Retailers 'failing victims' a year after Bangladesh disaster

Retailers 'failing victims' a year after Bangladesh disaster

DHAKA - Agence France-Presse
Retailers failing victims a year after Bangladesh disaster

A Bangladeshi woman holds a candle with a portrait of a missing relative, victim of last year?s Rana Plaza building collapse, during a gathering to pay tributes on the eve of the tragedy in Savar, near Dhaka, April 23. AP Photo / A.M. Ahad

Western fashion brands faced pressure April 24 to honour promises to care for Bangladesh's victims of the world's worst garment factory accident, ahead of protests on the one-year anniversary of the disaster that cost 1,138 lives.

Workers are set to stage demonstrations in front of the site of the now infamous nine-storey Rana Plaza complex in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, which collapsed last April after a catastrophic structural failure.

"Brands are failing workers a second time," Ineke Zeldenrust from the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign pressure group said in a statement on April 24. 

"First they failed to ensure the factories they bought from were safe, and now they are failing the survivors and the families of those who lost loved ones."

As well as the dead, more than 2,000 were injured in an avoidable tragedy that focused attention on the lax safety standards and often abusive working conditions in the world's second-biggest clothing producer.

The sector's most deadly disaster ever shamed Western brands into launching new safety inspections and pushed Bangladesh's government to increase wages and ensure the better enforcement of regulations.

Only third of compensations paid

But trade union group IndustriALL slammed retailers this week for making "woefully inadequate" contributions to a proposed $40-million fund set up to compensate the families of the dead and the injured.

Only $15 million has been deposited and the first payments of $640 for each of the survivors and families of the deceased were made only this week.

Others are angry at local authorities for the slow progress in identifying the 140 workers still missing since the collapse, while the owner of the building has yet to be charged by police.

"One year after Rana Plaza collapsed, far too many victims and their families are at serious risk of destitution," Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement. 

"International garment brands should be helping the injured and the dependants of dead workers who manufactured their clothes," he added.

British charity Action Aid said three-quarters of the survivors were too sick and traumatised to return to work following a survey of nearly 1,450 of them.

After the backlash, nearly 200 brands formed two umbrella groups to organise a clean-up of Bangladesh's 3,500 garment factories, which form a $22-billion industry second only to China's in size.

They reject criticism that they have done too little. "Our members alone paid $2.2 million into the trust fund," said Mesbah Rabin, the managing director of a group of mostly U.S.-based retailers called Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The group includes Walmart, Gap and Target.

"The brands are also paying for the costly inspection of the garment factories, which will eventually raise safety standards, boost export potential and improve Bangladesh's brand image that the country is a safe destination for sourcing apparel," he told AFP.

Despite disagreements over who has ultimate responsibility for the victims - Western retailers, their Bangladeshi subcontractors, or the government - most observers agree some progress has been made in the industry.

Hired engineers have shut down 16 factories and ordered hundreds of others to upgrade. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) closed another 23 plants.

According to the newly created Department of Inspection for Factories, at least 1,031 factories have since been inspected by retailers' groups and government officials.

"We have found faults in almost all the factories we've so far inspected," said Brad Loewen, chief inspector of a group of largely European retailers called Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh - the second umbrella organisation.

Of the 400 plants the group has probed, some 90 percent lacked proper fire exits and have shoddy electrical wiring, which is a major fire hazard, Loewen told AFP, adding that inspections would end in October. 

The shutdowns and upgrades have resulted in thousands of job losses and hundreds of million of dollars of cancelled orders, according to the BGMEA.

But the industry continues to go from strength to strength despite the bad publicity and a big wage hike for low-paid workers which was resisted by factory owners.

Garment shipments in March this year were 15 percent higher than in the month before the disaster last year, and minimum wages were raised to $68 a month on average in December from $38 previously.