While victims of Tazreen Fashion yearn for a complete compensation package from the brands and government[i], and victims of Rana Plaza look forward towards the fulfillment of an unfulfilled promise to get a compensation with which they may hope to survive on[ii], more workers have been pushed to streets and a higher number scratching for the very last pennies from those who they helped earn millions.
Brands, factories and governments have always been true to their history when it comes to the treatment of workers, and have unfortunately been consistent with their reputation against women workers who constitute the biggest portion of the 4.0 million worker strong garment industry in Bangladesh. While economies and wealth have multiplied with export volumes reaching over $24billion (2013-14)[iii] with over 16 percent rise in shipments in 2013-14 compared to 2012-13[iv], usual issues such as festival bonuses still plague the lives of workers protesting against factories who refuse to pay the due bonuses or even the rightful wages for the upcoming festival of Eid (the biggest festival celebrated in Bangladesh).
Recent protests, however are not limited to bonuses, wages and layoffs, but rather have increasingly comes across due to factory closures by either the Alliance or the Accord (or both) where the closing time remains indefinite (or not communicated well enough with the workers) and compensation for their loss of employment/income being either inadequate or none-existent.
In recent times, apart from the brand and the factory owners, workers also face a new challenge initiated with the intention to ensure their safety through the European Accord and the US Alliance. Recent results have shown factory closures right before Eid when finding a new job is almost impossible for workers who lost their jobs due to the culture of hiring being stopped 2 months prior to Eid and only starting again after the festival. Increasing joblessness due to factory closures over indefinite period of time and the confusion over compensation or responsibility of these workers act as the chief catalysts for fresh chaos.
Catalysts of Chaos
Unfinished Story of the Tazreen Fashion Tragedy:
After almost 2 years of suffering, the Tazreen Fire victims can still be found on the streets of Dhaka, begging the government to come to their aide with the promised “Prime Minister’s Relief Fund” which had been offered to them repeatedly.
Tazreen victims have received some form of relief from the BGMEA in the form of 100,000BDT, while C&A with Li & Fung distributed salaries for one grade up to injured victims till they found a new job. However, with the aide from BGMEA drying up, and increasing number of victims denied continuous support from Caritas Bangladesh as they were deemed fit to find a new job or given short vocational training courses (too short to create any difference into the victim’s life) to find a new way of living.
Tazreen victims now look forward towards the government as their last resort and have been rallying endlessly for support. On 21 July 2014, victims of the Tazreen factory fire placed their four demands to the government which include[v]:
- Compensating the victims accordingly from the Prime Minister’s relief fund before Eid.
- The government to establish a cell to deal with the garments workers’ demands and complaints.
- Arrangement of new jobs for the injured workers of Tazreen Fashions.
- Updating the existing rules relating to payment of compensation money in the labor law.
On 21 July, the High Court on Sunday directed the Industries Ministry and BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) to submit a report mentioning how much compensation has been given to whom and under which process by 28 July.
We went back to some of the victims of Tazreen to know their present condition, and collected some stories to make them heard:
- Rajia, Tazreen Fashions Limited
Ms. Rajia, a 26 year old injured ex-Sewing operator from Tazreen Fashions Limited worked on the 3rd floor. On the day the factory was on fire she suffered from severe burns and injuries due to jumping off the building. She received BDT 1,00,000 each from the BGMEA immediately after the incident and a constant supply of medical treatment from C&A and Li-Fung via Caritas Bangladesh and their basic wage monthly wage according to the upper work grade scale from C&A and Li & Fung via Caritas until April this year. Around 40 injured workers from Tazreen Fashions received a 3 month long vocational training in Zirabo from C&A and Li & Fung via Caritas Bangladesh that ended in April 2014. She and many in similar situations like her complain that the Government of Bangladesh has not yet compensated for the loss of lives and jobs for the Tazreen workers, especially to those who still live an unbearable life. She says’ that the training was not up to the mark and that it was conducted on a hasty note. The Trainees mention that they could not learn much as to head start a vocation once again. Rajia says, “I’m in pain. I was in pain during the time of the training. I couldn’t hold a needle properly or a piece of cloth correctly. What kind of training is that? It was being forced on me… Ever since they started the training Caritas stopped paying for the medical bills. I still suffer from the back pain. The pain killers are very expensive. And ever since the training stopped they announced that they would no longer be paying our monthly wage. I have not found a job yet. How will I go one now? When I and others like me complained about the matter to the Caritas management, they advised us to write an application to them addressing the problem. We did this on the last day of the training but we did not receive any response yet.” Rajia has also been a part of the agitations claiming compensation from the Prime Minister’s relief fund for Tazreen Victims.
- Morsheda, Tazreen Fashions Limited
“Only around 13 victims of us from Tazreen Fashions Limited received BDT 50,000 from the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.” Morsheda says she also received BDT 1,00,000 from the BGMEA. C&A and Li-Fung via Caritas Bangladesh paid her monthly wage according to the upper grade scale until April 2014 when they abruptly stopped doing so. Also in the case of the medical bills reimbursement, Caritas refused to pay for the lump sum BDT 20,000 which Morsheda spent in Rangpur Medical College and Hospital for her back bone injury in July 2014. She was not one of those victims who received vocational training course, but her monthly wage payment was also stopped without letting her know of the reason. She is back to uncertainty, and lives in constant fear of her future.
- Rupali, Tazreen Fashions Limited
Another injured victim, 22 year old ex-Sewing Operator Ms Rupali worked on the 4th floor in Tazreen Fashions Limited. She attended the 3 month vocational training rendered by Caritas in Kamalapur, Savar, on Animal husbandry and poultry farming. She reports that she has learnt well. She received BDT 1,00,000 from the BGMEA but only BDT 50,000 from the Prime Minister immediately after the fire. C&A and Li-Fung via Caritas paid her monthly wage according to the upper grade scale until January 2014 when they abruptly stopped doing so. The medical bills reimbursement by Caritas has also stopped long ago. However, Rupali has been spending on medicine for her injuries on her own. Rupali has not found a job yet. She feels that she is still unable to work for her injuries.
Awaiting Justice and Compensation for the Rana Plaza Tragedy:
The biggest ever tragedy to hit Bangladesh was the Rana Plaza Tragedy, and it happened in quick succession to the Tazreen Tragedy. In a similar way to its predecessor, Rana Plaza workers have still been denied of their rightful compensation. The Rana Plaza arrangement is less than half way into their goal of collecting 40 million dollars for the victims, with Primark leading the compensation attempt by taking care of its workers from the New Wave Bottoms factory[vi].
The protesters declared today, 26 July 2014, that they would observe the upcoming Eid-u-Fitr at the Rana Plaza site and march towards the Central Shaheed Minar in the capital like the previous year, if they were not compensated before the festival[vii].
Among every disappointment, the greatest lingering tragedy lingers further with justice yet to be served to Sohel Rana (owner of Rana Plaza) who has not even been presented with a charge sheet.
The Sacrifice for Safety
Since Rana Plaza, safety has been the major issue for garment factories in Bangladesh. Apart from National efforts, the European Accord followed by a US led Alliance came promising rescue to the factories and lives of millions of workers in Bangladesh.
Since their inception, the European Accord inspected around 900 factories with only around 100 of the inspection reports released for the sake of transparency. The accord is supposed to be able to inspect another 600 factories by September and develop safety plans within a year after these inspections[viii]. With funds already showing strains[ix], the accord has been looking for increased funding from its donor brands to continue doing what it says “a blessing for Bangladeshi garment industry[x]”.
With 12 factories shut down, the wind of this blessing is yet to reach the workers who have lost their jobs indefinitely before their most important festival, Eid. With poor compensation experience, some of these workers agreed to share their stories with RISE:
- Nizam from Natural Sweaters Limited.
“My factory was shut down in June this year. I was paid 3 months worth of my basic salary without any Eid bonus. 350 workers lost their jobs. No one knows when the factory will restart. He was an In-charge of the finishing section.”
- Shumi from Tunic Fashions Limited
“My factory closed down on May. I received 7000BDT (3500BDT basic+ 3500BDT Eid bonus). 500 workers lost their job. No one talks about when the factory will reopen or will it ever reopen. I worked in the factory for 2 years as a sewing operator. I have a brother who now works. I hope to find work after this festival ends. Shumi’s last monthly wage without OT was BDT 5800.”
- Halima from Four Wings Limited
“I received BDT 6500 as ‘the sum which was given to me on the day we lost our jobs’. 6500 was paid to me as the summation of 2 monthly basic wages of my previous wage scale (which was BDT 3400). The last monthly wage I received from the factory was BDT 6400 apart from Over Time. I worked at four wings for almost 2 years as a sewing operator. I have two children, one 11 and another 5 years old. My husband sells vegetable for a living. He alone cannot help run the entire family expenditure. My eldest goes to school but the youngest cannot be admitted to school now for the shortage of money. The factory did not explain what payment is being given to me. The factory did not pay me my yearly bonus, festival bonus or other benefits which I am suppose to get by the law. The factory did not explain what the 6500BDT summed up as. My family now sees dark days ahead of them until I find another job after the festival, she says.”
Halima and her co-workers from four wings mention that it is extremely difficult to find a job before the festival ends. It is a week till its Eid ‘the awaited festival’ but the ex-workers only count days to find balance in their lives again rather plan a holiday with their loved ones.
- Sabina from Four Wings Limited
She says that she was paid 1350BDT twice for two consecutive months after the factory closure. Neither her co-workers nor she knows when or if the factory will restart. She was told that she will be given the same amount again on 27 August 2014. She and others like her were not explained by the factory management that on what basis were they being paid the amounts or at what rate. Sabina worked at four wings for 14 years. Her husband left her in her early days of working in the garments factory and never returned. She has no children. She lives all by herself. Sabina worked in the Finishing sector as a Helper and earned BDT 5300 as her monthly wage without Overtime.
