By Karen Frantz
The Bangladeshi community in Queens reacted with sadness to a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh last month that left hundreds dead, and an organization that advocates for immigrant workers said the tragedy sheds light on the importance of creating better working conditions for laborers in the garment industry overseas.
“People are really upset,” said Monami Maulik, a spokeswoman for Desis Rising Up & Moving, a Jackson Heights-based organization of low-wage South Asian immigrant workers in New York. “I think it’s definitely a wake-up call.”
The factory collapse has been characterized as the world’s worst garment industry disaster, with more than 800 workers confirmed dead at press time.
It is estimated that more than 3,000 people were working in the Rana Plaza building near Dhaka, Bangladesh, many of them young women, when the factory collapsed, although the exact number is unknown. The building crumbled soon after workers had noticed cracks in the walls, and about 2,500 people were rescued from the debris.
Maulik said the collapse was one of several disasters to befall the garment industry in Bangladesh. She said among the other tragedies are numerous fires, including one at the Tezreen Factory last year that killed more than 100 workers.
She said she hopes the Rana Plaza collapse will prompt people to put pressure on the Bangladeshi government, factory owners and corporations to pass laws to protect workers.
“There are so many violations in these factories,” she said. “It’s an ongoing problem.”
She said DRUM and other organizations are working to collect money to send to the victims’ families in Bangladesh. She said DRUM is also preparing a campaign with other labor rights groups to call for better safety standards and monitoring of factories.
DRUM, Alliance of South Asian American Labor, Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group and other organizations joined a vigil Friday led by state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) to commemorate those who lost their lives in the collapse.
Weprin called on corporations that operate overseas to adhere to safe and ethical working standards.
“It is time for all United States-based businesses abroad to take a leading role in protecting the rights of the workers in Bangladesh and all their facilities,” he said.
But Kazi Fouzia, a member of DRUM who attended the vigil, said many Bangladeshi people are shying away from putting pressure on business to reform.
“Most of the community is not willing to hold the corporations accountable,” she said through a translator.
She pointed out that the garment industry brings in lots of money to Bangladesh and is a major driver of the economy, and some are worried that the country will lose contracts if people push for corporate accountability.
But she said it is important for not only corporations to change, but all the major players.
“We need to really put more pressure on all sides and all responsible parties — the government, the factory owners and the corporations … so this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4538.