London - It has been nearly five years since the worst accident in the history of garment industry took place. On April 23, 2013, an eight-story building housing several garment factories, as well as a shopping center named Rana Plaza, collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh - killing 1,134 people and injuring more than 2,000. Although there were clear signs that the building was constructively unsound - large cracks appeared in the walls of the building the day before it collapsed - laborers were ordered to get inside and to get work or risk losing their jobs. In the end, they ended up losing so much more.
The disaster proved to be a wake-up call for hundreds of Western brands producing apparel in the country, especially for international brands such Zara, Mango, Benetton, and Walmart - retailers who also produced clothing in the Rana Plaza factories. Following the tragic incident, a new initiative known as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was established to prevent other tragedies from occurring. The independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions has received over 200 signatories from leading apparel companies from more than 20 countries, including H&M, Zara, C&A, Abercrombie and American Eagle Outfitters. But what has really changed for garments workers living in Bangladesh since Rana Plaza?
What impact has Rana Plaza had on the lives of garment workers 5 years later?
The aim of the Accord, as well as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, was to ensure the ready-made garments sector in Bangladesh becomes a safe and sustainable industry for its workers. So far the Accord has ensured that the lives of 2.5 million laborers are safer, according to a new report launched last week ‘The Sourcing Squeeze, Workers’ Rights, and Building Safety in Bangladesh Since Rana Plaza’ by Mark Anner, Center Director for Global Workers’ Rights Penn State. Factory upgrades carried out as part of the Accord eliminated more than 97,000 identified hazards across the 1,600 factories. An additional 12,000 hazards are said to have been addressed and are awaiting review by the accord’s independent group of inspectors.
“The Accord, which imposes constraints and obligations on global firms that are absent from traditional voluntary CSR schemes, has overseen a massive program of safety renovations and upgrades,” wrote Anner in the report. For example, between 2014 and 2018, the number of factories in multipurpose buildings (like Rana Plaza) has declined 49 percent, from 155 factories to 79 factories. As the local garment industry slowly moves out of Dhaka to the larger industrial zone of Gazipur, more factories are establishing better safety measures from the start. For example, when the Accord first started, 969 factories had inadequate circuit breakers - a key potential fire starter - but by March 2018, 82.8 percent of these cases were full remediated. Then 97 percent of Accord factories lacked a safe and secure exit in 2013, due to collapsible gates, by March 2018 96.5 percent of the factories has successfully addressed this.
The Accord & Alliance have made a substantial difference in terms of worker safety
The Alliance, an initiative founded in July 2013 by the US. and Bangladeshi governments, policymakers, NGOs, members of civil society, and organized labor, has carried out remediation across more than 600 factories (90 percent). 264 factories, 91 percent out of the 290 factories required to have structural retrofitting have completed this, meaning that their foundations, columns, and beams are able to meet the imposed load demands required of an industrial building. Similarly, 141 Alliance factories needed to install sprinkler systems. Of these, 118 factories—or 84 percent—have completed installation. Nearly all Alliance factories have upgraded their outdated electrical systems, and nearly all have installed fire doors which provide an escape route for workers and help stop a fire from spreading.
"The Rana Plaza tragedy served as a big wake up call for the garment industry. It showed that all industry players need to step up to improve garment workers’ lives,” said Lotte Schuurman, Communications Director at the Fair Wear Foundation, a European multi-stakeholder initiative working to improve workplace conditions in the garment industry to FashionUnited. “And progress has been made. During our visits to Bangladeshi factories, we see that the Accord and the Alliance have worked towards safer factories. Fair Wear brands are putting a lot of effort into a safer and healthier work floor too. Other industry initiatives have brought together big groups of leading garment brands to get them to work in better labor conditions.”
