesh garments sector. The agreement also promised a substantial fund to implement the plan. It included pledge by major donor brands, along with their promise to raise buying price to allow Bangladesh garment industry to generate more income to pay workers at higher rates.
But as things stands, buyers are yet to raise their buying prices. Some are squeezing the exporters by shrinking the rates where possible. On their part, Bangladesh garment factory owners have raised the workers' wages, though not enough to give the workers fair chance to improve their standard of living. Major brands also failed to make full payment of their promised contributions to enable the sustainability compact fund to achieve its targets.
The most disturbing fact is that the fund created for bringing structural improvement of garment factories has remained largely unutilized. This is because factory owners said its interest rates are too high, although institutional donors like JICA and ADB made the grants with only 1.0 percent service charge. Bangladesh Bank has added to it one percent more as its cost of service. Commercial banks claimed another five percent interest for disbursement of the fund to clients. Surprisingly the Finance Ministry has imposed a four percent levy on the fund rendering it extra expensive, contrary to the conceived low cost plan to allow easy restructuring of old and defective factory buildings. Since the use of the fund also involves some other stiff conditions, garment factory owners are simply reluctant to avail of the facility.
The Rana Plaza tragedy which cost the lives of 1135 workers and left over 2500 injured, many having lost their limbs and being disabled for life, is the biggest and most severe industrial disaster in our time. But the victims are yet to get full compensation, many of them simply left unlisted. Serious allegations of misuse of the fund by BGMEA functionaries also abound.
The trial of the accused persons are as yet hanging in the balance. The accident took place mainly because the factory buildings had faulty designs and used poor construction materials. News reports cite the government's reluctance to press for the prosecution of the case as the main reason for delay in court proceedings. The accused persons in the case are said to be close to the ruling party, having good rapport with high government officials as well. The garment lobby and the pro-government employees' union are also bringing pressure on the government to go slow with the prosecution. The prevailing culture of impunity for the wealthy and politically influential people make sure that denial of justice to the poor and deprivation of labour continue unabated.
The Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) suggested last week that five issues need to be quickly resolved. These are: punishment of the responsible persons, re-employment of victims, free treatment of chronic disabilities, compensation for the disabled, and finding the missing workers. Many believe that the government is unable to overcome the garment lobby's strong opposition to proceed with the case. The Labour ministry's opposition to file charge sheet against three of its employees is also making prosecution difficult.
The CID has named 42 individuals, including the building owner in the charge-sheet. The owner of the building is in fact one of the local influential Awami League leaders. Workers’ compensation and rehabilitation, like delayed justice, is also long-awaited without actual delivery, amounting to denial of justice and deprivation of rights.
There is, however, no doubt that the garment industry has meanwhile achieved significant transformation after the tragedy. There has been improvement in working conditions in most factories, including safety measures against fire. The sustainability compact agreement has strengthened the backbone of the garment industry with monitoring and inspections. Under it, inspectors are carrying out close watch of the garment factories. Time to time supervision is conducted by US and EU monitors using the platform of alliance and accord groups.
The government has also opened trade union registration at garment factories. The US and EU, however, want more freedom of association of workers without restrictions. The industry is witnessing significant metamorphosis both in working conditions and in capacity to manufacture quality products. But Rana Plaza victims remain unrequited.