In April 2013, Rana Plaza — an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh — collapsed, killing 1,130 people. The structure housed a number of North American and European brands, including Benetton, Bon Marche, The Children’s Place and Joe Fresh. Bangladesh has the second largest garment industry in the world, valued at $28 billion and ranked just behind China, although it has the lowest wages globally for garment workers.
The disaster, considered to be one of the worst industrial tragedies in history, has led to a call for increased accountability and transparency in the clothing industry. While agreements such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh have been put in place in the aftermath of the accident, there are still steps the garment industry can take to repair its broken system.
Companies such as H&M, Walmart and Gap have voiced their interest in improving conditions, yet progress has been a slow and difficult process.
The Rana Plaza building, based in the Dhaka District, was owned by Sohel Rana, who constructed the factory in 2006 with his father. It was created from poor quality construction materials, while heavy, vibrating machinery operated within its walls. The ground that the building had been set upon had previously been a body of water and was swampy, containing rubbish.
When Rana was developing the structure, the upper floors were added illegally, without a permit, and the creation was not made in consent. Inspection teams found cracks in the building on the Tuesday before, but workers were ordered to return to the unsafe environment the following day. That morning, the factory collapsed, with over 3,000 people inside.
In the aftermath of the incident, workers protested and coalitions came together to promote rights within the garment industry and take measures towards preventing a future crisis like Rana Plaza. On May 15, 2013, brands, retailers and trade unions — such as Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Fruit of the Loom — signed a five-year, legally binding agreement to create safer conditions in the Bangladesh Ready Made Garment industry, drafting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
The Accord includes an inspection program, as well as the establishment of the right of workers to refuse unsafe work. Funds will be made available to repair any damaged equipment, and all corrective action plans and inspection reports will be publically disclosed.
Most recently, new signatories have continued to show solidarity for the Transition Accord, which extends the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh until after 2018.
Organizations, Brands and Change
In addition, a nine-member coalition including Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Rights Forum created the Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge, which demands that companies report on manufacturing sites and pertinent details twice a year.
The Follow the Thread Campaign, a coalition consisting of organizations such as Clean Clothes Campaign and Human Rights Watch, asked retail companies to sign a Transparency Pledge in April 2017.
Brands such as H&M, Walmart and Gap affirmed that they would like to participate in improving worker safety in Bangladesh. While Walmart did not sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the company was one of the founding members of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a group of 28 retailers that holds standards and inspections, as well as supporting worker empowerment, among other practices.
Commitment to Transparency
Yet these initiatives have not been enough. Reports by the coalition the Asia Floor Wage Alliance show that many garment buildings in Bangladesh do not have adequate fire exits. According to 2015 research from New York University’s Stern School of Business, out of 3,425 inspections in Bangladesh that were held after the collapse, only eight addressed their violations fully enough to pass final inspections.
A commitment to transparency still remains a vital aspect of progress needed in the garment industry. Workers frequently experience abuse, while earning low wages, with Bangladesh’s minimum wage being 32 cents per hour.
Facing the powerful impact of the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, corporations and unions have come together to try to address the dangerous conditions found in Bangladesh’s garment industry (which is one of the world’s biggest). But for factories to move forward, businesses and human rights organizations will have to confront the negligence found within the system and recognize that fashion is not worth such a costly price.
We, as a globe, will need to see increased accountability and responsibility in the manufacturing places of clothing companies to learn from Rana Plaza and see workers’ conditions sustainably improve.
– Shira Laucharoen