Taqbir Huda, Amnesty International’s regional researcher for South Asia,

The Rana Plaza collapse and Tazreen Fashions Fire: An interview with Taqbir Huda

Eleven years after two of the deadliest cases of corporate negligence in Bangladesh — the Rana Plaza collapse and Tazreen Fashions Fire — garment workers who suffered permanent injuries while assembling clothes sold by leading global fashion labels have yet to receive justice. Occupational safety for most Bangladeshi workers also remains a distant dream. In recent times, fires in the BM Container Depot on 4 June 2022 and the Hashem Foods Factory on 7 July 2021 killed almost 100 factory workers due to the employer’s alleged negligence and non-compliance with safety standards.

In this interview, Taqbir Huda, Amnesty International’s regional researcher for South Asia, speaks with Nazia Erum, Amnesty International’s media manager, on his pursuit of corporate accountability and justice for workers in his home country Bangladesh.

Tell me about the Rana Plaza disaster and Tazreen Fashions fire cases in Bangladesh.

I still remember the 24 April 2013, when an eight-storey building named Rana Plaza collapsed killing 1,100 workers and injuring 2,600 others. The building housed numerous garment factories catering to major Western retail brands. I was sleeping comfortably under my duvet, while thousands of workers lied underneath the rubble, less than an hour away from me. Thousands killed and injured simply because their employers chose to ignore the large structural cracks that appeared in the building and forced workers who feared for their life to continue producing clothes. Western buyer deadlines had to be met.

The Rana Plaza collapse came exactly five months after the deadly fire in Tazreen Fashions Factory, on 24 November 2012, where at least 112 workers died and scores more were injured while locked up inside the factory. One survivor told me “The only means of escaping the fire was jumping out of the windows on upper floors. Look at how my nails have stopped growing back after I had to use them to claw out of the window.” They told me about other lifelong injuries they sustained due to the fall, while many of their relatives and colleagues burnt to death before they could escape. Many from the same family worked inside the factory together.

Both these acts of corporate negligence and impunity exposed the human cost of unregulated corporate greed and reinforced the need for international standards on business and human rights. I knew then, as I know how, we must change this status quo.

The incidents are widely remembered as unfortunate disasters or tragedies – do you agree? Has there been any accountability since?

As a Bangladeshi and a labour rights activist, it bothers me to no end when people refer to Rana Plaza and Tazreen as unfortunate tragedies, as this obfuscates how companies failed to ensure safe working conditions. We must view them through the lens of corporate impunity. The lack of accountability after both atrocities highlighted the disregard for workers’ lives not only by the factories but also by the high-end brands they died making clothes for. It was even more infuriating to see Canadian and American courts swiftly dismiss compensation cases filed against these brands that had sourced clothes from factories inside Rana Plaza, on narrow technical grounds.

Women stand in front of a banner showing those who lost their lives.
Women stand infront of a banner showing those who lost their lives in the Tazreen Fashions Fire.

On the other hand, a group of local NGOs led by the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust had filed compensation cases for both Rana Plaza and Tazreen in the Supreme Court. These cases continue to be ongoing even after a decade after being filed. Earlier this year, I was relieved to see that a hearing date had come up for the Rana Plaza case and worked closely with the legal team to make legal submissions to the court. However, the case has now been adjourned again.

Are there any stories in particular that have stayed with you?

I often think of Sokina, a survivor of Tazreen, who shared her story with me:

“The doctor told me, ‘As long as I am alive, I will need to seek treatment for my leg’, which I had broken when I had to jump from the fourth floor. The relief payment I had received from the fund that was set up with brand donations is long gone, while we are yet to receive compensation from the employer. My son studies in fifth grade and I cannot even afford to buy the books he needs for school. I have to rely on my elderly mother’s income. I had moved to Dhaka to find work to become economically solvent and now I am forever destitute.”

It was harrowing for me to see her break down as she expressed her frustration. I had no words to console her. Sokina and other Tazreen survivors still call me from time to time, hoping I may offer some words of hope. But I have none to offer.

Has the occupational safety of workers in Bangladesh improved since these two atrocities more than a decade later?

The Bangladesh Accord, a legally binding agreement between brands, unions and factories significantly improved occupational safety for over two million garment factory workers in Bangladesh.

On the other hand, it pains me to see almost daily reports of workers deaths or injuries in other, non-export-oriented sectors in Bangladesh, where occupational safety remains a distant dream. Employers do not have to appease pressure from Western buyer-brands to ensure safety. It was heartbreaking to meet young workers from the shipyard and construction industries who had their lives turned upside down after becoming permanently disabled. It was even more heartbreaking to meet the family members of workers killed on their jobs.  Since the price of a dead worker in Bangladesh is less than £2,000, unregulated profit maximising entities have little to no incentive to invest in occupational safety.

Conservative estimates by the Safety and Rights Society has recorded 5,608 worker deaths between 2013 and 2023. This excludes the death toll from the Rana Plaza collapse. Therefore, even based on this conservative estimate, at least one worker continues to die each day on average in mostly preventable workplace ‘accidents’ in Bangladesh after Rana Plaza.

What do you mean when you say the price of a dead worker in Bangladesh ‘is less than £2,000’?

According to Bangladesh’s labour law, employers are only required to pay 250,000 BDT (1,860 GBP) for workers permanently injured in an “industrial accident” at their workplace. For those killed in the workplace the amount of compensation payable to their dependents is even lower at 200,000 BDT (1,500 GBP). When I first began researching on labour rights, I was shocked to see how little value is attached to a worker’s life by the very law that was meant to “ensure labour rights”.

Despite such an arbitrary limit on the amount of compensation, from my analysis of labour court cases I found that employers often refuse to even pay this tiny sum. One labour court lawyer explained to me, that the strategy is to ‘tire out the workers until they no longer have the energy to continue the case. These employers would rather spend more money in prolonging the case, than simply paying the limited compensation because the worker had the audacity to sue them’. Even when a compensation award is made after a lengthy trial, corporations seldom comply with the court order, leaving many survivors and/or their families without any compensation at all.

What is the way out of this ‘culture of impunity’?

Real change can only take place when the real problem is acknowledged, which is that corporations continue to adopt labour exploitation as part of a standard business model.  

We at Amnesty International have been advocating for corporate accountability in Bangladesh (including occupational safety for all workers) through detailed research and targeted campaigning, such as with the UN Human Rights Council. Labour justice was a core component of the human rights charter we published ahead of Bangladesh’s last general elections. One of our key recommendations to the government of Bangladesh is the establishment of a national database that records every time a worker is killed or maimed due to workplace conditions. The repository should provide details about all workplace injuries and deaths in any given year, alongside the compensation claims filed in all Labour Courts with their outcomes. Additionally, the labour law should be amended so victims receive rights-based compensation for workplace injuries or deaths that remedies the full extent of their losses in line with international standards.

We work closely with partners on the ground fighting for labour rights in Bangladesh, such as by assisting with legal research for the Rana Plaza compensation case before the Supreme Court. We have issued a public statement with a range of recommendations to the Bangladeshi government on upholding labour justice. We have recently documented the climate of repression faced by garment workers amid a state-sanctioned crackdown on those who defend workers’ rights in Bangladesh.

We will continue pushing for accountability and reform so workers can realise the full extent of their human rights.

the survivors are still awaiting justice

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