On 2-Year Anniversary of Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Activists Announce Major Victory for Victims

Miriam Shestack April 24, 2015

Mahinur Begum, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi garment worker who was completely buried in rubble during the Rana Plaza factory collapse two years ago today, points to pairs of pants on a shelf at The Children's Place—the same pants she sewed while working at Rana Plaza. (USAS)

On Feb­ru­ary 24 Mahin­ur Begum vis­it­ed a Children’s Place store in Mia­mi where she dis­cov­ered a shelf full of the pants she used to sew at the Rana Plaza fac­to­ry in Dha­ka, Bangladesh — before the fac­to­ry where she worked col­lapsed, bury­ing her in debris and killing hun­dreds of work­ers around her.

Mahin­ur was 16 at the time of the fac­to­ry col­lapse, and lost a toe when machin­ery fell on her. She says she con­tin­ues to suf­fer emo­tion­al trau­ma from the event. Work­ers like Begum, along with stu­dents and activists across the U.S., are demand­ing that brands that sourced from Rana Plaza pay fair com­pen­sa­tion to work­ers that suf­fered from the factory’s col­lapse and their fam­i­lies. And today, on the two-year anniver­sary of the factory’s col­lapse, those activists announced a major vic­to­ry as The Children’s Place agreed to pay $2 mil­lion into that fund after a months-long bat­tle with work­ers and advocates.

Over 1,100 work­ers were killed and thou­sands more injured when the Rana Plaza fac­to­ry build­ing col­lapsed on April 24, 2013. The event marked the dead­liest dis­as­ter in the his­to­ry of the gar­ment indus­try. The Rana Plaza build­ing housed five fac­to­ries that pro­duced cloth­ing for almost 30 west­ern ret­ailers and brands includ­ing Pri­mark, Loblaw, Wal­mart, Man­go and The Children’s Place.

Fol­low­ing the dis­as­ter, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Bangladeshi Gov­ern­ment, the gar­ment indus­try, non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and unions formed the Rana Plaza Coor­di­na­tion Com­mit­tee to over­see the Rana Plaza Arrange­ment, designed to pay the vic­tims of the col­lapse as well as their fam­i­ly and depen­dents. The Coor­di­na­tion Com­mit­tee set up the Rana Plaza Donors’ Trust Fund, open to vol­un­tary dona­tions from any com­pa­ny, orga­ni­za­tion or individual.

Accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Orga­ni­za­tion, more than 2,800 claims relat­ing to over 5,000 injured work­ers and depen­dents of the deceased had been received by late 2014. By April 2015, around $24 mil­lion had been made avail­able for com­pen­sa­tion by brands, retail­ers and oth­er donors. That num­ber falls short of the $30 mil­lion dol­lar goal set for the fund based on the esti­mat­ed amount need­ed to cov­er the claims.

The Children’s Place had come under par­tic­u­lar fire for its fail­ure to con­tribute the $8 mil­lion it has been asked to pay to the vic­tims of the col­lapse. Before today’s announce­ment, The Children’s Place has con­tributed only $450,000 to the Rana Plaza Trust Fund. Activist orga­ni­za­tions increased their efforts to per­suade The Children’s Place to pay in full ahead of the two-year anniver­sary of the col­lapse. As a part of these efforts, Unit­ed Stu­dents Against Sweat­shops (USAS), a stu­dent-labor advo­ca­cy group with chap­ters on more than 150 col­lege cam­pus­es, orga­nized a work­er tour at col­leges around the coun­try fea­tur­ing Begum and Kalpona Akter, Direc­tor of the Bangladesh Cen­ter for Work­er Sol­i­dar­i­ty. Akter and Begum joined stu­dents for speak­ing events, deliv­er­ies of demand let­ters and ral­lies in ten dif­fer­ent cities across the coun­try, demand­ing account­abil­i­ty from U.S. brands for their work­ers in Bangladesh.

On March 12, 27 stu­dents and work­ers, includ­ing mem­bers of USAS, the gar­ment work­ers union Work­ers Unit­ed, and the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Rights Forum, along with Akter and Begum, staged at demon­stra­tion at The Children’s Place’s head­quar­ters in Secau­cus, New Jer­sey, demand­ing that the com­pa­ny pay the remain­der of the $8 mil­lion owed to work­ers. All 27 pro­tes­tors, includ­ing Akter and Begum, were arrest­ed and charged with trespassing.

