Ten years ago on 24th April 2013, a huge garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people and leaving thousands more devastated by injury and loss. What has chanmged for garment industry employees since?
What Happened on 24th April 2013?
As Bangladesh’s deadliest ever industrial disaster, it was a horrific wake up call which shocked the world.
Two-inch deep cracks had been seen in three of the building’s pillars the previous day, and on the 24th April, workers were refusing to go inside. However, many were forced back to work under the threat of losing a month’s pay. Later that day, the entire building collapsed, leaving utter devastation in its wake.
We vowed an incident like this would never happen again, yet since (and before) Rana Plaza there have been numerous preventable incidents in the garment industry resulting in workers losing their lives.
As Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) point out, had campaigners calls for action on factory safety been heeded many years before, the Rana Plaza incident could have been prevented. CCC had been working with partners in Bangladesh on safety issues since 2005, but had had little help from clothing brands or government.
What has changed for garment industry workers since?
In the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza incident, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (‘The Accord’) was put into place. This was a binding agreement, in which unions had 50% control and could hold brands legally accountable if they failed to comply with minimum safety standards in their factories (which included basic things like keeping doors unlocked and ensuring fire exits were kept clear of obstructions).
By the 1st May 2013, one million people had signed a petition calling on brands to sign the Accord and eventually 220 brands did. The Accord was initially in place for five years, during which time over 1,600 factories had been inspected and 84% of safety hazards were fixed. When it was renewed in 2018, some brands refused to sign the new agreement, prioritising profits over safety. Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Sean John did not join again, but over 190 brands stayed. Now, in its third iteration, this agreement is called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry and has been signed by 195 brands. This year it is due to be rolled out beyond Bangladesh, starting in Pakistan soon, though progress is said to be slow. Earlier this month a factory fire in Pakistan killed four firefighters and injured 13 people, highlighting the urgent need for movement on the agreement in Pakistan and in all countries where garment workers face unsafe work environments.
In terms of financial compensation for those affected by Rana Plaza’s collapse, despite brands making all the right noises, it took over two years(!) of campaigning after the disaster to get them to hand over the funds. But in 2015 the 30 million USD was finally raised to compensate victims and their families.
Beyond factory safety
Besides worker safety, Clean Clothes Campaign say that little progress has been made in improving conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh over the past decade.
In Bangladesh, wages are still significantly below what could be considered to be a living wage (enough to cover basic outgoings like rent, food, bills,education for children etc.). This is after years of campaigning and protests from workers – often at great personal risk – which have resulted only in woefully insufficient increases in the minimum wage. Currently, trade unions are calling for the minimum wage to be trebled.
Seven years after Rana Plaza, the pandemic caused further devastation to garment sector workers. In the period between March 2020 and March 2021 workers in Bangladesh were robbed of an estimated 845 million USD in wages and severance, with at least 438,000 workers losing their jobs.
The country also has a history of often brutal crackdowns on union activity, reported to have increased during the pandemic. This makes it incredibly difficult, and in some cases dangerous, for workers to demand change themselves.
What can you do?
Manchester March – 23rd April
On Sunday, we’ll be joining a peaceful walking demonstration in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, to remember those who lost their lives, and call for specific brands to take action on behalf of garment workers. Everyone welcome to join us – bring a sign if you can!
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Sign the petition
Clean Clothes Campaign and Remake, have initiated a petition targeting a“dirty dozen” brands, including Levi’s, IKEA, and Amazon, who have failed to sign the life-saving Accord in the past ten years.
Contact your favourite brands
Ask them what they are doing to protect workers rights to a safe working environment, to join a trade union and to ensure they are paid a living wage.