Four years after Rana Plaza, union action prevents a repeat
On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed, killing over 1100 mostly women workers. Bangladeshi and global unions persuaded multinational enterprises to join the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord and commit to trade union rights, to prevent Rana Plaza ever happening again. Four years on, the case of the Ananta textile factory in Dhaka suggests that it’s working, on this occasion saving 3,000 workers from suffering the same fate as Rana Plaza’s workforce.
At 5pm on Wednesday 5 April, a two storey brick structure (where the factory guards were stationed) adjoining the Ananta Apparel factory on Elephant Road, Dhaka collapsed and cracks appeared in the 15 storey reinforced concrete building producing ready-made garments for global brands like Next, H&M, C&A, Inditex (Zara), Mango, Marks & Spencer, River Island, GAP, Levis, Abercrombie & Fitch etc. Ananta’s seven companies exported $240m of garments last year.
The cause of the problems was an excavation site next door. But unlike Rana Plaza, where the absence of a union meant that the workers re-entered the building when management told them to, afraid of losing their pay or even their jobs, at the Ananta factory, TUC partner the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) organises the workers through the Ananta Fashion & Apparels Workers Union (AFAWU). AFAWU leaders called on the employers to evacuate the building, and after just 15 minutes, they agreed to close the factory for two days.
NGWF Organising Secretary Rafiqul Islam Rafique immediately met with the workers, who decided to demonstrate the next day at the headquarters of the Directorate of Inspector General of Factories & Establishment (DIFE), the government department responsible for factory safety, to convince the DIFE to force owner/management to close down the factories until complete structural remediation. The NGWF also contacted the Accord to investigate the state of safety and security at the Ananta building.
Next morning, hundreds of the Ananta workers paraded to the DIFE building and blockaded the offices, demanding that the Inspector General of Factories & Establishments (IGFE) send an official team to inspect the Ananta site. The IGFE complied and the DIFE issued a notice of factory closure till structural remediation of the Ananta Plaza made it safe for human occupancy. Then the workers, in a procession, went to the head office of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer & Exporters (BGMEA), the apex body of the country’s factory owners, to press home the union’s demands, including factory closure, salary compensation and continuity of service.
Meanwhile, the Accord dispatched a team of structural engineers and remediation experts to visit Ananta Plaza. The Accord issued a closure notice declaring the building unsafe for workers and production, and told the factory management to carry out four emergency remediation steps.
On 7 April, the workers staged a protest in the city centre, airing their demands, including structural remediation, salary compensation, job continuity and no victimization. The workers were worried that the whole building might collapse if they were forced to enter in the factories to resuming production after two days. Meanwhile, the management started filling and compacting the excavated area and the cracks, using 40,000 cubic feet of earth and sand.
On Friday 10 April, the factory announced that the emergency remediation was complete and that the site had been announced safe by engineers from the Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology and officials of DIFE. Management asked the workers to return to work but they were still apprehensive, so the NGWF and the management simultaneously requested the Accord to re-investigate, which they did the next day. After a meeting with the workers, the NGWF and AFAWU agreed to a return to work on Sunday 12, subject to the management, BGMEA & Accord being in attendance as workers re-entered the building.
The NGWF, its factory union and the Atanta workers successfully used the ACCORD and the Government department concerned to force the management to close the factory until the completion of emergency remediation. In addition, at 8am on the morning of the return to work, the NGWF, factory union, management, BGMEA and Accord officials, including structural engineers, met at the factory before production recommenced. The meeting resolved that the factory management would pay salary compensation to the workers for the days it was closed, that there would be no victimization of workers for their actions and the management committed that they would complete the remediation of the building complex as recommended by the Accord as early as possible.
NGWF’s Shahidul Islam Shahid, who provided much of the information in this blog, told the TUC:
“This is a great victory for the workers, the union and the NGWF and a testimony of success of partnership between trade unions and the Accord.”