The Rana Plaza collapse, the deadliest garment factory accident in history, carries a moral and political significance. It laid bare the deeply unequal globalised supply chain, introduced by the new manufacturing and trade order of the 1990s. The incident was an eye-opener that exposed how workers of poorer nations were often forced to make fashion items for western consumers in unsafe circumstances earning a pittance. But, have we learned from this disaster and brought real changes to ensure workplace safety and a sustainable industry?
On April 24, 2013, the eight-storeyed Rana Plaza building in Savar collapsed killing at least 1,134 people, mostly women, and injuring thousands of others. Frightened workers had been forced to work inside a building with large cracks, as they had to fulfil delivery deadlines from major Western apparel companies, including Benetton, Children's Place, and Mango. Brands like Zara, Walmart, C&A, Carrefour, and Joe Fresh were also producing in the factories located in Rana Plaza. But the retailers and brands did not acknowledge responsibility for the absence of safe working conditions in their supply chains.
The disaster has raised some unresolved questions: to what extent should multinational corporations be held accountable for labour rights violations in their supply chains and what is the extent of their obligations towards working conditions of their suppliers? Is it possible to establish a model for supply chain responsibility that is fair to the workers?
To understand how we got to the point where an avoidable disaster like Rana Plaza occurred, it is important to examine how the garments sector in Bangladesh emerged as an industry.
During the last three decades, structural changes in the national economy and accelerating globalisation led to diverse labour practices, and Bangladesh has undergone a massive socio-economic transformation, driven mostly by garments workers and migrant workers in overseas employment. Since the early 1980s, the garment factories have been developed as foreign market-oriented free enterprises, supported by liberalised trade policies and development strategies. These policies created obstacles to forming trade unions at every turn. In the beginning, the garment factories, mostly based in Dhaka, had a narrow client base, dominated by small European retailers. But in the 1990s, the big Western garment manufacturers were gradually moving away from investing in factories as they turned to sub-contractors, offering them very narrow margins for profit and thereby forcing them to run their factories like prison-houses of labour (Vijay Prashad, Counterpunch). Bangladesh became an attractive destination for such companies due to its cheap labour as the country had a huge supply of young women workers from the villages who were willing to accept whatever amount they were offered. The local manufacturers took it as a huge short-term money-making opportunity. Thus, they showed little interest in improving the working conditions in their factories.
The cheap price of labour implies that the price of lives here was also cheap. Between 2006 and 2012, more than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers died in factory fires (New York Times). But no meaningful step was taken to improve conditions in the factories. The lives lost in the fires were simply ignored and forgotten. Five months after the Tazreen Fashions fire at Ashulia, which killed at least 117 workers, the Rana Plaza collapse happened. The death toll was too great for anyone to be able to wish the disaster away into amnesia.
The garment sector, which employs the largest number of workers in the country, had no trade unions for almost three decades. Bangladeshi labour laws did not prohibit forming trade unions at garment factories, but the government and the factory owners were reluctant to see it materialise. Early attempts at forming unions were met with heavy-handed approaches from factory owners (such as firing workers who submitted their names to the company to form a union and thus making them ineligible) with tacit support from the government. Following deadly incidents in several factories, labour activists argued that the incidents were due to negligence, which could have been avoided if there were a functioning formal channel and effective labour representation within the factory.
Even in the present day, the Rana Plaza disaster continues to unfold for its survivors. According to an ActionAid study, 51 percent of the survivors are still unemployed due to physical and mental challenges, while the condition of one-fifth of the survivors is getting worse (The Daily Star, April 17, 2019). On top of it all, the survivors have to deal with everyday struggles of depression and trauma, in the absence of adequate healthcare for issues related to their injuries.
The Rana Plaza disaster created global headlines and drew attention to the horrific working conditions. Western brands and retailers obviously did not want any large-scale workplace deaths in the garment factories, as they do care about the impact of public unease on their profit margins. The fact is that as long as there is no “large-scale” disaster, their customers will not be curious about the unsafe conditions that workers are employed in. Understandably, their main focus post-Rana Plaza was to ensure safety standards. But they also have a responsibility to play their part in ensuing that a fair and decent living wage is paid to the workers. And that is not too much to ask for.
The collective efforts of the government, factory owners, Western brands and retailers, trade unions, and two inspection bodies—the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety—have made considerable progress in fire, electrical and structural safety in the garment factories over the past six years. Undoubtedly, garment factories are now safer workplaces than they were six years ago. But safety is a continuous journey, not a final destination. Also, significant problems remain as garment workers are still struggling to earn a fair living wage, the right to form unions that genuinely represent their interests, and the right to access affordable healthcare, housing and transportation. The garment workers have very little economic security as Bangladesh has one of the lowest minimum wages in the world.
About four-fifths of the total garment workers are women. It is important to look at the challenges they face. The insecurity of women workers is largely related to sexual harassment at the workplace. All factories must institutionalise a complaint process so that women can report sexual harassment without fear.
It is important for Bangladesh to have a safe and sustainable garment industry. Improvement of workers' welfare is largely dependent upon the gradual improvement of working conditions. Any serious and well-meaning attempt to ensure workplace safety on the part of Western brands and retailers must also include a commitment to sustainability, and a pledge of stable and long-term relationships with supplier factories.
Now that the Bangladesh RMG industry has gone through a transitional phase, it is important that it sustains the progress that has been made over the past six years in workplace safety. In order to do so, the retailers and brands must take responsibility to improve the lives of those working in their supply chains, and especially address their poor wages and lack of safety nets. Considering the huge profits these companies are making, they must commit to pay more.
Zobaida Nasreen is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Dhaka. She is currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Rice University, USA. She can be reached at email@example.com.