Fashion followers focus world's attention on Bangladeshi tragedy

By Sarah Morrison

Campaigners are working hard to make sure that tragedies such as the Rana collapse do not happen again. Photo / AP
Campaigners are working hard to make sure that tragedies such as the Rana collapse do not happen again. Photo / AP

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. Her husband, Jewel, who was working five floors below her for another garment factory, was killed.

Now, with the first anniversary of one of the world's worst industrial accidents tomorrow, Nazma, 22, cares for their son, Junayed, on her own. She says he is a "carbon-copy" of his father, who was one of 1138 men and women to lose their lives on April 24 last year.

To commemorate the disaster and highlight the human cost of the demand for fast fashion, people from across the globe are taking part in the inaugural Fashion Revolution Day. From a flash mob in Oxford St, 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 stores such as Primark, Mango, and Benetton - but only around half have contributed to the fund backed by the International Labour Organisation. Around US$15 million ($17 million) has been collected out of a US$40 million 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 ($178) to pay for her husband's funeral, Nazma said she has received no compensation from the Government. She does not know how she is going to provide for her 6-month-old baby.

"I haven't received anything 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 aunt [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 Nazma is the fact that she and her late husband knew conditions in their factory were unsafe. The day before the collapse, they were 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," Nazma said.

Campaigners are working hard to make sure that such a tragedy does not happen again. 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 1600 factories.

Under the accord, 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, says 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 said. Eight factories which were deemed at risk of imminent collapse have temporarily suspended operations.

"There has been a 77 per cent increase in minimum wage, to about €50 ($80) 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," 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."Independent

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