A let­ter issued by USAS intend­ed for dis­tri­b­u­tion at The Children’s Place loca­tions around the coun­try stat­ed that Mahin­ur Begum trav­eled from Bangladesh to share her sto­ry with The Children’s Place exec­u­tives and ask for fair com­pen­sa­tion for the health con­di­tions and emo­tion­al trau­ma she now strug­gles with as a result of the tragedy. Instead of hear­ing her sto­ry and talk­ing about solu­tions, The Children’s Place had Mahin­ur hand­cuffed and arrested.”

Today, The Children’s Place agreed to con­tribute an addi­tion­al $2 mil­lion to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund. An announce­ment on the USAS Face­book page reads, After two years of cam­paign­ing, The Chil­dren’s Place has agreed to pay $2 mil­lion into the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund to com­pen­sate the vic­tims of the col­lapse.” Julia Wang, a Nation­al Orga­niz­er for USAS, fur­ther adds, This con­tri­bu­tion came after hun­dreds of actions across the coun­try at Children’s Place stores.”

The Children’s Place isn’t the only com­pa­ny that has faced heat for refus­ing to put ade­quate mon­ey into the fund — Benet­ton has also come under inter­na­tion­al pres­sure in the after­math of the Rana Plaza dis­as­ter. The com­pa­ny has also giv­en to the Rana Plaza Trust Fund, but far less than the amount alleged­ly owed based on its lev­el of pro­duc­tion in the fac­to­ry at the time of the col­lapse. The Finan­cial Times recent­ly quot­ed Toni Airol­di, chief exec­u­tive of Benet­ton, as say­ing that because brand con­tri­bu­tions were vol­un­tary and undis­closed, Only a mir­a­cle would have brought $30m.”

While super­nat­ur­al inter­ven­tion may not be in the cards, com­pa­nies like Benet­ton can cer­tain­ly expect to see esca­lat­ing action from frus­trat­ed stu­dents and work­ers angry at the brands’ lack of action as work­ers and their fam­i­lies con­tin­ue to go with­out full com­pen­sa­tion two years after the Rana Plaza col­lapse. In the past year, oth­er brands like the North Face and Jans­port — by way of their par­ent com­pa­ny, VF Cor­po­ra­tion— have also been the tar­gets of protests at stores where they are sold as a result of VF’s fail­ure to sign onto the legal­ly bind­ing Accord on Fire and Build­ing Safe­ty in Bangladesh.

USAS chap­ters around the coun­try are also ask­ing their col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to help End Death­traps” in dan­ger­ous fac­to­ries like Rana Plaza and require that all brands pro­duc­ing col­lege-logo appar­el sign the accord as a con­di­tion of doing busi­ness. Twen­ty-six schools have required the licensee com­pa­nies who pro­duce their appar­el to sign since the start of the cam­paign, and 16 uni­ver­si­ties have end­ed con­tracts with JanS­port as a result of VF’s con­tin­ued refusal to sign the Accord. This cam­paign has led to sev­er­al sit-ins in the offices of uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dents. A sit-in at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa on April 7th cul­mi­nat­ed in the uni­ver­si­ty agree­ing to cut ties with VF Cor­po­ra­tion. Stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville have been occu­py­ing a build­ing on their cam­pus with the same demand since April 20.

USAS’s Wang sees the effort to secure com­pen­sa­tion for sur­vivors of the Rana Plaza col­lapse and their rel­a­tives as address­ing the imme­di­ate and essen­tial needs of work­ers, while action around the accord takes a longer view.

The long-term solu­tion to ensure that these types of dis­as­ters nev­er hap­pen again is get­ting brands to sign the accord and reme­di­ate unsafe fac­to­ries. The brands that are being tar­get­ed are col­le­giate brands who have sub­stan­tial pro­duc­tion in Bangladesh who have refused to thus far sign the Accord,” she says.

In the mean­time, Wang is con­fi­dent that with enough pub­lic pres­sure, more brands like The Children’s Place will pay com­pen­sa­tion to vic­tims of the Rana Plaza Col­lapse in the near future. Hope­ful­ly this will spur oth­er brands to do the same,” she says.

Miri­am Shes­tack is a Spring 2015 In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern. She is a senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go major­ing in his­to­ry and a mem­ber of Stu­dents Orga­niz­ing Unit­ed with Labor, an affil­i­ate of Unit­ed Stu­dents Against Sweatshops.
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