Rana Plaza: Ten Years On
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building was a tragic incident for the fashion industry and will always signify a poignant moment of awakening and solidarity.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh that housed five garment factories was a tragic incident for the fashion industry and will always signify a poignant moment of awakening and solidarity. Ten years later, there has been much progress in establishing secure working conditions however, there remains much to be done in order to suitably safeguard workers around the world.
On 23 April 2013, large structural cracks were discovered in the Rana Plaza building. While the shops and bank on the lower floors were closed and evacuated, warnings to avoid using the building were ignored by the garment factory owners on the upper floors.
Ten years ago today, on 24 April 2013, thousands of garment workers were ordered to return to work at their garment factories located in the cracked Rana Plaza building. That day the building came crashing down, killing around 1,138 people and leaving over 2,500 injured.
The tragic event at Rana Plaza shed light on the serious impacts of the fashion industry, particularly when current purchasing practices of brands and buyers are built on short lead times and the need for low cost to compete for end users’ demand for affordable clothing, leaving suppliers in a race to the bottom.
The disaster also laid bare the distinct absence of transparency in global supply chains which has damaging consequences for garment workers. Transparent disclosure on labour and human rights is an essential foundation to achieving systemic change in the industry enabling better identification of risks and abuses in the fashion value chain.
Since the tragedy, the urgency to enact change for garment workers is more widely comprehended with a number of projects and initiatives seeking to address the systemic issues that led to the disaster. For many, the event marked the first time they questioned just how their clothes are made.
So, one decade later, what has tangibly changed?
After the tragic collapse in April, The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety were established to promote workplace safety through independent safety inspections, training programs, and complaints mechanisms for workers. The Accord marked the first time in the fashion industry that there was a legally binding agreement on factory safety between global brands and retailers and trade unions that represent garment workers.
Since its introduction, the Bangladesh Accord has created significant change in factory working conditions in the Bangladesh garment industry. According to Joris Oldenziel, Executive Director of the International Accord Foundation, within two months of the Accord’s launch in 2013, 200 companies signed the Accord and as a result over 40,000 initial and follow-up inspections took place at over 2,000 factories. In turn, 93% of the identified 150,000 safety hazards were remediated. Oldenziel said: “It’s fair to say that the 2 million workers in these factories are now significantly safer than they were in 2013.”
In 2021, an updated International Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry was established by unions and brands. This Safety Accord continues the life-saving work improving factories in Bangladesh and works towards expansion to other countries. In 2023, the Accord will expand to Pakistan and establish a new workplace safety programme.
Following Rana Plaza, the foundations were laid for advocacy groups such as Fashion Revolution. First published on the anniversary of Rana Plaza’s collapse in 2016, The Fashion Transparency Index has served as an annual benchmark of the information major fashion brands disclose. Increased transparency enables workers’ rights advocates to identify, report and redress suspected abuses. The Index has pushed companies to provide more information to the public and created a degree of accountability within the industry.
Rana Plaza should have signified a watershed moment for non-negotiable change but despite the importance of respectful and secure work environments and potential business benefits, human rights abuses still exist throughout the fashion value chain.
We know that worker safety needs to be extensive and all-encompassing, yet many workers are still exposed to dangerous working conditions, poor occupational safety, insufficient health standards, and long working hours. Full labour safety for the workers and their families is still far from a reality. Furthermore, whilst the minimum wage in Bangladesh has doubled, this is still only half of what the unions had suggested and far from a living wage.
The latest Fashion Transparency Index showed the progress on transparency in the global fashion industry is still too slow among 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers. Most major brands and retailers (96%) do not publish the number of workers in their supply chain paid a living wage. Only 13% of brands disclose how many of their supplier facilities have trade unions.
To address these issues, there is a need for continued investment in factory safety improvements, better enforcement of labour laws, and greater transparency and accountability in supply chains to ensure that workers are treated fairly and with dignity.
Most crucially, we cannot expect to remedy this situation without listening to the voices of the communities on the frontline. Real progress demands an examination of the structural and systemic nature of exploitation in the fashion industry. It requires us to listen to the workers.
At Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition 2022, Sourcing and Labour editor at Sourcing Journal, Jasmin Malik Chua, reiterated during a panel discussion: “It’s important to not take a really Western-centric approach and a Paternalistic approach, and actually speak to the workers, because they know what’s really best for them.”
This sentiment was echoed at Global Fashion Summit: Singapore Edition 2022 by Nazma Akter, Founder & Executive Director, Awaj Foundation, who said: “We want decent jobs, fair wages, fair prices and we want profit. The power should be equally distributed between suppliers, brands and workers.”
The GFA Monitor is intended as a resource to guide fashion leaders on the pathway towards a net positive fashion industry by 2050. The report presents guidance according to five sustainability priorities. One of these core priorities is ‘Respectful & Secure Work Environments’. Find out how brands can make bold commitments and take decisive action on this urgent priority in the full report.