Women Trapped in Bangladesh Collapse Plead for Promised Cash

Bulbuli Akter got tired of waiting in her village for the government to provide compensation after Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster left her afraid to go back to work. Now she’s making her case on the streets of Dhaka.

“I’ve heard many promises from the government but haven’t received anything from them,” Akter, 23, who spent four days trapped under rubble when Rana Plaza collapsed a year ago today, said on the outskirts of the capital this week. “I have no money, and I need it badly.”

Akter is among more than 2,400 survivors who have received little help in the year since the eight-story building collapse killed 1,135 people. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has given out less than a fifth of the 1.27 billion taka ($16 million) in her relief fund, and the International Labor Organization has raised less than half of its $40 million goal to help victims -- a tiny fraction of the profits earned by leading retailers.

Bangladesh has struggled to comply with stricter safety standards demanded by the U.S. and others after the tragedy roiled the world’s second-largest garment industry. Last year, the government raised the minimum monthly wage by 77 percent to about $70 -- still among the world’s lowest -- for garment workers supplying retailers like Hennes & Mauritz AB and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. after protests shut factories.

“We cannot leave all those victims,” Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director-general of ILO, said in an interview in Dhaka in which he called on global retailers to contribute more to help those injured last year. “We really hope that they would come forth and really collectively recognize the need to compensate the people, though they may not be legally responsible.”

Victim Funds

More than 1,500 of the survivors were injured in the collapse, according to data from ActionAid Bangladesh. About 1,000 victims surveyed by the aid group can’t hold jobs due to physical ailments, trauma, or unwilling employers.

After the collapse, the Hasina administration called for donations into a relief fund to help victims. While most families of dead workers received funds, 173 didn’t get any financial help from the government, Mikail Shipar, labor secretary, told reporters in Dhaka yesterday.

“We’re trying to sort out the problem,” he said, pledging to fast-track the payments. The government will pay 50,000 taka ($644) each to about 3,000 victims, including the families of those who died, he said.

Hand Pierced

The ILO trust fund, established in January, has received just $15 million so far. That’s less than 0.1 percent of an estimated $22 billion earned in profits each year by 29 brands that sourced garments from low-cost producers, the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of trade unions and non-government organizations, said in an April 9 statement.

“Brands are failing Rana Plaza victims, and they need to pay up now,” Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the IndustriALL Global Union, which says it represents 50 million workers in 140 countries, said by e-mail.

Akter is still haunted by the collapse. A year ago, she went to work at Phantom Apparels Ltd. in Rana Plaza. When the pillars around her came crashing down, she ducked behind a sewing machine. It blocked the pillar, but a metal rod jutting out of the concrete pierced her hand and left her trapped.

“I couldn’t make my way out,” she said. “I cried for help. I cried for water for hours. I was hungry.”

Female Workers

A local government investigation later found that building had flouted several safety rules, including the placement of heavy-duty generators on its roof.

Three separate groups have started factory inspections since Rana Plaza collapsed backed by companies including Wal-Mart and H&M, as well as the Bangladeshi government and the ILO. They have yet to complete inspections of the nearly 5,000 factories across greater Dhaka.

Primark Stores Ltd. inspection teams have found “no significant issues” in any of the 88 factories used by the company, Paul Lister, company secretary of London-based Associated British Foods, which owns Primark, said in an interview.

“It would’ve been wrong to pull out of Bangladesh,” Lister said. “You look for issues and deal with them when you find them.”

The country’s garment industry employs 3.5 million people, 80 percent of whom are estimated to be women, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the industry lobby.

Hearing Cries

Primark, Wal-Mart, Asda Group Ltd., Loblaw Companies Ltd., Children’s Place Retail Stores Inc. and Gap Inc.’s foundation are among companies that have pledged money, according to the ILO trust fund’s website. Donations don’t imply legal responsibility for the collapse, the website says.

Fifteen brands haven’t contributed, including those of Benetton Group SpA and Carrefour SA, according to the website of Switzerland-based UNI Global Union. Benetton is working with BRAC, a Bangladesh-based development organization, to support victims, the Italian group said in an e-mailed response to questions on April 22, without disclosing the amount spent.

Carrefour said in an e-mailed statement that it had “no commercial link with any of the Rana Plaza’s factories.”

Akter plans to join a rally today at the factory site along with other victims pushing for compensation. While frequent headaches and back pain prohibit her from heavy lifting, she says she’s eager to find a job -- as long as it’s not in a garment factory.

“Memories of the tragedy come back to me,” Akter said. “When I close my eyes at night, I hear the cries of people trapped inside the building. I hear the noise.”

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