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Dhaka Tribune

Nexus of politics, corruption doomed Rana Plaza

Update : 26 Apr 2013, 03:03 AM

The phone call came just after 10am on Thursday. It was hardly more than a whisper, but Sharmeen Begum recognised the voice as that of her daughter Sumi, who worked at a garment factory in the ill-fated Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka.

“Ma, I’m on the third floor. Help me!” she croaked and then the line went dead.

Sumi had been missing since Rana Plaza collapsed into a heap of rubble on Wednesday, killing at least 213 and trapping hundreds of others. On Thursday, Begum joined an anxious crowd outside the wreckage, clutching a photograph of her daughter.

“My daughter is alive inside,” she said. “She must have gained consciousness somehow and called me. Please save her!”

On Thursday rescuers were still combing through the pile of steel and concrete, using electric drills, shovels and even their bare hands.

Thirty-one people were rescued alive from beneath the collapsed structure Thursday evening. Fire service officials said they had been trapped in an air pocket and that 9 other people are believed to be still alive in the same space.

Army officers in charge of the rescue operation said an estimated 900 people were still trapped inside, although the chances of getting them out alive were fading.

A volunteer, hair white with dust and sweating profusely, kicked at a loose block of concrete in disgust.

“There’s hardly any iron in this structure,” he said. “Look at that, it’s just sand and cement.”

Outside the complex, hundreds of garment workers gathered, some forming human chains and passing bottles of water and flashlights for the rescuers. But others milled about holding long sticks – the atmosphere tense and febrile.

The walls on both sides of the road on which Rana Plaza is located are plastered with posters showing the smiling face of Sohel Rana, the owner of the collapsed commercial complex. In Savar town, Rana, a member of the ruling Awami League, has a lot of influence.

He used that clout in 2007 to start construction of Rana Plaza without permission from the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartipakkha (Rajuk), the agency in charge of building safety in greater Dhaka. Instead, he took nominal permission from the chairman of the local municipality, a political ally.

“It is illegal to construct a building without planning permission,” said Emdadul Islam, the chief engineer of Rajuk. “The municipality has no right to issue any permissions for construction.”

Local residents say the building was constructed on the site of a pond without proper precautions.

When contacted, Refayet Ullah, the mayor of Savar municipality, admitted that his office had issued the permit, but refused to comment on its legality.

On Tuesday, Sohel Rana, who is reportedly a close associate of the local MP Towheed Jung Murad, used his henchmen to intimidate people who had called for the building to be closed down, locals claim.

After large cracks developed in a wall on Tuesday morning, a local engineer inspected the building and ordered an evacuation. Kabir Hossain Sardar, the upazila nirbahi officer (UNO), visited the site Tuesday afternoon. After a meeting with Rana, he declared the building safe pending another inspection.

On Wednesday, the owners of the five garment factories housed in the building ordered their workers to return to work, threatening to dock pay if they refused.

“These workers were murdered,” said Shamsur Rahman, a local teacher.

The UNO could not be reached for comment at the time of writing this report. Rana’s phone was turned off.

More than 700 garment workers have died since 2005 in Bangladesh, according to the International Labour Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Despite promises of reform, say labour rights activists, labour laws remain weak and implementation continues to be uneven. Despite investigations pointing to owner negligence no owner has ever been charged over worker deaths.

Critics have pointed to the political influence of the garments industry.

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said the political clout of the BGMEA made life difficult for workers. “When we spoke up against injustice, we had our NGO license revoked and criminal charges were filed against us,” she said.

In 2007, following a bout of worker unrest, some factory owners filed criminal charges against Akter. She spent two months in prison and still has to attend court regularly in several other cases.

“There are repeated instances of MPs linked to the garment industry blocking stricter legislation,” said Akter.

Shahriar Alam, a member of parliament and the managing director of Renaissance Group, a large garment manufacturer, said favourable legislation would not save the industry in a globalised marketplace.

“It’s not true that the labour law is weak,” said Mr Alam. “But even if it were, you have to remember that the buyers follow both the ILO conventions and the law of the land when they look for a manufacturer. So it’s no use if we legislate in favour of factory owners.”



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