Last month marked eight years since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, a nine-story complex housing various textile workshops in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It was (and remains) the worst recorded tragedy in the sector, resulting in the deaths of 1,134 people.
Most of them had left poverty behind in rural areas of the country after being hired by subcontractors to work for large fashion brands. The day before the collapse, it was learned that deep cracks had appeared in the building. Some workers begged not to be sent inside, or only agreed to do so for fear of losing their wages. Sometime before nine in the morning on April 24, the floors began to collapse, leaving only the ground floor intact. Labor unions declared that it was not a labor accident, instead calling it a “massive industrial homicide.”
The collapse of Rana Plaza was not the first of its kind. However, the scale of the tragedy ensured that the stories of survivors and their families made headlines around the world. A few weeks later, the Bangladesh Safety Accord was born as a binding program joined by more than 200 brands, some with employees in the collapsed building, to take action on the matter and prevent a similar disaster.
Thanks to the Accord, periodic inspections have since been carried out to verify the electrical installations, fire doors, and structural capacity of garment factories. However, “the situation changed in May 2019,” according to Christie Miedema, a spokesperson from the international office of the Clean Clothes campaign, a network that works to improve the conditions of workers in the global garment industry.
On that date, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bangladesh-based settlement office would continue to operate in the country for a transition period of one year. “During this time, brands, unions and the Association of Manufacturers and Exporters of Clothing would work to establish a new, non-binding institution, called the Ready-Made-Garment Sustainability Council (RSC),” explained Miedema. It would take over the inspection tasks from then on.
The initial agreement ends on May 31, and Clean Clothes fears that without the option to hold brands accountable in court, safety concerns will resurface. The activist stated that since the Supreme Court decision phasing out the Safety Accord, “no brand or retail member has signed a new document that is legally enforceable.” Although some companies are beginning to realize the need to show greater commitment, almost all are responding with watered-down versions of the program, she said.
In addition, Miedema charged that some important actions are being delayed because the new institution “does not cooperate adequately.” For example, six months after the RSC assumed responsibility for ensuring workplace safety, some important commitments that brands and unions agreed to early on, such as hiring a boiler inspector, remained unfulfilled.
By way of explanation, the activist pointed out that, of the 18 directors of the board of directors of the new institution, 12 are representatives of companies with financial stakes in the industry. Workers’ representatives constitute only a third of the RSC’s members. “Workers’ representatives can be defeated by the corporate interests of brands and factory owners,” Miedema said.
To date, in the routine reviews carried out under the Accord, some 200 factories have been disqualified for not meeting requirements and more than 120,000 problems related to fires or construction problems have been solved, according to Clean Clothes.
Although the buildings are in better condition now than in 2013 thanks to the improvements, Miedema anticipates that the work “is not finished.” For example, the verification of correctly installed fire alarms in 1,200 factories is pending, as is inspection of 900 factories’ guaranteed safe exit routes, designed for use in the event of an emergency.
Miedema said that incidents in factories this year in Morocco, Egypt, and Pakistan show that it is necessary to work on adequate protection measures. That’s especially important considering that, in many cases, garment factories are still located in buildings that are not intended for industrial purposes. The garment industry can be set up anywhere, as workers only need space for a sewing machine.
Years ago, when the collapse of Rana Plaza was still dominating the headlines, Mainuddin Khondker, a government official who had headed a special inspection group for clothing factories, acknowledged to the BBC that 50 percent of them operated with insecure parameters.Furthermore, he admitted that none had yet been sanctioned for violating safety rules or building regulations.
A few months before the collapse of Rana Plaza, at least 120 people lost their lives in a fire at a nine-story textile factory on the outskirts of the same city. One of the most common causes of such accidents is that at the time of the emergency the doors were locked or closed, preventing the workers from leaving. Building security has changed since then, one the improvements advanced by the Bangladesh Safety Accord.
Some big brands that at the time adhered to the Accord, such as H&M, which did not manufacture orders at Rana Plaza, and Primark, which did, have spoken out. By email, both assured The Diplomat that they are committed to safety in the factories and that they maintain active participation in the negotiations on how to proceed when the transition period ends in May 2021.
Both firms also maintain that, regardless of any future decisions on the organization or governance of the RSC, their commitment will “stand” going forward.
Further complicating the situation, eight years after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, there is still no insurance system in place to compensate workers who are injured in the workplace. As Taqbir Huda of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, an organization that seeks to make the legal system accessible to people with fewer resources, pointed out, this means that they are at the mercy of factory owners, as employers “refuse to pay even the insignificant amounts prescribed by the labor law.”
Workers’ lives have not changed much since the Rana Plaza tragedy. Their wages are still very low, which forces them to endure certain conditions that are not good. Miedema mentioned that, on the one hand, there is increasing awareness in the industry that companies are responsible for their entire supply chain and need to carry out due diligence. But, on the other hand, “many companies do not practice what they preach.”
For Miedema, one of the major gaps in the new RSC is that the safety of the workers and the condition of the buildings where they work will not be covered by a legally binding program. And she fears that, as a consequence, Bangladesh’s garment industry may go back to what it was before – and risk another Rana Plaza-style disaster.