This article was originally published in French on 13 November, 2015. Translation: Susanna Gendall.
Shirin thought she would never be able to work again after the Rana Plaza collapsed, not because of her chest injury, which still causes her pain, but because she was afraid – afraid of everything – even the noise of a sewing machine. Even the words “work” or “building”, says the young, petite woman. She is wearing a blue sari and has an open look on her face. At eighteen, she could have stayed there, helpless, in the district of Savar where most of the survivors live – all her neighbours that every morning used to traipse off to this huge factory, a high building where five subcontractors worked for dozens of western brands. Out of the three thousand workers employed there, most of whom were women, more than a thousand were killed and a further two thousand injured (see the our Multinationals Observatory’s report on the international garment industry).
In June 2015 the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee (RPCC), chaired by the International Labour Organization (ILO), announced it had raised the necessary funds to pay all the compensation due to victims. The process of training and redeployment is underway, but not all the survivors have been able to benefit from these opportunities, still suffering too much physically or mentally. Even when Shirin heard about Oporajeo, she wearily dismissed the idea, unable to even face thinking about it. But after giving it some time, she decided to “see what it was like for a day”. She was comforted to hear that the building only had one floor – it was less likely to collapse. In the end, she was won over by the “nice atmosphere” and the “friendly board members”, and she decided to stay.
Working conditions in Bangladesh have come a long way
Shirin talks about board members instead of directors because Oporajeo is a cooperative. In addition to their regular salary, workers equally share 50% of profits. The remaining 50% is used for short-term loans and to fund a free primary school for children living in the area. Such a venture is the first of its kind in Bangladesh, and has not been without difficulties.
Yet working conditions have a come a long way in the country. On the 23rd of April 2013, the day before the Rana Plaza collapsed, workers had noticed cracks in the walls so big that “you could put your hand in them,” recall the cooperative’s workers, timidly spread out in the sunny room full of sewing machines. The panicked workers left the building and were allowed to go home, but they had to come back to work the next morning. Only a few managers agreed that the factory be evacuated. The others ignored the warnings, and when a power failure occurred, as happens several times a day in the country, the generators on the roof kicked in, and the shoddy building began to rock.
Three of the nine floors were built illegally by Sohel Rana, a local politician who fled on the day of the disaster. On the 1st of June 2015, Bangladesh announced that it filed charges against forty-one people implicated in the building’s collapse. The trial is expected to put an end to a vast network of corruption where officials accept bribes from businessmen, happy to turn a blind eye.
“Suppliers mix up social responsibility and charity”
In the meantime, unsafe buildings like this have become rare in Dhaka. Following pressure from unions and the Clean Clothes Campaign, to which French organizations Sherpa and “Éthique sur l’étiquette” belong, 175 European contractors signed a five-year agreement with global union federations ensuring fire and building safety. The US also took a stand and initiated the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. And in Bangladesh, a national action plan has seen the number of labour inspectors jump from 100 to 300 in two years. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), following these changes, 3,000 factories were inspected in late June 2015. More than 600 had closed down, the majority having lost their clients.
Although the buildings of most factories inspected have been strengthened, with smoke detectors and medicine cabinets installed, there has been little change in the mentality of employers in a country where wealth inequality is phenomenal and where 30% of the population live lives below the poverty line. “Suppliers often mix up social responsibility [CSR] and charity,” remarks a CSR consultant – a profession still relatively unheard of in Bangladesh. “They set up foundations, they donate money to poor Bangladeshis,” but measures such as ensuring they are paid enough to keep them in good health, checking they wear protective gear and that their employees are paid on time is not traditionally part of their culture. “That’s why we felt the need to create a different way of working,” says Leeza, who manages the cooperative’s projects from her small makeshift office. “This is the Oporajeo seeks to acheive. Such a way of thinking does not exist in our country.”
The idea of Oporajeo came from a handful of people that took part in the rescue operations in the rubble of Rana Plaza. Two NGO directors, a businessman, a garment worker and other volunteers decided to create a fund to help victims. Once the rescue work was finished, they wondered what they could do with the remaining money. “We saw these distraught, devastated survivors, lining up for food like beggars,” says Hossain, one of the team members.
The Oporajeo cooperative: “a haven of peace”
That’s what inspired the idea of creating “a haven of peace offering a safe, healthy working environment”: a place where workers won’t be hit or threatened – as sometimes occurred in local factories, a place where they can take a break if they need to, a place where psychologists are available and contracts are long-term. With this vision, Oporajeo, which means “invincible”, came into existence.
A year later, the cooperative had twenty-three permanent employees and fifteen temporary workers along with forty other employees working at home with sewing machines loaned out to them. Beginning with jute bags and then moving on to t-shirts and cotton polo shirts, gradually the cooperative began to introduce more variation in what was being made. Their initial focus was local businesses, but they soon broke into the international market. It wasn’t easy, however, to get noticed in a distribution network that‘s been the same for thirty odd years and where low prices are the mainstay. Oporajeo decided to target a different audience from outset, focussing on transparency. They took a different line to most other factories, which are scant on communication, keeping what happens behind closed doors out of the public eye, despite the fact that big brands are increasingly focused on ethical charters and codes of conduct.
“With so many ‘ethical’ claims being made by businesses today it is difficult to know where you stand,” says the cooperative on its Facebook page. “Despite grand statements it is easy to lose the reality behind the claims and to know how our purchasing choices impact others lives. At Oporajeo, we seek to differ. We believe it’s essential that trade is fair and want to take worker ownership concept to the next step.” It’s a nice speech, and journalists and NGOs lapped it up. Brands came on board too – even H&M.  Sadly, the enthusiasm didn’t last long.
Not enough work for everyone
On the 14th of March 2015, a fire destroyed the cooperative’s premises. The team recount how not long before this happened a local mafia had requested money from them. Most of the sewing machines were destroyed as well as 19,000 bags that had just been made for a Swiss company. Shipments were cancelled. The cooperative had to move. They finally set up in two vacant classrooms in the primary school that had been created for the neighbourhood’s children using part of the cooperative’s profits. Ten workers continue to come to work every day, but unfortunately the orders have slowed down so much that there’s no longer enough work.
A Berlin company recently put through an order for five hundred t-shirts to be made within a week, but this isn’t enough to keep everyone employed. And it definitely doesn’t give them any chance of doing a few extra hours, which would allow them to earn a bit more than their basic salary (the most experienced workers earn about eighty euros a month). There’s no longer any profits to share out. Even the school, which 225 children now attend, has had to scale down its ambitions, and can no longer provide school supplies – the pupils have to find a way of getting these themselves.
No matter how disappointed they might be, this is not the be-all and end-all for Shirin, Mily, Rupali, Komela, Beauty and Nasima. “We are psychologically happy here,” explains Shirin with a smile. “Seeing children playing all day is good for your mental health.” Her colleagues, who had kept their distance, come closer and form a small group. “As long as they don’t scream too loud!” adds Rupali. The other young women softly laugh. “We’re all the same – the second the children make too much noise in the classrooms above us, we’re out of there like a flash! It’s so frightening for us. At least here we have each other,” reasons Mily. “It’s important that we’re not alone. Otherwise the problem would start up again in our heads.”
Photos: Workers at Oporajeo and children of the school set up by the cooperative / © Axelle de Russé