By Beatrice Tridimas
Remembering Rana Plaza
On 23 April 2013, shops on the first floor of the Rana Plaza complex closed down. Large cracks had appeared in the walls of the eight-storey building. The garment factories that occupied the seven other floors remained open and employees instructed to return to work the next day. On the morning of 24 April, amidst the rush of thousands of garment workers returning to work, the factory floors gave way.
It took less than 90 seconds for the eight-storey building to collapse.
With over 2,500 injured and 1,134 dead, the Rana Plaza factory collapse remains the garment industry’s biggest tragedy to date. This Friday marks the seventh anniversary of the disaster, and as we remember the events of that fatal day, we come to reflect on how the industry has since changed, and how far it has to go.
7 years of change?
The scale and gravity of the Rana Plaza building collapse inevitably led to a surge of activity, and the establishment of various initiatives aimed at bettering the industry. The most successful of which was The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between brands, factories and unions to improve health and safety in the garment sector.
Originally, the Accord took on 2,159 factories and, since 2013, has identified over 150,000 safety hazards, 90% of which have been remediated. Despite such positive sounding statistics, most of the factories covered by the Accord are behind schedule in implementing their Corrective Action Plans. But due to the extent of the measures, the thoroughness and complexity of the process, it is understandable that there’s still a way to go. Vitally, the Accord recognise that safety is more than fixing up factories, and is working on establishing safety committees and bettering communication between factory management and staff.
Today, the Accord is preparing for its transition into the RMG Sustainability Council, a new body set up to continue the work of the Accord alongside the Bangladesh government. The RSC is due to take over in June 2020 and will inherit all of the Accord’s staff, infrastructure and work. Depending on developments of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is uncertain if the original timescale will be followed.
The establishment of the RSC comes after the Bangladesh High Court issued a restraining order against the Accord in 2018, hindering its extension to 2021. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association felt particularly strongly about ending the reign of the Accord, perhaps due to the fact that safety remediations are expensive and the government offered little in the way of funding. Meanwhile, brands continue to push down prices, leaving factory owners in a tight spot where producing cheaply is utterly incompatible with financing safety renovations.
The BGMEA’s sentiments towards the Accord and the government’s intervention in its progress suggests that some of the systematic changes the industry needs are yet to be dealt with. Whilst the Accord’s success is undeniable, the dynamic between Western brands and their supply chains in the Global South hasn’t changed and has left factory owners unable to satisfy both, safety standards and production pressures placed on them by brands.
Multi-million global clothing brands such as those sourcing from the Rana Plaza complex, (Mango, Benetton, Primark, Inditex amongst others) have gravitated towards suppliers in Bangladesh due to their already low manufacturing prices. Prices, which over time, Western brands have driven even lower.
The Bangladesh government and industry leaders are not in a position to forfeit their trade with foreign clothing giants, making it easier for brands to exploit their supply chains. And, with hopes of being classified as a middle-income country over the next few years, doubling apparel exports is essential, no matter at what cost.
The work of the Accord, along with the Clean Clothes Campaign’s successful compensation fund, has started to hold brands responsible for their supply chains.
The 2016 ACT agreement is working along these lines to secure living wages and freedom of association across global supply chains. It is an agreement between brands, unions, workers and employers to work together in establishing a minimum wage which can then be implemented industry wide.
Much of the action in recent years has been a direct response to the Rana Plaza disaster, meaning improvements in wages and other worker rights have taken a backseat. A report published in 2019 by the University of Sheffield reveals that brands do commit to paying living wages across their supply chains but more often than not fail to take action towards achieving wage goals, or even establishing exactly what those goals are.
Currently, the minimum wage for garment workers is 8,000 takas, roughly $95 per month. Whilst it is double what it was in 2013, it is thought to only make up about 19% of a living wage that would cover basic needs.
Before Rana Plaza, about 71 people would die a year due to safety hazards in factories. Now, it is just 17. But, despite the Accord’s success, safety isn’t the only issue the industry faces. Bangladesh’s garment workers continue to be underpaid, work unrecognised overtime and face retribution for union association.
It Takes Two
Without addressing structural and systematic causes of a disaster like the Rana Plaza factory collapse, brands are still able to exploit their supply chains and governments are still able to give up on labour reforms.
As brands superficially pledge to support their supply chains whilst driving export prices lower, they place factory owners in a double bind where they are unable to finance remediations and fair wages whilst increasing productivity, thereby forcing responsibility for the failures of the industry onto supply chains.
And it is also time to hold the consumer accountable. As consumers we dictate the demand and play a vital role in the pressures put on supply chains. Altering our consumer habits sends a really important message to brands about their own practices.
During these unsettling times, it is hard to predict what the future might bring for the industry. But it might be comforting to align with those who seek, in this time of turmoil, an opportunity for rebirth. We have already seen people going to work safer, and as we remember those who died at Rana Plaza, we must continue to strive for better, for they did not die in vain.