Meng looks back at Dhaka tragedy

By Alex Robinson

In the year since a deadly garment factory disaster killed more than 1,100 workers in Bangladesh, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) said not enough has been done to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.

The congresswoman held a candle-lit vigil last week with other elected officials, union leaders and the Bangladeshi community in Jamaica to mark the first anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory in Dhaka. About 2,500 workers in the shabbily constructed building were injured.

“It’s sad we are gathered here today to talk about so many more issues that need to be resolved,” she told Bangladeshi community leaders in the basement of the Taj Mahal restaurant, at 148-01 Hillside Ave. “What makes this tragedy particularly offensive is that three other Bangladeshi factories have caught fire since.”

The factory accident April 24, 2013, brought heightened attention to the labor practices in Bangladesh’s garment industry, which makes products for Western markets and retailers.

Shortly after the Rana Plaza factory cave-in, Meng sent letters to a number of large American retailers who sell products made in Bangladesh, urging them to take a leading role in protecting their subcontracted employees abroad. She said only Wal-Mart responded, saying it would improve standards for fire safety.

Meng, who represents a sizable Bangladeshi community, said many international retailers have been able to get away without taking responsibility for their workers’ safety abroad by hiding behind layers of subcontractors.

Following the tragedy, more than 100 large retailers, including H&M, agreed to sign an accord on fire and building safety, a legally binding agreement between retailers and international labor organizations to maintain certain safety standards and compensation in Bangladesh.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, traveled to Dhaka last year after the factory collapsed to observe working conditions and speak to survivors and their families.

“They made it painfully clear to me that another factory tragedy would happen unless we work to prevent it,” he said at the ceremony. “We must demand that all workers, whether here in NYC or Bangladesh, be treated with dignity and respect.”

Appelbaum called out large retailers who have not yet signed the accord on fire and building safety. These included Wal-Mart, Target, the GAP, The Children’s Place and JCPenney.

“You need to step up and join the accord,” he said. “Until you do, your words of concern for survivors of Rana Plaza will ring false and hollow.”

Other elected officials who attended the vigil included city Comptroller Scott Stringer, city Public Advocate Letitia James, state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) and City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows).

Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at arobinson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.