Remembering the Workers of Rana Plaza

Three years later, have things gotten any better for Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers?

Shahara, a garment worker in Bangladesh, stitches buttons on blazers at her workstation in a garments factory in Gazipur, Dhaka. / Josh Estey, USAID

What are you wearing today?

When you look in your closet, pick up a shirt or a pair of jeans, and look at the label. There is a good chance it has been made in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has 4 million garment workers, and one of them is Shahara. On the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, take just four minutes and watch Shahara’s story below.

Before the Rana Plaza tragedy, you might never have heard her story.

On April 24, 2013, a building collapse killed more than 1,100 workers — an industrial tragedy of unprecedented scale. Nearly all of these workers were Bangladeshi women, making less than $100 per month — including overtime — for working long hours sewing clothes bearing Western labels. Major European and American department stores were sourcing from factories housed in this building.

Governments, companies and civil society groups worldwide reacted to the tragedy with vows that it would never happen again. Now, on the three-year anniversary of this appalling event, it’s time to ask: Have things gotten any better for Bangladesh’s workers?

Rana Plaza taught us to make sure that when we think about development, we think not about numbers but about people — and how to give them the power they need to change things for themselves.

Bangladesh’s apparel industry was viewed as both a success and failure. The sector has been a critical engine to the country’s industrial development, creating wealth and jobs and reducing the country’s dependency on development aid. It was hailed for providing formal employment for many women, giving them a measure of economic autonomy.

But positive numbers for GDP growth, and even job creation, were offset by mounting evidence of rights abuses.

Shahara and other labor union members speak with factory management regarding leave and workers’ welfare. / Josh Estey, USAID

Rana Plaza was hardly the first industrial tragedy there — only the most unbelievable. In 2012, the Tazreen factory fire killed 117 garment workers; a fire in the That’s It Sportswear factory in 2010 caused dozens of workers to jump through windows to their deaths; and there were several prior tragedies, as well.

As worker rights advocates continuously pointed out, underpinning each and every one of these disasters was the fact that garment workers themselves had no way to voice their concerns to management.

Even when individual workers pointed out unsafe conditions, managers reportedly ordered them back to work. Without advocacy organizations to represent them, they could not push for reforms to end the use of unsafe buildings and numerous other abuses.

Factory workers in Gazipur receive training on use of fire extinguishers. / Josh Estey, USAID

That is beginning to change. Since 2014, USAID has invested in new programs to empower workers, and especially women workers like Shahara. Working through longstanding USAID partner Solidarity Center, USAID’s new Worker Empowerment Program invests not only in supporting workers organizing in factories, but also in their communities. Collectively these men and women workers are beginning to win small but important gains.

I recently met with activists setting up new community centers in garment worker neighborhoods. Their efforts to bring women together are already paying dividends.

Shahara takes a break from work to speak with her co-workers in a garments factory in Gazipur, Dhaka. / Josh Estey, USAID

For example, they told me that in one community, women were always late to their factory jobs because they had to cross a narrow bridge that was choked with traffic.

Working with others in the community, they succeeded in closing the bridge to vehicles for a short window each morning — allowing hundreds of their co-workers to walk to work on time.

Working together, these women are becoming community leaders with more plans for change to improve their lives.

We are paying attention to voices like Shahara’s, telling us what they need from their employers, their government and the world’s consumers. Workers acting collectively will win the change they need, inside factories and out.

Investing in efforts they lead for themselves is a win-win for workers, employers, communities, their country and, as their lives connect back with ours, for all of us.

About the Author

Bama Athreya is a Labor and Employment Rights Specialist in USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.

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