Sep 21 2014

Rana Plaza – When art meets reality

Pauline Bradley reports on art that brings to life the struggle of sweatshop
workers in Bangladesh

No caring person can have failed to be shocked at the news of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory on 24 April 2013. This eight-story commercial building collapsed in Savar, a sub-district in the Greater Dhaka Area, the capital of Bangladesh. It is considered the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, as well as the deadliest “accidental” structural failure in modern human history.

I recall feeling anger and helplessness at the time. I tried to direct other’s anger on social media towards union campaigns such as IndustriAll, an international union who covered the disaster and were working to strengthen health and safety rights and hold the big brands to account for their negligence.

A year and a half later I attended the annual Document 12 festival at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, where journalists, artists, and film makers with a human rights interest show their work. Here Carla Novi’s film “Rana Plaza” was screened followed by a Q & A with Carla.

The film began with riots from two rival groups in Bangladesh but no women were visible “They are all at home or at work,” Carla was told. Carla made her way to Rana Plaza where she sympathetically interviewed 15 women garment workers including Dilori Begum. One worker sang a song about the hardships of working in the factory, a kind of Bangladeshi version of “The Factory Girl”.

Still in shock and unable to speak

Carla came back to Glasgow. Her original intention was to make a film about jute which was produced in Bangladesh and its connection with Dundee’s jute mills. However this changed completely when the tragedy happened. Carla returned to Bangladesh to search for the women she’d interviewed. Most of the 15 were killed in the disaster, but she found two survivors. One was still in shock and unable to speak, the other was Dilori Begum.

Survivors and their families told of how a fire had occurred soon before the collapse and a generator had stopped. Workers were concerned but were told to come into work or they would lose pay including pay they’d already earned. Wikipedia reports that a bank and shop in the Rana Plaza building closed when cracks appeared, but the factory remained working. The building apparently was meant to be five stories high but three additional stories were built without authorisation.

Clothes and bones are still found

Statistics vary as to the number of people who died, from 1,129 to 8,000 out of 10,000 workers. People still visit the ruins to try and find dead relatives; clothes and bones are still found there. The official search for the dead ended on 13 May 2013, approximately 2,515 injured people were rescued from the building alive. The film ends with a picture of each one of the garment workers who were interviewed, most of whom are now dead or missing, and the song being sung eerily by the “factory girl” who is now also dead.

However Carla Novi invited Dilori Begum to Scotland and Dilori became the central person in the play “Rana Plaza” also at the CCA. Here the audience had to walk over clothes which covered the floor of the room, Dilori sat at her sewing machine talking about her life and the disaster through an interpreter while Asian women gave out paper carrier bags with “Rana Plaza” labels on them and the clothing inside the bag.

The audience (an arty rather than a left or trade union one) were clearly upset with the subject matter and discussions began about greedy corporate capitalism, whether boycotts are a good tactic etc. Dilori was being cared for by people in the Bangladeshi community in Glasgow but I was frustrated that there was no leafleting by the left or trade union link happening so I made it my business to facilitate one.

I managed to organise a meeting with Jamie Caldwell the Unite Community organiser and Walton Pantland of Union Solidarity International based in the Unite office. I was pleased that they acted quickly and were very happy to meet Dilori and help. A collection had been made in the office for Dilori and her family.

Although Dilori has received three compensation payments of around £200 each; she can no longer work because of her injuries and the payments have stopped. Also agreements have been made at a corporate level about health and safety but unless there is good organisation on the ground, it won’t easily filter down to the factory floor. The film showed a union demonstration after the disaster but organisation in the garment factories is seemingly still weak and workers are still fighting for basic rights such as the right for time off to attend a union meeting.

There is much we can do in the west. We should question companies such as Primark, Gap, Adidas, Puma and Next as to the working conditions in their factories; but not boycott them unless that’s called for by the workers. We can join campaigns such as Labour Start, No Sweat, Clean Clothes we can get our unions to join them and make direct links with unions in Bangladesh and other poor countries.

I recommend the film Rana Plaza to all unions, left and human rights organisations, it should be accompanied with speakers from or about sweat shops and information on how to keep the pressure on and empower workers who are at the sharp end of capitalism’s race to the bottom.

If you would like to organise a film screening contact Carla Novi at carlitanovi@gmail.com or me paulineb_2@yahoo.co.uk and I’ll liaise with Carla. Walton Pantland of Union Solidarity International is at walton@usilive.org.

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