Safer conditions but wages low on Bangladesh collapse anniversary


Munnaf Khan sits idly through the morning in the tailoring shop he opened more than three years ago. Two men's jackets hang above a few ragged pieces of colourful cloth and a bundle of white polyester inside a glass cabinet and a sewing machine sits behind a timber table.

These are the only resources the 39-year-old has to run his business on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

"I hardly receive an order nowadays," the survivor of the country's largest industrial disaster five years ago says. "It's difficult to run the business to support my family of five."

More than 1,100 people were killed on 24 April 2013 when the eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed. The building in Savar, 20 kilometres north of Dhaka, housed five garment factories.

Khan, who worked on the top floor of the building, was one of nearly 2,500 workers rescued from the debris. He received a compensation package. He counts himself fortunate to have been rescued in the first 10 hours after the collapse and says most of his fellow survivors are far worse off. Even so, he still suffers crippling pain in his waist and has short-term memory loss.

"The disaster has changed my whole world, it made me incapable of doing enough for my family," he says.

Bangladesh, the second largest clothing producer after China, was heavily criticised over poor working conditions at the factories after a series of disasters. Joint efforts by the government, global brands, factory owners and labour groups have since improved most of the factories' building and fire safety. More than 200 European companies signed the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which combined with the nearly 30 North American brands' voluntary Alliance for Bangladesh's Workers Safety and Bangladeshi authorities led to 2,266 factories being inspected after Rana Plaza's collapse.

Aminul Haque Amin, president of National Garment Workers Federation, says there have been no major accidents in the last five years. Relocation of the factories from shared premises to independent sites, resumption of trade union rights, amendments to the labour law and enhancement of workers' wages are among the changes in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, he says.

"These are steps forward, but still not enough. Bangladesh needs to do a lot more," Amin says, citing further improvements which are needed in some sub-contracting factories. The Accord and Alliance both expire in May, with their members keen to form new agreements for future inspections, safety monitoring, training, rights and other issues. Amin says the government and the factory owners are reluctant to confirm any new agreements, particularly Accord 2018 which emphasises workers' rights.

Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association president Siddiqur Rahman says his organisation will not discuss any new agreement, instead noting that the previous agreement will continue for a six-month transitional period until a new authority begins to oversee the factories.

"We can now proudly say our factories are the safest in the world," Rahman says, adding that seven of the world's 10 most environmentally friendly factories are now in Bangladesh. The garment sector contributes nearly 80 percent of Bangladesh's total export earnings, with Rahman saying the 24 billion dollars generated in garment export in 2013 is projected to increase to 30 billion dollars this year.

Staff safety is a constant priority, according to Nasir Uddin Mia, chief executive of apparel manufacturer One Composite Mills which is located 40 kilometres north of Dhaka. The building can be evacuated in less than one minute in the case of fire, Mia says, adding that he runs regular fire drills. The factory has evacuation plans hanging in its stairwells, fire extinguishers on the walls and floors painted with arrows pointing towards the exits.

The minimum monthly wage – increased after the disaster from 3,000 taka to 5,300 taka (64 dollars) for an entry-level worker – has been considered inadequate, with unions demanding it be increased to 16,000 taka.

Bangladesh's Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu hinted in November at a significant wage rise, urging Western buyers to pay a little more for their clothes to help workers and the industry. Workers could be paid more if buyers readjusts their price tag, the minister said at the time, adding that a one or two-dollar increase will not dent the Western market.

"But a two-dollar increase here for a worker is quite a big thing," Inu said, noting the significant investments Bangladesh has made to comply with buyers' requirements. It's a viewed shared by Mia. "He the consumer will not get poor if he pays an extra dollar to the benefit of the workers," he says.    (dpa)

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