(If you’d like to see these photos larger, just click on them).
We arrived in Bangladesh on Wednesday, Feb. 4th. Coming from the U.S, it took Alison 2 days to get here. Coming from Rome Italy, it didn’t take Rachel quite as long. Leading up to our trip, we communicated with a number of contacts from different circles and e-mailed many people who have been responding to and are involved with the Rana Plaza factory collapse in some capacity. People have been open about helping us and willing to put us in touch with people we want to talk to.
On Feb. 5th, we woke to the daily 5:30 call to prayer projected from a nearby mosque then went for a walk together with eyes, ears, and noses wide open. We were rewarded with new, rich and colorful sights, many smells and sounds: traffic horns, grease frying in the open air, rickshaw bells, dust, smells of curry and roasted chickpeas, hellos, stares, sparkly saris and kurtas, beggars, barbed wire and concrete. All the buildings seem to be made from concrete here, as was the Rana Plaza Factory that collapsed on March 24th, 2013.
On February 6th, our driver took us to a small office to meet Sumon, managerial director of the Safety and Rights Society, which educates workers about their legal right to work in a healthy, safe environment and fights for workers’ compensation in the case of workplace accidents. He greeted us with warmth, offered tea and cookies and spoke with passion for his work. He said that the Safety and Rights Society is the only NGO of its kind in Bangladesh.
Sumon is working in tandem with garment workers unions, workers’ rights organizations and other NGOs on compensation for Rana Plaza victims. He told us that Bangladesh’s garment workers used to be reluctant to fight for their rights in the work place. If a problem occurred, they lived with it—it was their fate. Only God could save them. They did not want to make a case; they were afraid they’d lose their jobs.
International attention on the Rana Plaza collapse has changed them, prompted them to consider that a healthy, safe work environment might be their right. And if they are killed or injured on the job, their families have the right to be compensated.
But what kind of compensation do the families of disabled survivors or the dead of Rana Plaza receive? How much is a person worth? The government of Bangladesh, International Labor laws, and people working on behalf of victims and survivors all have different answers to that question.
What Sumon asks of American consumers: don’t think about “helping” the garment workers of Bangladesh. Your relationship with them is one of mutual support. By making your clothes, garment workers are saving your time, improving your life; in turn, you are responsible for insisting that international clothing companies contracting with garment factories in Bangladesh ensure those garment workers basic rights to a living wage, a safe, healthy environment and proper compensation when accidents occur.
We drove next to the National Garments Workers Federation. On the way we passed the National Assembly Building, known as the largest legislative complex in the entire world. The building was designed by architect Louis Kahn.
Next we passed the National Press Club, where a demonstration was being held. Down a narrow muddy alley we came to a small building with a ground floor office whose walls were covered with photos of protests, meetings and the Rana Plaza Factory collapse. We talked with Lopa, who had experience training garment workers about their rights. She told us that many workers don’t know what work place conditions might be dangerous so she trains workers to be aware of situations that might be unsafe. Unfortunately, Rana Plaza has made them more aware of the need to protect their own safety.
As we were talking, we heard shouting. The protest we had passed on our way to the office was coming to the NGWF for their rally. These workers had not been paid for two months and the factory had suddenly closed its doors, leaving the workers with no pay. They were understandably angry and upset. The President of the NGWF, Amirul Haque Amin, gave a rousing speech and there was much cheering. It was powerful to feel the sense of solidarity amongst the workers. In a simple office, over ginger tea, we had the chance to talk with Amir afterwards and when we asked him what he would like to say to American consumers he said that he would like for us to understand “the high cost of low prices”. He mentioned a number of action steps he feels are important, and he also provided a new insight for us.
Bangladesh is a Muslim country. But here, women work and in fact, 70% of the 4 million garment workers here are female. These women are becoming empowered as earners in their families and as workers who are increasingly learning about their rights in the workplace. This is a good reason for the United States to be working harder to insure that workplaces here are safe and places of dignity, and the workers are paid fairly.
Next, our driver picked up Shubhomoy, from the NGO Action Aid, which organized this entire day for us, and took us to Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka city. The one-lane highway was crammed with cars, trucks, cycle rickshaws and tuk-tuks. People with baskets of food on their heads or towels on their arms interrupted already the slow-going traffic to sell their wares.
Closer to Savar, the panorama of new and old, multi-level concrete buildings, billboards, roadside stands and green trees changed to yellow green swamps, landfills, smokestacks sticking out of the ground circled by crows, gardens of brick, outdoor markets crowded with people and the occasional goat or sheep.
Garment factories guarded the entrance to Savar. They were non-descript high-rise commercial buildings, converted for convenience with no regulations. The highway has become Savar’s Main Street.
Then we drove off the highway onto narrow dirt roads with open sewers by close-knit tin-roofed homes. This is where many of the workers at Savar’s garment factories live. Here we interviewed three injured Rana Plaza survivors whose re-entry into the workforce is supported by Action Aid. Shubhomoy translated for us.
Rashida, 24 years old, took a seat on the edge of the bed and held the edge of her headscarf to her mouth. Her friends stood by the door of the one room home she shared with her husband. She was working on the 2nd floor of Rana Plaza for New Wave Bottoms when the building collapsed, injuring her back, head and hands. She will not be able to return to factory work but she is still a skilled seamstress. After nearly two years of rehabilitation and re-integration work, she is preparing to make her own clothes and sell them, to become an entrepreneur.
Khokon, 38, has his own small shop. He sells candy, juice, rice and other dry goods. He seemed calm when he talked about his new job, proud. He worked on the 6th floor of Rana Plaza at New Wave Bottoms. When the building collapsed, he suffered a head injury. Khokon made more money a garment worker than as a shop owner. Now he earns barely enough to support his wife and child. But he is safe and in charge of his work.
Our third visit is with Aduri, a 35 year-old survivor of the collapse. She had been working on the 5th floor and was bruised on her waist and head from falling concrete. Rather than re-enter the garment industry she also became an entrepreneur, working with other family members. They receive printed paper and fold, glue, punch holes and lace ribbon through the holes to create bags which they sell to local stores. They make about 1000 bags a day for which they receive the equivalent of 2 US dollars. We were told this is not bad, extreme poverty is closer to one US dollar a day.
Our last stop was the actual site of the Rana Plaza Collapse on Savar’s main street, now a pit filled with lime green water, next to it, gray concrete rubble dotted with colorful clothing left from the garment factories.
The site is sandwiched between buildings under construction. A small concrete sculpture of two fists holding a hammer and sickle and a commemorative plaque have been placed in front of the barbed wire cordoning off the area. Rachel remembered the street corner in Greenwich Village in New York City, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire claimed 149 lives in 1911.
But they are dwarfed by people, litter, dust and stands selling everything from popcorn, fruit, fried snacks, sandals, kitchen gadgets, and trinkets, and a barber stand.
Inside one of the trinket stands, posted by the necklaces, is a picture of a young woman, the wife of the stand’s owner. She was a garment worker killed in the Rana Plaza collapse. She looked straight at us, prompting us to ask: what can we do to insure that the people who are making the clothes we wear today are paid fairly, work in safe conditions and are treated with dignity?