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Bangladesh indicts 38 for murder in 2013 factory fall. Are its workers safer?

Accountability for those behind the largest industrial disaster in Bangladesh's history shines a spotlight on conditions for all the country's garment workers.

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    Bangladeshi people gather as rescuers look for survivors and victims at the site of a building that collapsed a day earlier, in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 25, 2013.
    A.M. Ahad/AP/File
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A Bangladesh court on Monday charged 38 people with murder for the deaths of more than 1,130 people, killed in the 2013 collapse of a building that housed five garment factories.

A total of 41 defendants face charges over the cave-in of the Rana Plaza complex north of Dhaka that injured 2,500 and drew international attention to the poor working conditions in the world's second-largest apparel exporter. The accused persons include owners of four factories, the mayor of Savar municipality, and 14 government officials, demonstrating that the politically powerful won't be let off the hook, even as progress for workers toiling across the country has been slow in coming.

The lack of regulations and extremely low wages – the minimum monthly wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is $68, compared with about $280 in China – have propelled Bangladesh's readymade clothing industry, making it the lifeblood of the country's economy. Clothing comprised about 80 percent of the country's exports in 2013.

Investigators from Bangladesh's Criminal Investigation Department told the Associated Press that the charges in the Rana Plaza case were changed from culpable homicide, which carries a maximum punishment of seven years in jail, to murder, after the investigation uncovered that the building's owner Masud Rana, his staff, and the management of the five factories forced the workers to enter the eight-story building the day of the collapse despite workers' reluctance to work because of major cracks in the walls that had appeared the day before.

The fact that 41 individuals will stand trial in September, including seven people who absconded and will be tried in absentia, is a departure from how workers' rights were handled before the high-profile case.

"It's typical for someone to be arrested and held in jail for an indefinite period of time but then quietly released. That hasn't happened in this case which I think is a good sign that there continues to be energy around accountability for the factory collapse," Sarah Labowitz, a co-director of New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "But we haven't seen resolution yet and many of those who are indicted are living abroad or have escaped Bangladesh, so will there ever be accountability for those people?"

The first time formal charges were brought against the owner of a garment factory where workers died was in 2014. The owner of the Tazreen Factory, Delwar Hossain, was charged following a 2012 fire that killed more than 100 people after managers refused to let workers escape when the fire alarms went off. The charges against Mr. Hossain were dropped without explanation at one point, but then brought again after pressure from the United States and European governments. Western brands including Walmart and Disney sourced clothes from the Tazreen Factory, inspiring Western activists to apply pressure.

The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund raised $30 million, largely by American and European retailers, to cover loss of income and medical costs of victims of the disaster. But this may prove to be a one-time solution, since Bangladesh does not currently have wrongful death or other kinds of compensation for workers who are injured or killed in industrial accidents. The International Labor Organization is now working with the government to establish one.

Following the collapse of the Rana Plaza, the government expanded the number of building inspectors and 3,508 export-oriented readymade clothing factories underwent structural, fire, and electrical safety inspections. Only eight of those factories worked to correct violations enough to pass a final inspection, according to a 2015 NYU study.

Furthermore, many more factories operate underground, beyond the reach of inspections programs. The NYU researchers identified 7,000 factories, about 65 percent more than previous estimates, because of the prevalence of subcontracting, when factories rely on labor from informal factories.

"There are 2.8 million workers who are not covered by the brand's inspection programs. If half the factories that are being inspected face serious structural issues [as a recent Asia Inspection report uncovered], what's happening in the factories that aren't being inspected and those workers?" asks Dr. Labowitz. Even once factories are inspected and deficiencies are found, owners have to be incentivized to actually fix them.

In April, Human Rights Watch called on the Bangladesh government to remove legal and practical obstacles to unionization, claiming that if workers in Rana Plaza had been unionized they might have been able to resist managers' orders to work in a doomed building. Only ten percent of 4,500 factories surveyed have registered unions today due to procedural barriers and intimidation by factory officials, according to the April report.

Factory owners are incredibly politically powerful, according to Labowitz, but they shouldn't be labelled as roadblocks to progress for workers. It's in their interest for Bangladesh to achieve and be viewed as a reliable, safe, and high-standard sourcing destination.

"It's a mistake to think that international brands can on their own change the context in Bangladesh or anywhere else. They have an important role to play but too often both activists, brands, governments in places like North America and Europe write off factory owners as part of the problem. I don't think real change is possible unless you view factory owners as part of the solution," Labowitz says.

"I've spent a lot of time with factory owners and I know there are people in that community who are very invested in the future of the country, in the prosperity of the workforce."

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