One Year On, Many International Retailers Not Contributing
April 23, 2014

One year after Rana Plaza collapsed, far too many victims and their families are at serious risk of destitution. International garment brands should be helping the injured and the dependents of dead workers who manufactured their clothes.     

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director

(Bangkok) – Survivors of the Rana Plaza building collapse one year ago in Bangladesh are still suffering from their injuries and loss of income, Human Rights Watch said today. International companies that sourced garments from five factories operating in the Rana Plaza building are not contributing enough to the financial trust fund set up to support survivors and the families of those who died.

According to the Bangladesh government, more than 1,100 people died and about 2,500 were rescued from the disaster when the building collapsed on April 24, 2013. The target for the fund, which is chaired by the International Labour Organization (ILO), is US$40 million, but only $15 million has been raised so far. On April 22, 2014, the government announced that victims would receive their first payments of $645 each from the fund.

Survivors and relatives told Human Rights Watch that they continue to suffer from life-changing injuries, psychological trauma, and a loss of income. Some said they were struggling to feed their families and send their children to school. Survivors also told Human Rights Watch of the poor working conditions in the factories prior to the collapse. The eight-story building housed factories supplying garments to major brands in the US and Europe.

“One year after Rana Plaza collapsed, far too many victims and their families are at serious risk of destitution,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “International garment brands should be helping the injured and the dependents of dead workers who manufactured their clothes.”

Of the $15 million raised for the fund so far, a single firm, Primark, has donated $8 million, according to the fund’s website. Some companies that were not doing business with Rana Plaza have also contributed to the fund. By contrast, 15 brands whose clothing and brand labels were found in the rubble of the factory by journalists and labor activists have not paid into the fund.

The fund will establish a systematic and transparent claims process so that all victims, their families, and dependents will receive the long-term support they need. The fund is open to any company, individual, or organization that “wishes to contribute as a way of expressing solidarity and compassion with the Rana Plaza victims,” the fund’s website explains.

According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility “to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations,” and to take remedial action should abuses occur. The UN Global Compact encourages businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible practices in line with international human rights standards.

Human Rights Watch has written to the companies that have not paid into the fund, asking them to explain why. They include: Adler Modemärkte (Germany), Ascena Retail (USA), Auchan (France), Benetton (Italy), Carrefour (France), The Cato Corporation (USA), Grabalok/Store Twenty One (UK), Güldenpfennig (Germany), J.C. Penney (USA), Kids for Fashion (Germany), Matalan (UK), NKD Deutschland GmbH (Germany), PWT (Texman) (Denmark), and Yes Zee ESSENZA (Italy). Benetton replied to explain why it has preferred a project run by an NGO. Others, such as Ascena Retail, Carrefour, the Cato Corporation, and Güldenpfennig, have made previous statements denying they were doing business at Rana Plaza at the time of the collapse, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Human Rights Watch also wrote to 14 companies that are listed as donors to the Rana Plaza Trust Fund, asking them if they plan to take any further steps to improve the plight of injured workers or families of deceased workers. These are: Bonmarché (UK), C&A (Holland), Camaïeu (France), The Children's Place (USA), El Corte Inglés (Spain), Inditex (Spain), KIK (Germany), Loblaw (Canada), LPP S.A. (Poland), Mango (Spain), Mascot International (Denmark), N. Brown Group (UK), Premier Clothing (UK), and Walmart (USA).

Nine of these companies replied to Human Rights Watch explaining why they contributed to the fund. Some said they had done so even though were not linked to Rana Plaza. Britta Schrage-Oliva, of KIK, said she hoped her company’s contribution of $500,000 would encourage others to donate.

“Companies should recognize this fund is the most appropriate mechanism for ensuring that the right help goes to the right people, since it has been set up by all the relevant stakeholders: the Bangladesh government, industry bodies, the ILO, trade unions, NGOs, and some of the brands themselves,” Robertson said. “International garment brands now need to step up their support to make this victims’ fund work to help the thousands of people affected by this disaster.”

Human Rights Watch recently spoke to 44 survivors and relatives of the deceased, and found that all had received some financial support, but in most instances this was inadequate. The assistance came from a variety of sources but the amount each received may not have been sufficient, with little opportunity for victims to seek adjustments.

Those survivors who lost limbs received saving certificates from the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office, guaranteeing a monthly income of $130-$190. But doctors amputated both of Rabeya Begum’s legs in December, months after the saving certificates were distributed by the government. So instead of receiving a guaranteed monthly income, Rabeya, 35, said she had about $4,500 from various donors; money, she says, that has already almost run out.

“I have four children and my husband can no longer work because he needs to look after me,” Rabeya told Human Rights Watch. “We are now only living off the money I received when I was in hospital. This is about to be finished and I don’t know what we will do once we spend this money.”

Alamgir Hossain, 27, said that the psychological impact of the accident has left him incapable of work. “After I left the hospital I took a job at a factory, but I could not continue for more than four months,” he said. “Whenever there was a fire alarm I started screaming. Even if there was a small sound I had to run away. People thought I was going mad.”

Runa Rani, 35, worked alongside her daughter, Sampti, 18, at Rana Plaza. Rani escaped with minor injuries, but it took until February for her daughter’s body to be identified. In April the government gave her $1,200. “A lot of people relied upon my daughter’s salary, and without it, we are really suffering,” Rani said.

The workers also described working conditions in the factories prior to the collapse. They alleged that children worked in four of the five factories: New Wave Bottom, New Wave Style, Ethertex, and Phantom Apparel. They said that factory managers forced children to work long hours and sought to conceal them from external monitors.

