Bangladesh Rana Plaza compensation for survivors not enough, workers say

A Bangladeshi woman sleeps as she holds the portrait of her missing relative, believed to be trapped in the rubble of an eight-storey building collapse in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on May 4, 2013.

Shahnaj Begum struggles to suppress her rage as she thumbs through banknotes given in compensation after she was left injured and jobless from the collapse of her nine-story workplace.

A single mother of two, she was one of around 3,000 mainly female workers on shift at Rana Plaza, on the outskirts of Dhaka, when the building suddenly caved in at around 9:00 a.m. on April 24.

Since then she has been unable to walk properly and suffered a relentless headache as well as losing her job. For her trouble she received 8,500 taka ($107) as a lump sum pay-off from the Bangladeshi garment industry's umbrella body.

"In April, I worked 150 hours' overtime and yet they haven't given me a single taka for that," she told AFP after picking up her compensation from a makeshift set-up next to the ruins of the Rana Plaza compound.

"I am still injured. I still feel the pain from being hit on the head and the left side of my body is virtually paralysed," the 30-year-old said, leaning on her father for support as she limped around the tangle of concrete.

By Thursday the death toll had passed 1,000, a figure that is expected to rise as recovery workers and bulldozers churn through the rubble.

Fresh disaster hit the textile industry on Thursday when fire swept through a factory in Dhaka, killing at least eight people.

The typical Bangladeshi garment worker takes home less than $40 a month, a wage that Pope Francis has condemned as akin to slave labour.

But with the five factories that once operated in the Rana Plaza complex having turned to dust, its army of seamstresses will find it even harder to make ends meet once the compensation money has run out.

The exact level of compensation varies from worker to worker and is partly dependent on the years of employment.

Union leader Mohammad Ibrahim said the compensation being paid out was both "unjust and low", failing to take into account the fact that many of the survivors worked way beyond the normal 48-hour week.

"No one is happy. They are not being paid for their overtime and most are getting less than half the amount they are due," he told AFP from the scene.

Shefali Akter, 25, who lost two sisters in the disaster, said she had refused the compensation money offered as it would not even cover the monthly cost of the medicine she now has to take to relieve her splitting headaches.

"The authorities want to pay me just 6,000 taka," she said.

"They are not taking into account the three years' work that I did in another factory in the same building," she said while showing an X-ray of her bruised skull to an AFP correspondent.

"After spending the money on my medicine, I don't have enough money to feed myself and my family properly," said the married mother of two.

There are around 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, churning out products for Western fashion labels which then sell the clothing at many times the cost price.

Spain's Mango, Britain's Primark and the Italian chain Benetton are among the firms to have confirmed that they had clothing made at Rana Plaza in recent months.

Primark and the Canadian label Loblaw, another firm which had orders in the complex, have promised to contribute to the compensation fund.

With the owners of four of the Rana Plaza factories now in custody awaiting trial for causing death through negligence, compensation is being organised by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Its vice-president, Shahidullah Azim, told AFP that the organisation had calculated the levels of compensation within a legally specified framework.

"The payouts were in line with Bangladesh labour laws," he told AFP.

The association expects to compensate about 3,400 workers or the relatives of those killed in the disaster.