In 2013, one of the world’s deadliest industrial disasters took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The world watched as an eight-story factory building collapsed to the ground, trapping and killing over 1000 people employed by garment factories. Another 2,500 were injured. The tragedy shook the western world, whose many retailers hold their manufacturing in thousands of these multipurpose factories around Bangladesh. Global outrage ensued over dangerous working conditions, triggering mass protests and unprecedented international scrutiny.
The Rana Plaza tragedy shifted the world’s public perception of the garment industry. This year marks six years after the horrible incident and I’m sitting down with Farhana von Mitzlaff, who set up Meena, a charity for the victims of Rana Plaza and their families, that continue to thrive today with its many programs to help children and young women find work, learn to read and write, while also offering counseling, education and mentoring for a brighter future.
APRIL: Hi Farhana, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I’m just so blown away by your story and the work that you’ve accomplished for the women and children in your community. There’s so much I want to talk about so let’s get straight to it.
FARHANA: Hi April, thank you for having me, and I’m happy to share my story.
APRIL: Let’s start with the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy as that’s what inspired your charity. Media reported the collapse as one of the world’s deadliest industrial tragedies since the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. How did you get involved with the incident?
FARHANA: When the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in 2013, I was in Dhaka with my husband in a completely different capacity. We were actually working for an organization with remediation procedures for apparel industries. However, as soon as we heard that the factory had collapsed we immediately wanted to go there.
It took a few days to organize ourselves but we managed to leave four days after the collapse and when we arrived the scene was exactly like the horror images we had seen in the media. Being there was kind of like the feeling you’d have if you were in a war zone.
The whole building complex was completely broken down, there was dust everywhere, a frenzy of people all around, and you could smell the dead bodies. We saw that we could help and we began doing just that.
APRIL: Was it just you and your husband at this point? You hadn’t started Meena yet, right?
FARHANA: Exactly, Meena didn’t exist at the time so it was a completely private initiative. We started visiting the morgue and school grounds where the dead bodies were brought to be identified, and from there I started going to the local hospitals to visit the severely injured and traumatized victims. Our contacts and friends heard that I was going around to different hospitals and trying to support the survivors and their children.
They came forward and collected money from their organizations to give to me, and with this money we were able to do more, to help more. We were purely a grassroots campaign at first, students and friends who gave their time and volunteer. We rallied the community and brought together a lot of people that wanted to help, and that’s kind of how it all started.
APRIL: So without much external help, you and your husband were able to gather all
these supplies that were needed and get that to the victims?
FARHANA: Yes, we had volunteers helping us but we funded everything ourselves, we bought food, aprons, fans and went around to different places to distribute it. It was still very early on so we were pretty self-reliant but a few months later, we received some extra support from Germany, who wanted to insert themselves in the situation and help in a way that would directly benefit the survivors. We signed several MoUs with them as well as with the local hospitals; the first project was three years, helping hospitals organizing medical camps, aiding injured survivors and providing psycho-social counseling to the traumatized survivors and their children.
There were around 25 camps where survivors were brought for physical assessment after which they would be sent to different hospitals according to their injuries. The hospitals sent doctors to the camps and we would call students to volunteer and help with the medical camps and organizing the survivors and anything else which was needed.
We started this project completely on a need-basis. We saw what people and the community were lacking and tried to fill that void. It’s been completely driven by personal interest and individual donations.
APRIL: Do you think that the western coalitions that were formed after the Rana Plaza tragedy were helpful? Because at the time I remember a lot of retailers, especially Primark who had a lot of their garments done in that particular factory, pledged to donate millions of pounds but did you ever witness that come to fruition?
FARHANA: You mentioned Primark – I would say that they did a fantastic job. Primark was the one who was really fast with the initiatives and that actually paid all their workers in cash so people could pay their bills and rent which was really crucial at the time as the official compensation scheme wouldn’t initiate immediately.
APRIL: What were the people’s reactions on the ground when the building collapsed?
FARHANA: People were shocked but in a country like Bangladesh, every day hundreds of people are dying, either because of road accidents, natural problems, sickness or something else. People become sort of acclimatized to the intensity of these severe tragedies but of course, it brings global attention to the garment industry as I don’t think a lot of people knew the situation so well before. How many people and consumers really know about the garment industry and its implications? Not many at all. People shop but they don’t often think of compliance or safety issues.
APRIL: The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, ushered in a new era of labor codes and safety measures for American workers but working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry remain somewhat more precarious. Do you think safety has improved? Are clothes made in safer factories after the 2013 tragedy?
FARHANA: Efforts were made, through the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (which was a five-year project and ceased to exist in 2018) and The Bangladesh Accord, to improve the safety for the industry as well as the country’s reputation. Since the Rana Plaza tragedy, buildings have remained under supervision of the government of Bangladesh who continue to oversee safety inspections. The industry is really important to their country, and obviously, life is priceless.
This is serious. Aside from proposing million-dollars programs, they also need to be implemented appropriately. One has to know how to use the new safety instruments otherwise it doesn’t help much. People need to be trained on the new safety policies and employees at the factories need to be taught in a way that they can understand for them to become self-sufficient, otherwise, the safety measures would be impossible to implements.
APRIL: In a country like Bangladesh where 3/4 of the national wealth comes from the garment industry, what do you think can be done to ensure safety for workers while preventing western retailers from moving production elsewhere?
FARHANA: I consider any long-lasting improvement to be a joint responsibility, it can’t be one-sided because of the global scale and impact. As you said, the Rana Plaza tragedy was a shock for many, but everyone is accountable, stakeholders, retailers, and even the consumers – they hold a lot of power. Tragedies like this, whether it’s in Bangladesh or any other country, it might make customers re-think for a few months or some time after it happened but then everyone goes back to the same habits without asking many questions.
That’s why it’s so important to look at the whole – and in particular – the fast-fashion business, you need to assess the damage of the entire industry and understand what can be done in all countries to better the process of manufacturing, trade and the human cost of it. It’s such a big part of their GDP that we need to do more research to be able to create permanent improvement going forward. But it’s about working together. We need to all take accountability to see real change, manufacturers, brands, Govt, labor activists and consumers alike.
APRIL: In your opinion, do you think western coalitions should have more or less
FARHANA: The best way of improving and accomplishing progress is building capacity within the system that allows for self-sufficiency and self-correction. When everything is managed from the outside, it can’t be sustainable long-term. When it comes to human rights efforts, you need to create an infrastructure that allows for independent governance without being too dependent on any outside support.
To learn more about Meena please visit their website.
Thank you to Farhana Von Mitzlaff for her time, to Meena for their dedicated work and to the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH for permitting this interview.