- Asma from Four Wings Limited
She worked as a sewing operator for 5 years at four wings. The last monthly wage with Overtime she received was BDT 7000 which was the payment of the month of April. When asked about the compensation given to her because of the factory closure, she said she got 1700BDT thrice. This is half the amount of her old wage’s basic, that was, BDT 3400. The factory did not pay her any Eid bonus or any other form of compensation. Asma visited the factory on 24 July 2014 to inquire if she would be paid a little more before she finally found another job after the festival; she was denied of any payment and sent home. She lives in Dhaka with her husband and a teenage son.
The US Alliance has inspected almost 600 factories, which is just a 100 away from completing their objective of inspecting 700 factories. Till now they have been the reason behind the closure of 10 factory buildings[xi], however with a $100 dollar affordable loan arrangement and other workable means of financing factory remediation, they have been able to compensate around 1000 workers for four months worth of salary with their $5million worker support fund kept separately[xii].
While a separate fund for worker support from Alliance has raised some brows over the Accord which has not done the same to help pay laid off workers, the absence of factory remediation funds from the accord is also contributing to the anger of some factory owners who already are threatening the accord with legal actions[xiii]. Alan Roberts, executive director of the Accord’s international operations, ruled out any plan to set up a fund to disburse among factory owners for building renovations; “The Accord does, however, require all brands to work with factory owners to ensure that there is adequate financial support in place to carry out the relevant remediation. This is a clear requirement within the Accord, which is itself a legally binding agreement.”[xiv]
Some of the factories which have been closed by the Accord are: Softex Cotton (Pvt) Ltd, Fame Knitwear Ltd, Diamond Sweater Industries Ltd, Four Wings Ltd, Natural Woolwears Ltd, Tunic Fashion Ltd, Cherry (Pvt) Ltd, Joya Fashion, Florence Fashions Ltd, Ultimate Fashions Ltd, All Weather Fashions Ltd, Crystal Apparels Ltd, Men’s Apparels Ltd, Day Apparel’s Ltd, Day Fashion Ltd, Baized, RSI Apparels Ltd, Kent Garments (Pvt) Ltd, and Shanchand Garments Ltd, Jockey Garments Limited, S.Nahar Fashions Ltd, Maxim Industries Limited.
There are also partially closed due to questions on pillar strength (with the accord liking it at 1700PSI and the local engineers at 2100PSI) factories such as Clifton Textiles and Apparels Limited and Thats It Fashions Limited which have seen recent partial closings initiated by the Alliance. While the Accord have recommended immediate actions against Fakir Apparels, Oishee Fashions and Ashulia Fashions.
About 14000 workers, who were working with these factories, have already lost their jobs and are now passing hard days as many of them did not get proper/any compensation[xv].
The Worker’s Festival
Eid is a time of turmoil for factory workers who wait for an entire year for this day when they can celebrate with family for a day or two. However, with consistent denial of bonus, even wages, factory workers are seen protesting and going on march for their basic rights.
This Eid saw no difference, accept the increased plight of workers added with Tazreen and Rana Plaza victims asking for their dues. Moreover, several hundreds and thousands of workers and their families displaced by the factory closure enforced by the Accord now seek a justified compensation for their losses.
On a recent uproar today, 26 July 2014, the owner of Jockey Garment Limited had been surrounded by its workers led by the worker leader Ms. Sultana Akter, President of the Bangladesh Freedom Struggle Garment Worker’s Federation. Jockey Garments had previously been closed down by the Accord, and have since remained closed. The owner, besieged in the BGMEA building, pleaded the workers of being bankrupt waiting for help from the brands to compensate workers who have lost their job and months’ pay as well as their Eid bonus due to its shutdown by the Accord[xvi].
Apart from Jockey, other factories across Dhaka have been plagued by denial of festival bonuses as well, with at least 40% of the factories still to give these bonuses to their workers[xvii].
Gains and Losses
Since Tazreen and Rana Plaza, along with numerous other death of workers through fire or conspiracy, the losses are very clear when seen from Bangladeshi eyes, however the gains for workers is yet to be achieved. Meaningful promises have been made and safety has taken priority over all else. If this is good or bad, and how it can help the cause of workers is now increasingly a truth which looks less expected.
The fact remains that many workers still receive salaries less than the new minimum wage enforced by the government, while festival bonuses do not come across even when the industry grows setting new records in its success. Accord and Alliance with all their promises have found less than 2% of the factories to be too vulnerable[xviii] to be operational and those which they have found with flaws are left with uncertain futures with workers doomed in their misery.
However, as there is time there is hope, and till the last breath is breathed there is always chance for hope to prevail. Hope remains that the purpose of the minimum wage 2013, Accord, Alliance and numerous reports and documentaries, along with relief funds and compensation efforts can emancipate. The struggle, of course, continues and will continue till the workers can live and earn a decent wage which they actually can take home.
The Struggle for Justice and Dignity Continues.
In support of Peace through Justice. RISE.
[xv] http://theindependentbd.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=215014:19-rmg-factories-closed-14000-workers-jobless&catid=110:business-others&Itemid=156; http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/2014/07/08/43859
[xvii] The Daily Ittefaq, 26 July 2014 (front page).