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56% of Rana Plaza Survivors Say Their Health Is Getting Worse

More than half of Rana Plaza’s survivors are suffering from deteriorating health, a four-fold increase since last year, a new survey has found.

ActionAid Bangladesh said that 56.5 percent of the 200 garment workers it polled complained of worsening headaches, backaches, waist pains and pains in their hands and legs, up from 14 percent the previous year. One-third (33 percent) described themselves as “more or less” stable and only 10.5 percent as “completely” stable.

All of them had barely escaped with their lives on April 23, 2013, after the multi-factory complex collapsed just outside the capital of Dhaka, killing 1,134 of their colleagues.

Nine years later, the trajectory of improvement has dropped off, with the pandemic chiefly to blame.

“The trend of previous surveys shows that the physical health status of the survivors was slowly improving but due to Covid-19 their suffering got worse,” the social-justice nonprofit said.

Psychosocial health has similarly declined. Nearly half (48.5 percent) of those surveyed said they were still traumatized by the disaster compared with 12.5 percent last year. Another 31 percent said they were “more or less” stable and 20.5 percent said they have recovered “fully.”

Most survivors are still struggling to eke out a living. Of those polled, 53 percent remain unemployed. Among them, 67 percent said their physical condition prevented them from holding a job, while 10 percent cited mental trauma as the leading reason.

The 47 percent of respondents who are employed have mostly shunned the garment sector. Only 14.5 percent, in fact, are back on production floors, with just 8 percent directly involved in sewing.

“The survivors tend to change work frequently as their physical conditions do not allow them to work for long periods at a time,” ActionAid Bangladesh said.

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But even those who are holding down jobs have seen their wages “drastically” decrease because of the pandemic, the organization said. Some 35 percent of the survivors said that their expenditures were higher than their incomes. More than 63 percent lacked the money to buy food, while 52 percent weren’t able to afford their rent. Nearly 47 percent of those surveyed said they had to take out loans to ride out the various Covid-19 waves.

The average household income of 36 percent of the survivors, ActionAid Bangladesh found, was less than 5,000 Bangladeshi taka ($57.62) per month.

The Rana Plaza disaster is the garment industry’s worst industrial accident to date. It was a watershed moment that resulted in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding contract that held brand signatories liable for working conditions at the factories they contracted. Between 2013 to 2021, the Accord conducted 38,000 inspections at more than 1,600 factories, covering 2 million workers. Altogether, it fixed more than 120,000 fire, building and electrical hazards.

The original agreement was succeeded last year by the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which plans to expand its scope to at least one other country beyond Bangladesh—perhaps India, Pakistan or Morocco—within the next couple of years.

While the new Accord now has 170 signatories, including major names such as H&M, Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp. and Zara owner Inditex, labor campaigners are continuing to urge all brands that place orders with Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest exporter of clothing after China, to add their names.

“Workers need to be sure that they are not risking their lives when they go to work,” Md. Kamrul Hassan, general secretary of Akota Garments Worker Federation, a member of the Clean Clothes Campaign, said last month.

The coalition of workers’ rights groups recently targeted Ikea and Levi Strauss for “free-riding on efforts to make factories safe.” Both companies have said they are pouring resources into worker safety initiatives of their own.

“This is a basic right,” Hassan said. “The Accord has done important work to ensure factories are made safer, yet brands like Levi’s, Ikea and also Gap, Walmart and others are refusing to join. Only a system where unions are part of the solution can bring change to the garment industry. All brands that source from Bangladesh must sign the International Accord now if they care about their workers’ safety.”