Rana Plaza one year on: what has changed?
THE collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka a year ago tomorrow has now gone down in infamy as one of the worst industrial disasters in history.
The final death toll of 1134 shook fashion-conscious westerners out of their complacency about the real human cost of the clothes they wear. Rana Plaza has been the catalyst for a legally-binding agreement to improve safety in hundreds of clothing factories in Bangladesh and has revived interest in ethical clothing.
But a year later, there are still millions of Bangladeshi garment workers paid a pittance for their labour, in unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, and denied a voice at work, all to satisfy the insatiable thirst for profits of international clothing brands and retailers.
So, what has changed as a result of Rana Plaza?
‘Industrial homicide’ on a grand scale
The story of what happened on that day a year ago is now well-known.
More than 3000 people were working in five clothing factories spread across the building’s eight levels, when it collapsed, leaving only the ground floor intact.
Women made up more than half of those who died. About 2500 injured people were rescued alive. They were paid a few dollars a day to produce garments for some of the world’s best-known fashion chains, including Benetton, Primark and Walmart.
Despite clear and ominous warnings signs, the opportunity to prevent the deaths of 1134 garment workers was not taken.
The building’s owners and factory proprietors had ignored warnings to stop using the building after cracks were discovered the previous day.
That the collapse came less than six months after a fire in a clothing factory at Tazreen in Bangladesh killed 112 workers, and four days before International Workers’ Memorial Day, just added to the global outrage that the workers in Rana Plaza had been knowingly sent to a deadly workplace.
Michele O’Neil, the National Secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, does not mince words when she describes the Rana Plaza building collapse as “industrial homicide”.
“I don’t refer to it as a tragedy, because that implies it was a force of nature or inevitable,” says Ms O’Neil, who is also a member of the executive committee of the global manufacturing union, IndustriALL, which has headed the campaign to hold those responsible accountable.
“There was nothing inevitable about the deaths of more than 1000 workers at Rana Plaza. This was industrial homicide on a large scale, and it was completely preventable.”
In the immediate aftermath, the anger was directed at the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, who is still awaiting trial. But it quickly moved up the supply chain to the western clothing brands, for whom cheap, seemingly disposable labour in third world countries is part of their profit-making formula.
Global campaigning by unions and human rights groups has resulted in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally-binding agreement under which clothing companies provide details of their suppliers and allow independent inspections of factories to ensure they comply with health and safety requirements, and to make structural repairs where they don’t.
To date, about 150 international brands and retailers have been shamed into signing the accord.
Only one piece of the jigsaw
The TCFUA’s Michele O’Neil says the establishment of the Accord has been the most significant improvement to come out of the Rana Plaza catastrophe.
She says the disaster has focussed consumer attention on the origins of the clothes sold in High Street retail chains and to an extent will force the brands to be more transparent, accountable and responsible about their own supply chains.
But it is only one piece of the jigsaw.
“There is now globally greater awareness of the ramifications of cheap labour in the making of fashion and that ultimately it’s not just about workers being underpaid and exploited but workers actually risking their lives to make those clothes,” she says.
“The Accord is a recognition that sentiment isn’t enough.
“What we see with the Accord is that those factories are being inspected and there’s genuine changes to safety happening in workplaces and workers are finding out they have rights not to work if their health and safety is at risk. So it’s a beginning.
“But this is a huge issue, there are four million workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh alone and growing every day, while the Accord covers about two million workers, so we’re halfway there.
“But the real answer will be for unions to be able to organise and represent workers and fight for a minimum wage and safe workplaces, and their right to join a union to be guaranteed.”
“Feel good statements are meaningless without a legally binding agreement and the involvement of unions at a local and global level.”
And the Accord has also faced strong resistance from some major brands and retailers, led by Walmart and Gap in the United States.
They have refused to sign the Accord, and instead have formed what they call the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is no legal enforceability and no involvement from unions.
Australia’s Just Group – owned by billionaire Solomon Lew and whose brands include Just Jeans, Portmans, Jacqui E and Dotti – has also held out from signing the Accord, and instead joined the Alliance.
“This is just a ruse to fool consumers that this is a responsible approach and we want people to be aware that companies making feel good statements are meaningless without a legally binding agreement and the involvement of unions at a local and global level,” Ms O’Neil says.
Another Australian retailer, Best&Less, has refused to sign either.
More compensation needed
The survivors of Rana Plaza and the victims’ families are also still fighting for fair compensation for their suffering and loss.
A trust fund established for the victims and their families is well short of the US$40 million that is needed to adequately compensate them.
To date just half the companies who have been connected to a factory in the building have made commitments, and the fund has just one third of the funds required, according to IndustriALL, the global retail workers union Uni, and the labour rights network Clean Clothes Campaign.
Those yet to contribute include the Italian label Benetton, a well-known brand to Australian consumers.
“The 29 brands that sourced from factories within Rana Plaza either at the time of the collapse or in the recent past have combined profits of well in excess of US$22 billion a year,” says Ineke Zeldenrust, of Clean Clothes Campaign.
“They are being asked to contribute less than 0.2% of these profits to go some way towards compensating the people their profits are built on.”
A year after the Rana Plaza disaster, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A number of events will be held on 24 April to commemorate the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. If you are in Sydney, you can attend a candlelit vigil in the Town Hall Square at 6.30pm. In Melbourne, a commemoration will be held at the Memorial Rock outside Trades Hall at 12.30pm. You could also take part in Fashion Revolution, an initiative by the fashion industry to encourage ethical supply chains.
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