In Bangladesh, will a legal system 'full of holes' prosecute those responsible for the Rana Plaza factory collapse?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Today, I'm all about China, Morocco, the US and Mexico. Tomorrow the country will change, though probably not too much. I'm talking about the places where the clothes I'm wearing were made, and today on the first anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, we're spending this first part of the show looking at that tragedy and what's happened since then. For one thing, a lot of people began paying more attention to that tag in their clothing that tells you where the garment was made. In a moment, we'll hear from some shoppers and what they're thinking about that tag 12 months after Rana Plaza, but first to Dhaka where demonstrators honored the memory of the more than 1,000 garment workers who perished when the building collapsed. In the crowd were children holding up pictures of their parents. Zafar Sobhan is the editor of the Dhaka Tribune.

Zafar Sobhan: There are hundreds of kids who have lost either one parent or sometimes both. Whatever we do in the future, there's over 1,000 men and women, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are dead. Nothing can bring back a parent, nothing can bring back a husband or a wife. But there is a lot which could've been done for these families and not a lot has been.

Werman: Behind that discussion, a heavy cloud of emotion over Dhaka today. Can you tell us, on average, what do garment workers there make?

Sobhan: It used to be $39 a month and that's been increased to $69, so that is about an increase of 75%. But the truth of the matter is that this is still quite a distance from what is a living wage. $70 a month, obviously that goes further in Bangladesh than it does elsewhere but it's still very far from a living wage.

Werman: I hear that wage is basically just above the poverty line in Bangladesh terms.

Sobhan: This is the thing, you have 4 million people working in the garment industry and the economy has been growing and this is one of the drivers of the growth but of course when you have a country where you have a lot of excess labor, where there is a great deal of poverty, industrial workers do not have a great deal of bargaining strength.

Werman: The owner of the collapsed building, Sohel Rana, what has happened to him?

Sobhan: The latest we have heard is they're very close to filing charges on that, so possibly within the next week or month. I would actually also focus attention not just on the owner of the building but actually the owners of the garment factories as well. There were five factories that are operating in Rana Plaza and my understanding is that the charge sheets against at least two of the owners are - I've spoken with law enforcement and people who are bringing the cases - and they say they will very soon be following up on this. This is huge because the truth of the matter is our legal system in Bangladesh is filled with holes and no one in the past has ever really been held to account, no one has ever gone to jail for these kinds of incidents and so we're very hopeful this will be a watershed moment and it'll send a message to all of the other people, that you can no longer operate with this kind of impunity. The day before Rana Plaza fell down, in fact cracks were found by inspectors who had cautioned the garment owners, that they should close down their factories. They were overruled and in fact, in some of the garment factories, the people were coerced into going to work that day. This really wasn't a question of benign neglect, it was far more pernicious, far more maligned than that.

Werman: As you know, the top of the supply chain are the retailers. They identify factories to make their garments and we know that not all the steps in the manufacturing process happen at that factory. Often, things like pockets and collars may come from even smaller subcontractors. Can you just describe the sorts of pressures the factory owners are under to cut corners, whether it's subcontracting or just kind of ignoring cracks in the floor of their building?

Sobhan: I can tell you straight, I've talked with people who are in the industry and they are always constantly being squeezed and people are saying "Well, you know, if you're not going to make this at the price we give you, we'll take it to a competitor, we'll take it to Cambodia, we'll take it to some country in Africa." That kind of pressure, that kind of race to the bottom, the screws which are being twisted, they exist and that is a big part of the problem. As much as we are putting pressure here in Bangladesh on the garment manufacturers here and the government, by the same token, we really need to put an equal amount of pressure on the retailers.

Werman: Zafar Sobhan, the editor of the Dhaka Tribune in Bangladesh. Thanks very much for speaking with us today.

Sobhan: Thank you Marco, I appreciate your time.