Bangladesh orphans vent grief, six months after garment factory tragedy

Bangladeshi garment workers, employed in the building which collapsed a fortnight ago killing hundreds, wait in line to claim their salaries in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka, on May 8, 2013. The typical Bangladeshi garment worker takes home less than 40 dollars a month, a wage that Pope Francis has condemned as akin to slave labour.

Orphans who lost their parents when a garment factory complex collapsed in Bangladesh vented their grief and anger at leading Western retailers Thursday on the six-month anniversary of the disaster.

As relatives of the 1,135 people killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex gathered at the site, British clothing chain Primark urged other retailers to follow its lead and pay compensation to the victims.

Primark said it would pay an extra three months' salary to 3,600 workers or their families, as a new report showed more than 90 percent of victims have not yet received any financial assistance.

"Primark is calling on other brands involved in the Rana Plaza disaster to make a contribution by paying short-term aid to some 3,000 workers or their dependants who made clothes for their labels," the retailer said in a statement.

The discount fashion brand, which has already made two payments to the 550 staff of its supplier, said it would make the new payment while the terms of a long-term compensation deal for the 550 are worked out.

Relatives marking the anniversary of the April 24 tragedy, one of the world's worst industrial disasters, said they had still to receive any compensation from anybody for their loss.

"We lost our parents for your work: Walmart, Carrefour, Benetton ...," read a banner held by a group of orphans, listing some of the retailers whose clothing was made at Rana Plaza before it collapsed.

Although some retailers have promised to pay into a compensation fund, activists complained that money was not reaching those in need.

"If you talk about legal compensation, none of the 3,629 workers working in the Rana Plaza at the time of the disaster has been paid a single cent," said Roy Ramesh, Bangladesh head of the IndustriALL global union, which is negotiating with retailers for compensation.

"The government donated some money from its charity fund and British retailer Primark paid 30,000 taka ($375) to each of the victims," he said, adding factory owners and the rest of the 28 retailers who were making clothing at the Rana Plaza factories have paid nothing.

Rezaul Karim, 32, was one of the injured workers who joined the protest in front of the Rana Plaza ruins, demanding more money to treat his broken spinal cord and a monthly pension to maintain a decent life.

"Since the collapse, I've got only the 30,000 taka given by Primark. I am now reduced to begging," he said, clutching the hand of his eight-year-old son.

"The government has paid for some of my treatment but more treatment is needed and it'll cost a huge amount.

"My son cannot go to school and there are days we don't have enough food," he said, adding he now depends on charity from relatives and neighbours.

A report by British charity ActionAid published on the anniversary also highlighted a failure by the authorities and the retailers to compensate victims and their families.

The charity surveyed 2,297 people — nearly two thirds of survivors and families of those who died — and found that 94 per cent reported they have not received any legal benefits from their employers since April, including sick pay or compensation.

"It's indefensible that for six months, multi-million dollar companies have left the victims to fend for themselves," said Farah Kabir, ActionAid's country director in Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh government has paid some funds to 777 people — around a third of the victims and their family members — but no long-term compensation package has been agreed, said the charity.

The collapse of Rana Plaza, where workers toiled for long hours and little pay, shone a spotlight like never before on Bangladesh's garment industry, the world's second biggest and a mainstay of the nation's economy.

Rehana Khatun, whose legs were amputated above the knee, is tired of the growing row over reparation.

"Six months after the disaster it seems we have been forgotten altogether. I have spent more than five months in this hospital, but only a few came to enquire about how we're doing," said Khatun, 20, at the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed.