Rana Plaza, two years on

Rebuilding life after Rana Plaza: Stories of survivors

Two years after the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, the ILO has helped many survivors get back on their feet and back to work, two of whom have opened their own successful businesses and are thinking big for the future.

Article | Dhaka, Bangladesh | 20 April 2015

A small shop built on big dreams

Badly injured while helping to rescue fellow workers from the rubble of Rana Plaza, Shahjahan Selim is now permanently disabled. Through ILO medical and business skills assistance Selim has overcome adversity to open a small shop which after just one year of operation has grown to twice its original size. ILO support to Selim was provided through a programme funded by Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

If repeat customers are a sign of success, there is one little shop in Savar, Bangladesh that is doing everything right, and it has barely been open for one year. It operates using a different model to a usual shop: customers select their own goods, pay and provide themselves with their own change. Selim, the owner, just hands customers a little blue money box, tucks it away under the counter when they have sorted out their payment and helps them a bit when it is really busy. It is difficult to tell in fact, who actually runs the shop, Selim or his customers.

Selim had been working in the Rana Plaza building for just six days when it collapsed. Not only did he survive the collapse, but he went straight back every day for two weeks after the collapse to rescue others. Using skills he had learnt from training in the Bangladesh Army, Selim pulled out a total of 28 dead bodies and rescued 37 people. When rescuing the last person, Rajib, he slipped and fell three storeys becoming permanently disabled. With ILO-supported counselling and business training, however, Selim now runs a small shop in Savar.

“There were a lot of uncertainties but the compensation money planted a seed in my mind and then the training helped to build my confidence. The wholesale company also supported us, even though I could only make small orders,”says Selim. “People were really helpful – they gave us the names of all the items they would buy and said that they would come if we stocked them. Since then, they have not stopped coming, and bringing other customers. When I started, I had just 15,000 BDT worth of items. Now, our stock is up to 90,000 BDT.”

Selim, with his disability, cannot run the shop by himself, but he is never short of help from the continuous flow of people that come in.

“Customers help so much, they understand that I cannot do everything the proper way so they do almost everything themselves. No one has ever given me less money, they always act properly. The people I rescued still come to visit me from time to time and bring food to me. People do not just come to buy things, they also come just to talk to me. Sales are strong , and I feel good providing quality service.”

Selim is not just content with the shop as it is though; he is expanding to meet the seasonal needs of his customers and wants to continue growing.

“The most common items I sell at the moment are biscuits, rice, wheat, dhal and soap. As summer is coming, people will be wanting to buy soft drinks, yoghurt, milk and other dairy products, so I am going to buy a fridge soon. I also want to provide books, pens and stationery so people do not have to go to the market and can easily get it here, especially school children. I am planning in the future that my shop will become a department store.”

Shanta, Selim’s wife, was one of the main reasons why Selim went back to rescue people. She said, “After the collapse, even though I just wanted him at home where he was safe, I insisted that my husband go back to the collapse every day. I thought, if he did not help them, who would? We are so poor, and all the people working in Rana Plaza were so poor. Selim came home only for food for two weeks. I am so proud of him – he was still rescuing people even when his hands were torn.

When he had the accident I was blaming myself, but now we do not have any regrets. We are really happy that those people were saved. It has also taught our son the value of serving the people of our country. Now, whenever I am at work and cannot come home, he cleans and feeds my husband, showers him and takes him into the shop. He is so proud that his father is a businessman.”

From worker to owner

Haunted by the Rana Plaza collapse Naseer Uddin Sohel could not face returning to a large factory. After receiving counselling from ILO he used his compensation money to set up his own small garment factory. A year on, the business has grown from two sewing machines to eight and he now employs six other Rana Plaza survivors. ILO support to Nasir was provided through a programme funded by Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

The New Life Factory feels good from the moment you step in the door. Six women are sewing, talking and smiling while two young men are sorting fabrics on a table covered in brightly coloured material. There is a peaceful, determined hum in the warm, summer air rising up to the bamboo ceiling.

“After the Rana Plaza collapse, I decided to open my own factory, a different sort of factory. One where all the workers could be owners and all the profits could be shared,” says Naseer. “One that employed me and other survivors, but also one that could eventually grow big enough to employ all the survivors. The building would not rise above one storey and we would not need strict production targets. When I received the compensation money, I started the factory, and in just a year and a half our two secondhand machines have already grown to eight machines.”

Naseer is just 27 years old and is one of two owners of New Life. The other owner is his friend Jahangir. Naseer and Jahangir are both survivors of Rana Plaza, and the six women that they now employ are also all survivors. Naseer says that the community has embraced what they are trying to do.

“Buyers have been really supportive of us. They have agreed to pay us in advance because they know we don’t have the capital to cover the costs otherwise. All our orders come from the Savar Centre at the moment, from the Polybiddud market. The margins are not bad - we get 180 BDT on average for an item, and it is sold at around 220 BDT in the market.”

The six women currently employed in New Life had tried to return to work in traditional garment factories but were not able to handle the production targets.

“When Rana Plaza collapsed, I was just two months pregnant,” says Firoza. “Now my son is almost two years old, and he comes into the factory all the time. I like working here, no one yells at me, it is not stressful and I want to do the work because I am not stressed or pushed. It is peaceful. We do not need targets, we just get there, slowly, slowly.”

Naseer runs the factory as a cooperative, paying everybody at the same rate, saying this gives everyone the ownership needed to make New Life a success.

“We are all like brothers and sisters in the factory. Even when we have 1000 workers, this will be the same. All of us are working as workers, and all the profits are used to improve the factory. 7000 BDT is what we are paying our workers, and what Jahanghir and I are also paying ourselves. Some of the time we do not reach our targets, but when that happens, we all just automatically work harder to make up for it. I do not have to push. Everyone has their own responsibility and they feel ownership over what they do or do not produce. We are all poor. If we do not work, we cannot eat so we all want the factory to succeed.”

With the help of ILO-supported career counselling, psychological support sessions and self-help groups, Naseer has solid goals for New Life and has developed strategies for reaching those goals.

“We will buy a generator soon, as soon as we have made some more money, as summer is coming soon and there will be more regular power cuts,” says Naseer. “We will also reduce the size of the cutting and pattern making table to make space for some more machines. In five years we will have two lines, which means 64 machines.”