In these same four factories, it has been alleged that managers used physical and verbal abuse to pressure workers who failed to meet production targets or made errors, survivors said. Factories also denied workers toilet breaks or prayer breaks, refused to give sick leave, and required them to work overtime, which was sometimes not compensated.

On the morning of the disaster, the workers said, managers ordered workers to enter the Rana Plaza building, even though it had been closed the day before for safety reasons after large cracks appeared in the walls. In some instances it is said that the managers threatened workers who hesitated to comply. None of the five factories operating in Rana Plaza had trade unions, which could have stood up to factory managers and prevented the workers from being compelled to go back into the dangerous building.

Participants of the UN Global Compact agree to abide voluntarily by 10 principles. Principle 2 calls on businesses to ensure that through their operations they are not complicit in human rights abuses. At least four of the companies that have paid into the fund, El Corte Inglés, Inditex, Mango, and N. Brown Group, are listed by the Global Compact as participating companies.

Two of the companies that have been linked to Rana Plaza by campaigners and journalists, Auchan and Carrefour, are also participants in the Global Compact, according to its website. In May 2013, Carrefour said it had no business dealings with any of the factories in Rana Plaza. In the same month, Auchan said that it had never placed any direct orders with the Rana Plaza factories and was investigating why its labels were reportedly found there.

“The Rana Plaza disaster showed the failure of proper oversight over factories manufacturing clothes for international garment brands,” Robertson said. “These brands should help mitigate the damage by assisting with the full restitution of those who were injured or lost their lives in the collapse.”

Update:

Since this statement was published, Human Rights Watch has also received letters from Inditex, PWT, and ADLER.

For statements by survivors and relatives of the deceased, see below.


Statements by survivors and relatives of the deceased
Human Rights Watch conducted 44 interviews in Dhaka and Savar in March and April 2014.

On struggling to survive after the building collapse:
“I have four children and my husband can no longer work because he needs to look after me. We are now only living off the money I received when I was in hospital. This is about to be finished and I don't know what we will do once we spend this money.” – Rabeya Begum, 35, whose legs had to be amputated eight months after the accident due to the injuries she sustained.

“I promised my landlord that if I get compensation I will pay him the rent money I owe him. Some relatives are helping us with food. We manage to eat three times a day but the food is poor. I can't work because I am terrified every time I step into a building.” – Mohammed Khokan, 35.

“My husband is the only earner in the family. It is difficult for us to survive on his income.” – Liza Akter, 21.

“After I left the hospital I took a job at a factory, but I could not continue for more than four months. Whenever there was a fire alarm I started screaming. Even if there was a small sound I had to run away. People thought I was going mad. I had to leave the job, now I am struggling to support my wife and a kid.” – Alamgir Hossain, 27.

“The government office put the wrong address on the list. We are from Manikganj but they listed our address as Dinajpur, so we did not get the $3,800 that other families got. I went to so many people to correct this mistake but without any success and our money is running out. She was the only earner in the family. I have an autistic son to look after. I just cannot explain how much misery the disaster has brought upon us.” – Phoolmala, mother of Rikta, 18.

On entering the factory on the morning of the tragedy:
“We did not want to work but the general manager came and threatened us, and said that if we did not work we would not get paid next month’s salary. He slapped one of my friends, and dragged me out of where I was hiding under the staircase, and took me to work.” – Reshma, 21, Ethertex Ltd.

“We knew there was some problem with the building. When I went inside with my sister, I realized the problem was serious. Some of us wanted to leave but the production manager would not allow us. He threatened to tell our fathers. Two minutes later the power went out and the building collapsed. My sister's body was never found.” – Rozina Begum, 24, New Wave Bottom.

“I did not want to go to work that day and was lying in bed when my line chief called. He told me to go to work or they would deduct my salary.” – Rita Begum, 22, New Wave Style.

On working conditions prior to the collapse:
“Terrible, verbal abuse was common. We were not allowed to use the bathroom or offer prayers. Often they forced us to do some extra work without pay. Three months ago I was told to work until 11 p.m., and when I refused the general manager hit me with a stick.” – Reshma, age unknown, Ethertex Ltd.

“The condition was bad. Just seven days before the collapse, the production manager took me into his office. He slapped me in the face and used abusive words. Someone had supplied the wrong cloth for a pocket I was sewing. It was not my fault. I felt shocked, I could not understand what I had done wrong.” – Sabina Begum, 25, New Wave Style.

“Fifteen days before the collapse I was suffering from fever. I had asked for leave, but it was not approved. So, I had to work despite being sick. Naturally, I could not meet the target. So the line chief insulted me for this.”– Aliron Begum, 40, New Wave Bottom.

“My duty was sew loops into trouser pants. Every day I had to sew 1,200 of them. It was a big target, so I avoided drinking water so I did not have to go to the toilet.” – Shilpi Begum, 22, New Wave Bottom.

On child labor:
“There were three other girls of my age. The usual working hours were 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The environment was not nice. If I could not complete my work, the line chief would hurl abuse at me.” – Yaa Noor Akhter, 14, Ethertex Ltd.

There were some child workers. Whenever a buyer would come they would be asked not to come to work for the day or were told to hide in the toilet. – Abdur Rouf, 35, Phantom Apparels.

“There were a few child workers. When a buyer would visit the factory they were kept hidden in the toilet. I knew one girl, she was not yet 15.” – Ajiron Begum, 40, New Wave Bottom.