Reliving the Rana Plaza factory collapse: a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 22

Two years ago this overcrowded, poorly built complex became a symbol of global inequality when 1,134 people died to feed the world’s appetite for cheap clothing

Rescuers work at the collapsed Rana Plaza complex in the Greater Dhaka district of Savar.

Rescuers work at the collapsed Rana Plaza complex in the Greater Dhaka district of Savar. Photograph: Zuma/Rex Features

The small concrete room at the end of the narrow walkway behind the Ansar Ali supermarket is in darkness thanks to another power cut. Faded trade union posters line the walls of this, the Bangladesh National Garment Workers Federation’s (NGWF) office. Sat on a plastic chair in the middle of the room, light filtering in through the open door, Shahorbanu relives the story of losing a son to the Rana Plaza.

Siddique was a 24-year-old garment worker, a tall man affectionate with his mother and his little son, Parvez. When, on 24 April 2013, the eight-storey factory complex collapsed, Siddique became trapped under thousands of tonnes of rubble. He managed to take his mobile phone out of his pocket and call his mother. Shahorbanu describes his terrified voice pleading: “Ma, please save me. Somehow, just please save me.”

As Shahorbanu tells her story, Rafiqul Islam, vice-president of the federation for the Greater Dhaka city suburb of Savar, walks through the door. Tall with curly black hair, the sight of him brings Shahorbanu to tears. “My son was just like him. I miss when he would come back home and call me Ma – ‘Umma’. It is a great suffering to bury the body of a son.”

It was Siddique’s 19-year-old brother Bijan who eventually found his body, five days after the collapse. Working as a rescuer digging bodies out of the rubble left Bijan traumatised. Shahorbanu describes him as “unable to tolerate any loud sounds – even loud talking”.

People rescue garment workers trapped under rubble at the Rana Plaza building.
Global trade unions called the collapse ‘mass industrial homicide’, while Vogue magazine described it as ‘tragedy on an epic scale’. Photograph: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

In the 90 seconds it took to collapse, the Rana Plaza garment complex became a symbol of global inequality. Considered the deadliest unintended structural failure of modern times, global trade unions called it “mass industrial homicide”. The Rana Plaza Coordination Committee, set up in response to the disaster, puts the final death toll at 1,134 people.

The wreckage, cleared away by day labourers with baskets of rubble on their heads, also signified a city out of control – where illegally constructed buildings buckle under the weight of people and machinery because regulation has been trumped by competition and profit.

Two years on, the only visible memorial to the devastation is two giant granite fists clutching a hammer and sickle, erected by the Workers Party of Bangladesh. Neighbourhood talk is that a new factory will soon be built on the site, as global demand for cheap clothing continues to grow.

Shahorbanu, whose son Siddique was killed in the Rana Plaza collapse.
Shahorbanu, whose son Siddique was killed in the Rana Plaza collapse. Photograph: Rainbow Collective

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest garment producer, churning out billions of pieces of clothing each year. International brands are typically attracted by cities where costs of production – including wages, employment benefits, and health and safety – are as low as possible. Prior to Rana Plaza there had already been a string of disasters in Bangladesh’s garment industry, culminating in the Tazreen factory fire that killed 112 people six months earlier. Yet business continued as usual.

On the morning of the collapse, garment workers and managers argued on the forecourt outside Rana Plaza. Large cracks had appeared in the building the day before, and the workers did not want to go inside. Another devastated mother, Argina, says her 18-year-old daughter, Rubina, was told if she didn’t show up for work that day then she would not be paid for the month. She had only been working there for four months before she died.

Rana Plaza is a story of city life for millions of impoverished women in the modern world. Bangladesh’s garment industry is 85-90% staffed by women; they are the machine operators, the garment quality inspectors, the ones who press shirts and snip loose threads six days a week for 12 hours a day.

Women also make up the majority of the 5,000 people – disabled survivors and families of victims – who are still owed compensation by the brands that used Rana Plaza. Moushumee worked on the seventh floor in a factory called New Wave Style; she survived the collapse but remains traumatised, tortured by nightmares and unable to set foot in another garment factory.

A strong trade union might have been able to evacuate Rana Plaza, but Bangladesh’s labour laws are skewed in favour of factory owners. Violence against union organisers is frequent. In the NGWF Savar office, Rafiqul Islam rolls up his trousers to reveal shins covered in scars from being beaten with sticks by factory management thugs. He claims that if a factory wants to terminate a worker’s contract, they place a gun or a knife in full view of the resignation forms they want signed.

Brad Loewen, a former chief building official for the city of Winnipeg, works on the 12th floor of a Dhaka tower block. His office is new and sparse; there is a desk, a map of Bangladesh and a suit jacket on a hanger. Loewen is the chief inspector for the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety, a legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions established after Rana Plaza to replace the voluntary arrangements that went before.

Monument to the 1,134 people killed in the collapse.
Monument to the 1,134 people killed in the collapse. Photograph: Tansy Hoskins

The view from Loewen’s office gives a sense of the sheer size of Dhaka; the city is a seemingly infinite web of pale buildings surrounded by a haze of smog. Roughly 4,000 of these buildings are garment factories, of which 1,500 are covered by the accord. Opposite is Hossain Market, a garment factory where 1,200 workers from the Tuba Group went on hunger strike in 2014.

“During a catastrophic failure it’s columns that fail,” Loewen explains. A building such as the Rana Plaza complex should have been built to withstand twice its anticipated load, but in Dhaka, with its lack of construction watchdogs, buildings commonly get “under-built”.

“No one’s watching them,” Loewen says of Dhaka’s contractors. “There’s no government regulator, there’s no overall project management … They’re just building whatever they want.”

Rana Plaza had numerous illegal floors built on a hopelessly weak structure. Its construction materials were of extremely poor quality, and giant vibrating generators had been placed on several floors to keep the power on and the sewing machines running during the city’s regular power cuts. More and more people, machines and fabric bales were crammed inside until the load-bearing columns cracked apart.

In the two years since the Rana Plaza tragedy, Loewen’s team of 70 Bangladeshi engineers has evacuated or closed 17 unsafe buildings. The team normally carries out 200 inspections a month, but political unrest and violence in Dhaka means they have achieved only 50 visits in the first few months of 2015.

One building they were able to inspect was the Mega Chois Knitwear factory. Having been found highly unsafe, it is now suspended from the Accord process for refusing to evacuate. The inspection found that the factory had 600 employees, a childcare centre on the sixth floor, and just one unprotected exit out of the building. According to Loewen: “The chances of people getting out of that building in the case of a fire are extremely limited.”

Source: The Guardian