Exactly a year ago on 24th April 2013, a Wednesday, a building complex in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. Rana Plaza housed five garment factories that produced clothing for international brands and retailers, among them C&A, Walmart, Primark, Kik, The Children's Place,Dress Barn, Benetton and Mango. As the world watched in horror, the death toll rose rapidly from dozens to hundreds and finally to 1,133 workers. More than 2,500 workers were injured. It was soon clear that this was not only one of the worst industrial disasters for Bangladesh but the deadliest garment factory accident in the history of the fashion industry.
The disaster’s magnitude even surpassed the ferocity of a fire that killed 117 workers and injured more than 200 just a few months on November 24, 2012 at yet another garment factory, Tazreen Fashions outside of Dhaka, that also produced garments for the export among, among them big retailers like Walmart.
Rana Plaza becomes a rallying cry
Three factors tipped the scale in favour of the international outcry that followed and that created ripples worldwide: One was the shock over the fact that the massive loss of life could have easily been prevented. Days before the collapse, huge cracks on the building walls showed that something was amiss, causing the employers of other establishments to evacuate their workers on the fateful morning (Rana Plaza also housed a bank and several shops on the lower floors). Garment workers who were rightly trying to do the same were sent back to work and threatened with layoffs and pay cuts.
Another shocking fact that came to light was that Rana Plaza was no isolated incident but that the majority of commercial buildings in Bangladesh posed some form of structural or safety threat. A bit of research revealed that over the last five years, factory fires alone claimed the lives of more than 700 workers in Bangladesh.
From here, it was just a small step that led the international community to discover the appalling conditions under which clothes were made in Asia’s garment producing nations, Bangladesh setting a sad record here with the lowest monthly wage of the region, a mere 30 US dollars. The threat of losing even this meagre wage made clear why thousands of workers would go back into a building that was clearly was not safe.
Further investigation in other garment factories revealed other health and safety hazards like barred windows, locked exits, the absence of escape routes, old electrical wiring, flammable material being stored everywhere and insufficient ventilation.
Local authorities, used to the conditions, acted swiftly to cordon off the area, remove debris, recover bodies and cool tempers. The international community of buyers, brands and middlemen recovered too after its initial shock and moved from finger pointing and casting blame to going inward and taking responsibility.
Probably one of the most commendable efforts that came out of the situation is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an unprecedented independent, legally binding agreement. Initially supported by only a few dozen big brands like PVH, Tchibo, H&M, C&A and Inditex, it includes till date more than 150 brands and retailers from 20 countries. In addition, it is supported by IndustriALL Global Union, UNI Global Union, Bangladeshi unions, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Workers Rights Consortium, the International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network and the International Labour Organisation.
“The Rana Plaza disaster has become a rallying cry to put action behind our words. And the work is in full progress. Behind the Accord on Fire and Building Safety stands a large group of major brands and retailers, which, in cooperation with international and Bangladeshi labour unions, has entered into a legally binding agreement to inspect factories in Bangladesh. These inspections are currently being carried out on the ground in Bangladesh. The efforts will support the transformation of the industry and hopefully spread to other markets beyond Bangladesh,” explains Alan Roberts, the Accord’s executive director of international operations.
The Accord’s biggest achievement is not only the start of thorough factory inspections by local and independent agents in Bangladesh but also compiling those findings in extensive reports that are publicly accessible (see bangladeshaccord.org/inspection-reports for more information).
What else has changed, one year after the Rana Plaza building collapse? Buyers have become more careful who they are sourcing from, valuing trusted partners and long-term relationships. While some have certainly looked for alternatives to Bangladesh, the mass exodus out of the country that some had predicted has not happened. Bangladesh is too important and too big in terms of workforce and production facilities as that it could be replaced easily or by a single country.
Wages have since gone up by 77 percent and have reached 50 US dollars. They are still too low in terms of covering living expenses but at least the gap has narrowed. In other countries like China where wages have increased in the last couple of years, workers are now taking to the streets to demand their rights in terms of welfare payments like pensions, medical insurance, housing allowances and injury compensation.
The Bangladesh Accord is also taken as a model for other garment-producing countries and those heading in the direction. Last but not least, consumers have become more aware of the clothes they wear. They increasingly check labels for the country of origin or question brands and retailers about their production conditions and supply chain. They even turned April 24th into Fashion Revolution Day, inviting everyone to wear their clothes inside out to reveal their labels.
In addition, consumer forums like Rank a Brand offer consumers a platform to quickly check how sustainable their favourite brand really is. For example, they can check how many of the 370 most popular fashion brands have a supplier code of conduct (half of them do not and 60 percent have an incomplete one), how many monitor the implementation of such a code, require their suppliers to pay a living wage or are transparent about the suppliers they use in the first place.
What has changed and what needs to be done will also be discussed at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, taking place today. More than 1,000 key industry stakeholders, politicians and decision makers are expected in Copenhagen. Apart from honouring and commemorating the victims, executive director Alan Roberts of the Bangladesh Accord will sum up the efforts and speak about the solutions being implemented to avoid another disaster.
“The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh is one of many terrible examples of the dark side of the fashion industry. It underlines how important it is that we continue to fight for a more responsible fashion industry with improved working conditions in safe facilities,” sums up Eva Kruse, CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute and organizer of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.Photos: Rana Plaza after the collapse (rijans), missing people board (Sharat Chowdhury)