Hundreds of Bangladesh garment factories shut down on Monday due to protests, but the day ended with sweeping changes finally on the horizon for millions of the underpaid workers who have long toiled in far too often unsafe and deadly conditions.
May 13, 2013

Several weeks into clean-up efforts at the site of the collapsed factory in Bangladesh, many were still searching for missing family members on Monday.

Hundreds of Bangladeshi textile factories near the capital, Dhaka, have shut because of unrest sparked by the collapse of a factory building last month, the country's textile association says.

Owners made the decision on safety grounds after many workers went on a rampage, the group's president said.

Although the organization had originally said all factories in Ashulia would be shut down indefinitely, leaders later said the closure applied only to factories where there was worker unrest.

But as the day came to an end, sweeping changes are finally on the horizon for millions of the underpaid garment factory workers of Bangladesh who have long toiled in far too often unsafe and deadly conditions.

The government says it will lift trade union restrictions amid pressure to improve workers' conditions, and Bangladesh has set up a panel to raise the minimum wage for more than three million garment workers, the minister for textiles has said.

The new initiatives are partly in response to outrage over conditions in the country’s garment sector after the April 24th collapse of a garment-factory building, Rana Plaza, in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, the nation’s capital. By Monday afternoon, at least 1,127 people were confirmed to have died in the Rana Plaza collapse, a number that could still rise, in what is now considered the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry.

The Rana Plaza in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, housed a number of textile factories, some of which were supplying Western retailers.

According to the NYT:

A top adviser to Bangladesh’s prime minister, Gowher Rizvi, said the changes approved by the cabinet – which must still be approved by the country’s Parliament – are part of a broader government effort to come into compliance with international labor standards and improve conditions for workers in an industry that is critical to the nation’s economy.

“Worker safety and worker welfare have now been brought into the forefront,” Mr. Rizvi said in a telephone interview. He said that discussions on these changes predated the Rana Plaza collapse even as he agreed that the disaster had intensified the pressure for reforms.

Four retailers who represent the largest purchasers of clothes produced in Bangladesh announced Monday that they have will help finance safety upgrades at apparel factories in the South Asia country after the collapse of a garment complex killed more than 1,000 workers.

In a statement from Sweden-based H&M and Inditex, the parent company of Zara, the retail giants urged others to join them. Within hours Britain's Primark Stores and Tesco as well as C&A of the Netherlands said they would also sign on to the legally binding agreement to "guarantee safe working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry."

Karen Stinebrickner-Kaufman, executive director of the watchdog group praised H&M and Zara and expressed hope that "Gap and other brands follow their competitors' lead.

"Only legally binding programs that are accountable to workers themselves can guarantee that the clothes we buy aren't being made in death traps," she said.

Officials say the rescue operation in Bangladesh is drawing to a close, with the military expected to hand over the site to the district administration on Tuesday.

The news came as a survivor pulled from the Rana Plaza 17 days after it collapsed told the BBC of her ordeal.

"I had not imagined I would come out of there alive," Reshma said on Sunday.

Reshma was found in the remains of the second floor of the Rana Plaza on Friday after they heard her crying: "Please save me."

Reshma Begum's survival has been a rare moment of joy amid the grim task of removing bodies from the disaster site. The tragedy has created global pressure for reform in the Bangladeshi garment industry. But Begum said she will not be drawn back into such work.

"I will not work in a garment factory again," she said.

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