Photo credit: Rijans, Flickr / Creative Commons

Remembering Rana Plaza: 3 Years Later

By Paula Albertson

Nearly one year ago, on April 25, 2015, Nepal suffered one of the worst natural disasters in its history, an earthquake that could be felt as far away as Dhaka, Bangladesh, where Saiful, a garment factory employee, was at work.

As he and his coworkers at the factory felt the building tremor, Saiful kept everyone calm during the earthquake and its aftershocks. Afterwards, when his coworkers were afraid to reenter the factory, Saiful asked management to have inspectors check the building for structural damage. He accompanied the inspectors, who confirmed that the factory was safe, and conveyed the results to his coworkers.

Saiful had recently completed a fire and building safety certification training led by the Solidarity Center and funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. According to Saiful, the training gave him the confidence to take on a leadership role during the crisis, which could have led to a deadly stampede or worse. It also provided him with the knowledge he needed to advocate for the necessary post-earthquake safety steps.

Bangladesh has more than 4 million workers like Saiful in its ready made garment industry, workers who each day cut, stitch, and sew the clothes we wear. The RMG sector powers Bangladesh’s remarkable economic growth, catapulting the country’s GDP from $60.28 billion in 2005 to $173.82 billion in 2014. This growth provides job opportunities for millions of Bangladeshis, mostly women.

As the Labor Department’s labor attaché in Bangladesh, I work to support the growth of the RMG sector and the critical opportunities it creates for the country, while also supporting the equally important need for a legal framework that protects workers from exploitation and gives them a voice.

Paula (right) visits a workers’ café where they play a game and learn about their rights under Bangladesh’s labor law.

On the wall in my office is a framed photo of Rana Plaza, an image of the collapsed building surrounded by rescue crews and onlookers that circulated around the world and changed the way we think about garments … hopefully forever. Three years ago, more than 1,100 workers lost their lives, and many others were injured for life. This photo reminds me why I came to Bangladesh and helps keep me going.

The disaster of Rana Plaza demonstrates the importance of making sure that the voices of workers like Saiful are heard and respected on the job. On that day three years ago, workers at Rana Plaza noticed a crack in the wall and left the factory. But instead of having their concerns addressed, they were told to return to work.

Soon after Rana Plaza, the United States suspended its trade preference for Bangladesh because the government of Bangladesh was not doing enough to support workers’ rights as required by the Generalized System of Preferences law for all beneficiary countries. The U.S. developed an action plan for Bangladesh with specific actions that the government should take to provide a basis for reinstatement of GSP benefits.

To that end, I meet regularly with my counterparts at the country’s Labor Ministry, who work on the daunting task of ensuring workers’ rights and safety for the millions of garment workers and other workers throughout this country of more than 160 million people. I meet with trade unions, who share their frustrations with me as they try to get their registration paperwork through or face harassment from employers. And I meet with employers, who are often afraid of what a union might do or who struggle to pay for a $250,000 sprinkler system they just had installed.

But we try to help each of these groups with their concerns. The U.S. government has provided loan credit guarantee facilities to help make financing available for factory upgrades and safety improvements, supported training programs for unions and workers, and strengthened the government of Bangladesh agencies responsible for workers’ rights and safety.

One key example is a project funded by the Labor Department and implemented by the International Labor Organization that provided training to 40 inspectors on fire and building safety in garment factories. These inspectors are sharing their new skills with others, training more than 100 additional inspectors across Bangladesh.

Out of tragedy, we witness transformation. The process is not easy, and it is does not happen overnight, but today I will join others in Dhaka as we remember why, working together, we must continue the progress that has begun and ensure such a tragedy never happens again. Together all actors can show that workers’ rights and safety can go hand-in-hand with success.

Paula Albertson is a labor attaché with the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.