SAVAR, Bangladesh – One year after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in a pile of concrete slabs and twisted metal, Bangladeshi seamstress Shefali says she would rather starve to death than return to factory work.
Like many other survivors of the worst disaster the garment industry has ever seen, 18-year-old Shefali, who goes by one name, says she suffers from depression and has flashbacks of the catastrophe that killed more than 1,100 people. She was injured in the collapse that happened a year ago Thursday and has lingering back pain.
And despite efforts by Western brands to improve safety at the Bangladeshi factories that produce their clothes, Shefali fears nothing good will trickle down to the poorest of the poor. The country has one of the lowest minimum wages in the world – about $66 a month – while churning out goods for some of the world’s leading retailers.
We die, we suffer, nobody takes care of us, Shefali said earlier this month as she toured the site of the collapse, now a barren, fenced-off expanse. She hasn’t started working again and stays at home with her parents.
I had dreams of getting married, having my own family, she said. But now everything looks impossible.
There have been some significant developments. The owner of the illegally constructed Rana Plaza building is behind bars, pending an investigation, but there has been no word on when he will be put on trial. The owners of the five factories operating inside the building also have been detained.
Authorities have appointed more factory inspectors, plan to appoint more, and say they aim to ensure that no new factories are built without proper safety regulations being followed.
But problems remain. According to Human Rights Watch, the international companies that sourced garments from five factories operating in the Rana Plaza building are not contributing enough to the trust fund set up to support survivors and the families of those who died.
One year after Rana Plaza collapsed, far too many victims and their families are at serious risk of destitution, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at the organization. International garment brands should be helping the injured and the dependents of dead workers who manufactured their clothes.
The target for the fund, chaired by the International Labor Organization, is $40 million, but only $15 million has been raised so far, HRW said. Retailers Bonmarche, El Corte Ingles, Loblaw and Primark have all pledged money.
Mojtaba Kazazi, a former U.N. official who heads a committee to execute the fund, said initial payments of about $640 to the victims’ families have begun.
The very structure of Bangladesh’s garment industry is also viewed as problematic. According to a recent study by New York University’s Stern School of Business, an essential feature of the sector involves factories subcontracting work to other workshops that have even worse conditions.
In the absence of regulation by the government of Bangladesh, the prevalence of indirect sourcing has resulted in a supply chain driven by the pursuit of lowest nominal costs, said Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and co-author of the report.
That means that factories receiving subcontracts are operating on razor-thin margins that leave concerns about safety and workers’ rights perpetually unaddressed.
When the collapse occurred April 24, 2013, thousands of Bangladeshis were toiling inside the Rana Plaza in Savar, the center of the country’s $20 billion garment industry.
A violent jolt shook the floors around 9 a.m. Then the eight-story building gave a deafening groan, the pillars gave way and the entire structure went down in a heap with terrifying speed.
Investigators say a host of factors contributed to its collapse: It was overloaded with machines and generators and constructed on swampy land, and the owner added floors in violation of the original building plan.
The final death toll was 1,135 people, with thousands more rescued from the wreckage. Rescuers found Reshma Begum alive 17 days after the collapse, and authorities say her survival was miraculous.
When the building began to crumble, Begum said she raced down a stairwell into the basement, where she became trapped near a wide pocket that allowed her to survive. She found some dried food and bottles of water that saved her life.
She now works in an international hotel in Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan area but is still haunted by the disaster.
I can’t tolerate darkness in my room at night. The light is switched on always, Begum said in an interview from her sister’s home in Savar. If the light is turned off, I start panicking.
It feels like What I can say? Like I am still there (at the Rana Plaza).
Mahbubul Hoque Shakil, a spokesman for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said the country must protect the lucrative garment industry.
All must keep in mind that if this important sector faces any setback from any negative propaganda, millions of families of the workers will be the main victims, he said.