Court lays murder charges in Rana Plaza disaster

A Bangladeshi court has laid murder charges against 41 people – including government officials, five Rana Plaza garment factory proprietors and building owner Sohel Rana – for the deaths of more than 1,100 textile workers three years ago.

The tragedy occurred when an eight-storey commercial building collapsed, trapping hundreds of employees in the rubble. Along with the 1,136 fatalities, there were nearly 2,500 workers seriously injured, some losing limbs.

The original charges of culpable homicide were upgraded based on evidence that frightened workers, who had fled the building when major structural cracks appeared, were threatened by supervisors to return to work.

In addition to murder charges, the factory owners were cited for a number of building code and health and safety violations, including illegally constructing extra floors to use as factories instead of office space, and locking doors so workers couldn’t leave. In total, Rana Plaza had five garment factories operating at the time of the disaster.

Following the tragedy, international pressure from labour and human rights groups forced the Bangladeshi government to take steps to better protect workers. These amendments included new health and safety regulations, the legal right to register unions, and a slight wage boost to about $100 CDN per month.

But even with minor improvements, the life of a Bangladeshi textile worker remains deplorable.

In February, a union delegation, including CUPE National senior officer Archana Rampure, went to Dhaka, Bangladesh to tour garment factories and interview workers.

Rampure writes in her observations: “The normal workday is supposed to be eight hours, but is generally at least 10 and often 12 hours, with the extra hours being mandatory unpaid ‘overtime’... Many workers told us about the pressure to meet production quotas, not being allowed lunch, or even water and bathroom breaks. They have endured physical and emotional abuse.

“Almost all of them have been threatened with the loss of their jobs if they did not lie to outside auditors and state that working conditions were great.

“Workers told us they were forced to sign papers showing that they received amounts of money vastly inflated from what they were actually paid. One woman told us her story of being videotaped while receiving her maternity benefits and then having them forcibly taken away.”

Bangladesh has an estimated 4.2 million workers – mostly women and young girls – employed in the country’s 5,000 ready-made garment factories. They make apparel for 29 global retailers, including Joe Fresh, Lululemon, Hudson’s Bay, the Gap and Walmart, in a multibillion dollar clothing industry.

Rana Plaza owner Sohel Rana is currently in jail. The maximum penalty for murder convictions in Bangladesh is a death sentence.

A trial date is pending.