Zero-zero is the number of disappointment. Zero-zero is a number that has shattered the hopes of many former workers of the textile factories in Rana Plaza. Zero-zero is what is written on the letters detailing the amount of compensation that they are entitled to. The letters say that since the workers are neither psychologically nor physically fit for work, they will not be compensated any further. “The worst thing since the collapse is: they gave me hope,” one worker told me with the letter in his hand.
The Rana Plaza disaster is a story of many zero-zeroes, of responsibility avoided on so many levels, of suffering for those who do not have comfortable lives in the first place. To be sure, much went well after the enormous disaster that buried almost 3600 workers in its rubble and killed 1138 of them. But much has gone wrong.
In one sentence it is this: It has been two years since Rana Plaza collapsed and still its victims have not been fully compensated. The lack of urgency with which it has been handled is murderous.
Let us get the immediately obvious problems out of the way. The Rana Plaza Arrangement, set up to compensate the workers, has still not received enough funds to fully do so. The international companies that once profited from these workers’ labour have shown just how inhuman the form of capitalism they practice is.
Only recently has Benetton, whose orders to Rana Plaza factories being some of the first to be proven, had to be shamed into paying into the fund. They did so only a few days ago, almost two years after the collapse, despite the fact that they posted a profit of $139 million. Paying the missing $6 million would cost them less than five percent of their annual profit.
Besides Benetton, there are others for whom the $30 million needed would prove no problem. Inditex, the owner of brands such as Zara, paid out dividends to the tune of $1.6 billion and has paid only $1 million into the fund – $6 million would be around 0.4 percent of its profit. Walmart paid out almost $13 billion in 2014, and only $1 million into the fund – the missing $6 million would barely be noticeable in its books.
And then there are those who have paid nothing: companies like Adler from Germany, or Texman from Denmark. Zero-zero.
This greater injustice, of course, does not absolve the local factory owners of responsibility. They too have grown rich over the years, and dozens of them have made their fortunes through the labour of textile workers. The owners of the Rana Plaza factories are in jail, they have paid zero-zero so far for the lives they endangered and the BGMEA, the institutional representation of the owners, is content with having covered the severance pay for its jailed members. The BGMEA has paid nothing into the compensation fund. Zero-zero.
Nor does it absolve the Bangladesh government. Only this week, Transparency International revealed that much of the money received by the Prime Minister’s Office for the aid of the Rana Plaza victims remains to be disbursed.
The Prime Minister could, if she wanted, clear the remaining bill for the compensation process with money donated by citizens for exactly this purpose. The government of the Awami League – the party, which once wrote the emancipation of workers, the freedom from exploitation and the guarantee of justice into Bangladesh’s constitution – has also failed in providing justice: The cases against the factory owners and the building owner, a former AL activist himself, have not progressed. Zero-zero.
What does one do with zero-zero? Can one be dissatisfied? Can one complain, if one feels they have the grounds to do so? It seems that the compensation process also has its problems on the other side. During my research among the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, it seemed few had actually understood the compensation process. They were unsure of whom to address for information or with complaints. And when they did, they said, they were often disregarded: “The big sirs don’t listen to us little people.”
The fact is the compensation process, too, has its systemic flaws. The biggest is that it lacks transparency. Compensation is calculated – among those not dead and not permanently unable to work – based on how fit the victims are. They have been assessed by doctors, but the results and the criteria of this assessment not revealed to them.
Based on the assessment their claim has been calculated by the Rana Plaza Claims Administration – but only the final claim is included in their not the calculation or its basis. The letter to them includes a hotline for complaints, but workers who dispute that they are fit to work are not treated as formal complainants: their information is ‘taken note of’ and a reassessment remains at the discretion of administration with no fixed timeframe to dispose of these ‘notes’.
The position that the victims of the Rana Plaza hold two years after many almost lost their lives is not that of workers with rights; the positions that brands, buyers, government, and claims administration hold, are not ones of accountability.
For many workers the last two years have been exasperating and threatening to their livelihoods. Or as one worker told me: “The lucky ones are the ones who died. They don’t have to deal with this mess.”
We were having tea at a small stall near the ruins of the Rana Plaza, as he told me this. The stall is run by a man who once had a shop in the Rana Plaza. Two years after the collapse, the compensation process for non-worker victims of the disaster has not even begun. Zero-zero.
Lalon Sander is a Bangladeshi-German journalist.