The victims are still suffering, but progress is being made to prevent a repeat of the tragedy
Najneen Akter Nazma was three months pregnant and working as a sewing operator on the seventh floor of the Rana Plaza factory complex, in Dhaka, Bangladesh when it collapsed last year. She lost consciousness for two hours. Later, as she was recovering, she found out that her husband, Jewel, who was working five floors below her for another garment factory, had been killed.
Now, with the first anniversary of one of the world’s worst industrial accidents days away, Ms Nazma, 22, is taking care of their son, Junayed, on her own. She says he is a “carbon-copy” of his father, who was one of 1,138 men and women to lose their lives on 24 April last year.
To commemorate the disaster and highlight the human cost of our demand for fast fashion, people from across the globe are taking part in the inaugural Fashion Revolution Day on Thursday. From a flash mob in Oxford Street, London, to workshops in Nepal, catwalks in Barcelona and an exhibition in Swaziland – fashionistas will come together to demand change in the industry and an end to multinationals relying on unsafe factories for their clothes.
More than 25 brands were linked to the nine-storey Rana Plaza complex, including high-street stores such as Primark, Mango, and Benetton – but only around half have contributed to the fund backed by the International Labour Organization. Around $15m (£9m) has been collected out of a $40m target, and for those living in the shadows of the former complex, life is still hard.
Except for one month’s salary and 20,000 taka (£153) to pay for her husband’s funeral, Ms Nazma said she has received no compensation from the Bangladeshi government. She does not know how she is going to provide for her six-month-old baby.
“I haven’t received any thing yet, not even for the sake of my son. The little amount of money I used to get from some individual donors in earlier months has also been stopped,” she said.
“I was planning to start a business of ready-made cloth, but that cannot be started yet as Junayed is still very young and I need to look after him. Money is also needed for business. I’m so grateful to my uncle and auntie [who are helping out], but I don’t know how long I can go [on] like this. My son is growing up. He has a future. But [I don’t know] how will I bear his cost till then.”
What haunts Ms Nazma is the fact that she and her late husband knew conditions in their factory were unsafe. The day before the collapse, they had been told there was a crack on the floor where Jewel worked. They considered taking a day off, but knew it would cost them one month’s salary; more than they could afford. “Since the incident, it’s not just the building that’s collapsed but my whole life too,” Ms Nazma said.
Campaigners are working hard to make sure that such a tragedy does not happen again. More than 160 brands, including Primark, Next, Marks & Spencer and Topshop- owner Arcadia, have signed up to the legally binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire & Building Safety, which covers 1,600 factories.
Under the accord, for the first time, multinationals will commit to help fund fire safety and building improvements in factories they work with, or terminate contracts if repairs cannot be made. More than 280 factories have been inspected for fire and electrical issues and 240 factories for structural issues, according to Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary of UNI Global Union, which helped draw up the plan. Around 100 inspectors are looking at around 45 factories a week, she added. Eight factories have temporarily suspended operations which were deemed at risk of imminent collapse.
“There has been a 77 per cent increase in minimum wage, to about 50 euros [£41] a month, but this is still 21 per cent under what is an estimated living wage for Bangladesh – which has the second-lowest wage for garment workers in the world,” Ms Hoffman said. “There is no doubt that these conditions are still of extreme poverty, built on low and depressed wages, but we are trying to change that.”
Ruksana Begum, 24, knows how hard it can be. She also worked on the seventh floor of the Rana Plaza complex, and was making belts when the building collapsed. She was trapped for four days, under several corpses. The pain in her leg was so excruciating that she tried to kill herself by beating her head against a stone.
Somehow she survived, but had to have her limb amputated. “I cannot work in a garment factory now, as I can’t operate a machine,” she said. “I hope that if I receive proper compensation, I could run my own tea shop. I received £80 compensation for the loss of my leg and £345 for the accident.”
Despite the challenges, ActionAid’s country director Farah Kabir said it is “critical” that “people in the UK do not stop buying clothes from Bangladesh”. She added: “The garment industry employs almost 4 million women, so it is important that the factories and the sector are strong, surviving and growing.”
Instead, argues fashion expert Caryn Franklin, who has just returned from Bangladesh, consumers must demand more of their favourite brands. She said that garment workers she met, who used to work in the Rana Plaza factory complex, had to put up with conditions akin to slavery. They told stories of being beaten, forced to work long hours for no overtime and of working in factories that had undergone no safety checks. She said it is unlikely conditions have changed.
“I don’t believe a single woman in the UK wants her fashion at the expense of the health and lives of women over on the other side of the world,” she said.
“We have to become discerning, and allow for the fact that all our favourite brands are cutting corners to deliver competitive prices and to serve the fast turnover of trend-orientated garments. We could be buying less, holding on [to items] for longer and pressurising retailers by saying we want to pay a price that honours the lives of women. All of us who love fashion can see ourselves as part of the solution, not part of the problem.”