Workers’ Rights are Women’s Rights: An Interview with the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Women’s Fund

The Situation

On April 24th 2013, a nine story factory building, known as Rana Plaza, collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. To date, it has been reported that over 1,021 people have died and 2,500 have been injured.

This collapse, although resulting in a devastatingly high loss for the community, is only one of the most recent disasters in a long line of factory safety issues in Bangladesh. This past Wednesday, a fire in another garment building in the Dhaka region killed eight people, including the owner. The factory had closed for the day so there were no worker casualties. Though the collapse of the Rana Plaza building was blamed on illegal construction and disregarding safety regulations, the eleven story Tung Hai Sweaters factory appeared to have conformed to building codes. It was instead the smouldering acrylic products that produced immense amounts of smoke and toxins which suffocated the victims as they ran down to the stairs.

These factory building collapses could have been prevented. The workers, noticing cracks in the walls, were unable to voice concerns as this would put them at risk for losing their job. The police had ordered an evacuation of the building prior to the collapse but this was not enforced. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association also stated that the building was not sound and yet nothing was done.

Although this disaster has rightly raised concerns over conscious consumerism and workers’ rights, we must acknowledge the unique and grave impact this collapse has had on women in Bangladesh. We had the opportunity to speak with Mashuda Khatun Shefali, President and CEO of the Bangladesh Women’s Fund (BWF) who shared her insights on the tragedy.

The MATCH International Women’s Fund: Mashuda, as the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Women’s Fund you are very close to the realities women face onthe ground. The crash of the building has made news around the world. How were women uniquely affected by this tragedy?

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Mashuda Khatun, ED of the Bangladesh Women’s Fund speaks with a survivor of the garment factory collapse.

Mashuda Khatun: I have been working with female garment workers to advocate for their rights (including safe and affordable housing, health and education) since 1991 in Bangladesh. 80% of garment factory workers in Bangladesh are women and over 60% of them are young and unmarried. As a result, the majority of the victims from the Rana Plaza factory collapse were young women. At least half of the rescued workers have become severely injured and disabled. Women with disabling injuries face unique challenges in Bangladesh due to their lower social status and economic dependency on male members of the family. Women with disabilities face the harsh realities of being divorced or remaining unmarried as they become much less able to perform the traditional domestic work expected of women in the home, such as post-harvest activities, cooking, fetching water, cleaning and raising children. Because of the traditional gender roles in Bangladeshi culture, female survivors of this tragedy will be affected in ways that male survivors will not.

MIWF: The garment industry is Bangladesh’s biggest sector. What needs to change to make conditions better for garment industry workers, most of whom are women?

MK: Garment factories suddenly emerged in Bangladesh in the early 1980s following the Multi-Fibre Agreement in 1974, which shifted the production base of garments and textiles to certain developing countries, including Bangladesh. Because of this, buildings were constructed quickly often without meeting safety standards. Moreover, transnational companies became the primary buyers of products from developing countries, where “cheapest” labour costs were the main attraction. It is a fact that many of these buyers have not engaged in ethical trading.

Exploitation is happening in these factories every day. Factory owners rarely meet the basic standards and requirements, and as a result, national labour laws are not fully enforced, negatively affecting the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh. Similarly, international organizations have failed to enforce international labour standards.

Due to the high number of deaths and injuries from factory fires and building collapses since the 1980s, safer workplaces have been demanded by all walks of people for many years. However, many garment workers continue to be unaware of their rights. Presently, no strong trade unions exist in this sector so the mechanisms to achieve even workers’ basic rights are poor. In my opinion, there is no worker’s voice in the garment industry in Bangladesh.

All the parties and stakeholders involved in this sector need to work together to honestly enforce the national labour laws, which covers the entire scope of worker’s rights and safety.

MIWF:  How are you, and the Bangladesh Women’s Fund, coping with this tragedy? What supports are you hoping to provide to women survivors? What kind of a role will the Fund have in the long term?

MK: The Bangladesh Women’s Fund is a grants making organization and is engaged in relief and emergency activities following the collapse through one of its partners. Another partner is currently surveying the number and degree of disabilities that the survivors of this tragedy have experienced, including detailed contact addresses and lists of their needs for the long term, be it social, physical or economic rehabilitation once they are released from the hospital. Tomorrow the last survey will be conducted in the combined Military Hospital, where 40 disabled workers are under emergency treatment. The Bangladesh Women’s Fund has, for many years, worked with grassroots women’s organizations to improve conditions and advocate for equality for women. In the aftermath of this collapse, we will continue to work with our partners to demand a more just world for women, and this includes women in the garment industry.


**Today, 17 days after the crash, a young woman was found alive in the ruble. We are inspired by her commitment to survival and wish her the best in her recovery.**