Rana Plaza Disaster: A Fashion Failure Five Years On

“It seems fashion changes faster than human rights evolve in the garment industry.” –Charles Stratford, Al Jazeera.

Five years after the collapse of Rana Plaza, garment workers in Bangladesh continue to work in “life-threatening” conditions in factories. The Rana Plaza collapse was a structural failure that occurred on 24 April 2013 in Savar, an industrial district of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The eight-story factory collapsed killing 1134 people, the majority of victims were female garment workers; a further 2500 people were injured. Workers voiced concerns over cracks in the building’s walls, despite warnings that the building was unsafe, they were forced to work. “Managers hit workers with sticks to force them into the factory that day,” said Judy Gearhart, the executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

The Rana Plaza collapse is considered to be the deadliest unintended structural failure of the modern era and the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history. Unions have labelled it a “mass industrial homicide.” Moreover, British MP Rushanara Ali has described it as “not an accident” but a man-made disaster.”

It triggered mass protests that demanded justice for victims. There was also international condemnation as it was revealed the factory produced clothing for major international brands including Primark and Walmart. It exposed inequities within the garment-manufacturing industry, such as employees working long hours, often in hazardous conditions, earning an average of $50 per month; which is less than the cost of a pair of pants produced for European and American markets. Bangladeshi garment workers earn the lowest wages in the global garment industry. Rushanara Ali has criticized major fashion brands, “Considering the profits these companies are making, they are paying workers a pittance” she said. “We have to pay more, and brands have to pay more.” Despite “improvements,” workers in Bangladesh earn less than $68 each month, they earn less than half of Vietnamese workers’ incomes. The minimum wage would need be triple the current wage to provide a living wage. Consumers would only have to pay an additional 12 to 25 cents for a t-shirt sold by H&M to provide a sustainable salary for textile workers, according to Sasja Beslik, head of the Sustainable Finance team at Nordea Wealth Management.

Regulation needs to focus on the rights agenda, as well as economic empowerment. The majority of textile workers live in poverty, unable to afford basic necessities.  The garment industry has benefited from the cheap labour of women who are often unskilled and uneducated, they earn less than men. The industry has given women work opportunities where they were previously marginalized and excluded from formal sector jobs. The victims in the Rana Plaza collapse were predominately women. Globally 80% of the world’s 75 million garment workers are women. Women remain vulnerable to exploitation, often they are unable to negotiate wages, they are verbally and physically abused and forced to work in dangerous conditions.

Weak government regulation has allowed human rights violations to occur within the garment industry. Regulation has been trumped by competition and profit. Bangladesh’s low production costs, including low wages, lack of employment benefits and health and safety regulation have attracted international brands seeking to minimize costs. These factors have enabled brands and retailers to keep up with trends and contributed to the rise of “fast fashion.” Western consumers demand ever-cheaper clothes. Society consumes 400% more clothing than 20 years ago. To keep up with demand cheap labour, mass production, and quick turn-over have been vital. Consequently, this has driven down the price companies pay to suppliers, therefore factory owners have cut costs regarding wages and worker protection.

Whilst the Rana Plaza disaster has prompted improvements in the textile industry, progress and reform has been slow. Often companies have complex supply chains dispersed internationally, therefore it is difficult to monitor suppliers. There is a lack of transparency since some companies do not disclose information about their supply chains. As a result, they fail to eradicate human rights violations from all levels of production. Abuses such as child labour, inhumane working conditions and wage theft are regularly ignored. A study conducted by the Centre for Business and Human Rights surveyed the conditions of textile factories in Bangladesh. Findings show that workers in 3000 of the country’s 7000 factories are still routinely exposed to life-threatening risks, including lack of fire safety equipment and structural faults.

The Rana Plaza incident led to the implementation of two initiatives, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (backed by North American retailers). About 250 companies signed these initiatives. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which is a legally-binding agreement between international brands and trade unions; it is managed by European brands. 220 clothing companies signed the Accord, including H&M and Primark. Companies are accountable for factory conditions; they must ensure the improvement of worker’s rights and safety by shouldering the economic costs and ensuring factories are inspected. Many of the world’s most popular clothing retailers said they would end contracts with factories that failed to comply with international standards.

There are loopholes in the regulation, according to Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Centre for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business said, “We have found tremendous improvement in the larger factories that have signed onto two major safety programmes organised by foreign brands. But two other categories – factories overseen by the government and subcontracting facilities not overseen by anyone – remain at risk.” Smaller factories are more at risk because they are unregulated and not covered by the accord; they do not comply with safety standards and receive subcontracted work. At least, 3000 factories are subcontractors for large factories which produce clothing for high-demand western brands.

This year the accord is up for renewal. The Bangladeshi government could be made accountable for worker’s rights and factory conditions. With improved safety regulations some companies have shifted work from one country to another to boycott the new regulation. Companies may exit the market in Bangladesh and shift to deregulated production centres that are less scrutinised. This would negatively impact Bangladesh’s garment industry which employs five million people and textile exports contribute US$28 billion annually to their economy; this constitutes 80 per cent of their exports.

Stronger regulations and advancements in building safety must be sustained and not just a temporary fix. The future of the accord is uncertain since it will be restructured this year and will only receive funding for three more years. Some companies may be reluctant to renew their commitment. A collective response is required with shared responsibility between multiple stakeholders, including international companies, trade unions and governments to help ensure factory safety. The Bangladeshi government needs to play a more active role, rather than their dependence on international intervention. However, they do not have the funds required to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe, which is estimated to cost up to $1.2 billion.

Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit global movement released a manifesto on 23 April with recommendations and visions for the industry. It calls for dignified working conditions, fair and equal pay, freedom to negotiate pay and conditions to help empower workers and lift people out of poverty. The measure of success must place equal value on financial growth, human well-being and sustainability, not profit alone. Furthermore, transparency and traceability within the supply chain allows customers to make informed decisions.

The way fashion is produced and consumed needs to change to become more sustainable. People need to consume less and invest in higher quality, durable clothing. Public perception is beginning to shift with more people wanting to know the origin of their clothes, as well as becoming more aware of the ethics of production. In emerging markets, more than 65 per cent of consumers actively seek out sustainable fashion, this is according to The State of Fashion 2017 report from McKinsey and Business of Fashion. Ethical fashion guides have been created by different organizations, including Tear Fund in New Zealand to help consumers make conscious, ethical shopping decisions. There are alternatives to fast fashion, including purchasing second-hand clothing or looking for labels that are Fairtrade certified which guarantees workers were treated and paid fairly.

Jenna Homewood