Retailers are still failing to compensate the victims of the disastrous collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh which killed 1,129 people and left thousands of families injured and without work or money.
Christmas Eve marks eight months since the collapse of Rana Plaza Factory in Dhaka, reportedly the deadliest disaster in the garment industry. Despite promises to provide aid in the aftermath of the collapse, 28 major companies are yet to pay long term compensation to the 3,600 families directly affected. So far only short-term emergency compensation has been paid by two of the brands: Low-price UK retailer Primark and Canadian Loblaw.
Among the companies supplied by the now closed factory are US giant Walmart, French Carrefour, and UK’s Premier Clothing, according to campaigning organisation Labour Behind the Label, part of the international NGO Clean Clothes Campaign.
Ilana Winterstein, spokesperson, Labour Behind the Label, says: “It’s long overdue for the brands involved to step up and take financial responsibility for tragedies that they failed to prevent … It cannot bring back those who have died but can help relieve the financial strain on the victims, families and survivors.”
Chris Barrie, spokesperson, Primark, says: “We have paid nine months salary to all workers, even though only about 500 of them worked for our supplier.”
The 3,100 families not covered by Primark’s long-term compensation are still awaiting their employers to provide aid. Barrie says: “Primark has been quite clear that it will not hold up the payment forever. But people need money, that is why they keep paying these short term aids.”
Barrie says the process of assessing the needs of the families is complex and takes time. The company needs to make sure the recipients of the money can look after themselves once they receive them as well as assessing the individual for injury and the ability to work in the future. “This assessment will produce a recommended output which establishes how much they need and how it will be provided.”
The disaster drew worldwide attention to the health and safety issues and low wages in the Bangladeshi garment industry, where the current minimum wage is $38 (£23) per month.
Phil Bloomer, Executive Director of international non-profit organisation Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, says the workers were reportedly aware of the health and safety issues, but were forced to stay in the factory. “If you don’t have the right to refuse dangerous work, what rights do you have?”
Dr Sharif As-Saber is Head of Geopolitics, Business and Government research at RMIT University, ex-Bangladesh civil servant and frequent media commentator on the Bangladesh factory disasters. He says: “Underestimating or undermining the gravity of the problem by these stakeholders could be one of the explanations of their apparent half-hearted efforts. Greed, exploitation and not compromising the profit bottom-line, no matter what implications these would have on workers’ lives, could be another explanation.”
The collapse is the largest of a number of deadly disasters in garment factories in Bangladesh. It follows the Tazreen factory fire in November last year, in which 111 people were burned to death inside the factory.
Newly formed European Accord and US Alliance, is set up by more than 160 international brands such as H&M, Aldi, Primark and Walmart, to ensure improvements to working conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh.
As-Saber says these are not long term solutions but “rather piecemeal, reactive, ad-hoc attempts to temporarily quell the unrest and anger occurred globally in the wake of the disaster. I am sorry to iterate, we probably haven’t seen the worst yet. Unless the industry and its key stakeholders act together to improve the overall situation, the industry and its poor workers may suffer even more in the future.”
Bloomer says: “There is really serious negotiation going on. Whether that delivers or not is another matter. But the fact is that 160 companies have come along and done it. So far no results, but you’ve got to remain optimistic.”
Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people has around 5,000 garment factories employing more than four million, and is the world’s biggest exporter of garments after China.