“Progress” to improve garment workers lives has been made since Rana Plaza
Since Rana Plaza, the Fair Wear Foundation has successfully pioneered the establishment of anti-harassment committees in Bangladesh and India. 85 percent of female garment workers fear being sexually harassed at their workplace, with up to 60 percent of female respondents experiencing some form of sexual harassment. The FWF established a program which provides training to managers, supervisors and garment workers and set up committees in various factories which independently deal with complaints. “The most notable achievement of the programme so far is that workers have started to speak up,” added Schuurman. “They are more confident and feel empowered to handle cases of harassment themselves.”
However, there are still areas within the garment sector in Bangladesh have failed to improve greatly since Rana Plaza. Another recent report from the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights concludes that dangerous conditions continue at thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh five years after the Rana Plaza disaster" and estimates that over 3,000 subcontractors have been left out of the Alliance, Accord and Bangladeshi governments’ oversight initiatives. This means that thousands of suppliers have yet to implement any safety improvements.
In addition, in Anner's report, he found that benefits to garment workers have been severely limited in regards to wages, overtime hours as well as work intensity levels which is linked to the sourcing practices of the brands and retailers. Union growth was also found to have stagnated in recent years following the initial shockwaves caused by Rana Plaza, indicating the need for continued international pressure and an expansion of garment sector union. “There are many more obstacles that need to be overcome. Fair supply chains are possible, but only if everybody acts. Improving workers’ lives calls for a global solution,” added Lotteman. “We cannot leave the work up to this group of responsible garment brands. All brands need to be held accountable. Garment brands - and other industry influencers - need to step up to enable garment production countries to flourish."
Brands are becoming more transparent about who and where their clothes are made
This is where organizations such as Fashion Revolution come in. Founded in April 2013 by Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, the campaign calls on consumers to demand a fairer and more transparent industry. Since its first Who Made My Clothes movement, one year after the Rana Plaza tragedy, millions of people around the globe have joined its mission. Now approaching its fifth anniversary, Fashion Revolution aims to publish its Manifesto, which outlines 10 clear demands for a better, responsible fashion industry. "Five years ago, the Rana Plaza factory collapse shook the fashion world and ignited a Fashion Revolution,” said Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution to FashionUnited. “Five years of Fashion Revolution means five years of millions of people using their voices and their power to call for greater transparency. And it’s working. We are now the world’s largest fashion activism movement. We have counted 152 large brands publishing a list of the facilities where their clothes are made.”
Last year, 2,416 brands responded to the organizations #whomademyclothes demands by sharing more information about their supply chains. Working conditions for garment workers have also improved, with more than 1.8 million garment workers being taught factory safety information according to the Accord. In addition, minimum wages for garments workers have increased in Bangladesh, with the government implementing a 77 percent increase in the minimum wage to 68 US dollars a month. However, this increase fails to match the rise in inflation or account for the fact that many garment workers still earn less than the legal minimum wage. A report from the Global Living Wage Coalition from 2016 indicated that a living wage in Bangladesh should range between 177 US dollars per month to 214 US dollars, depending on the region, meaning that most garment workers are trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Fashion Revolution: "We still have a long way to go until everyone who makes our clothes can live and work with dignity
"We still have a long way to go until everyone who makes our clothes can live and work with dignity, in healthy conditions and without fear of losing their life,” continued Somers. “Human rights abuses, environmental degradation and lack of transparency remain endemic within the fashion industry. In the Garment Worker Diaries project, a collaborative research project between Fashion Revolution and Microfinance Opportunities which interviewed 540 garment workers every week over the course of last year, 40 percent of workers had seen a fire in their factory. Every day people are risking their lives to make our clothes. This is why we still need a Fashion Revolution and are planning to make this Fashion Revolution Week bigger and bolder than ever before.”
“The more visible the people are who make our clothes – the weavers, dyers, embroiderers, cotton farmers, seamstresses, spinners, union leaders - the fewer places there are to hide poor working conditions."
Homepage photo: Courtesy of the Clean Clothes Campaign
Photo 1: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury / ANADOLU AGENCY
Photo 2 : Fashion Revolution, photo credit Jacobs Wells
Photo 3: Rijans via Flickr
Photo 4: Fashion Revolution