The Rana Plaza Collapse: Six Years On
Today marks the sixth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh. On the morning of the 24th April 2013, one of the worst industrial accidents in history unfolded. Just after 9 am, the huge nine-floor Rana Plaza complex of garment factories collapsed. In the mere 90 seconds it took the poorly constructed building to collapse, an estimated 1,138 people tragically lost their lives.
Workers had raised concerns the previous day when huge cracks formed in the structure. The very morning of the disaster they tried in vain to stop managers from forcing them inside to work in the unstable building. Sadly, the owners ignored their concerns and sent workers in to face what unions later described as “mass industrial homicide”.
The world was devastated and horrified in equal measure. Not only was it an avoidable tragedy but it had exposed a broken industry. The collapse was the culmination of years of poor building regulation and systemic shortcut-taking. These policies (or lack of them) had been driven by a desire to create the highest possible volume of garments at the lowest feasible cost. Huge brands such as Primark and Matalan were found to have previous connections to the complex. Others were reportedly operating similar establishments across the country. Unsurprisingly there was public backlash the world over.
Many hoped this would be a watershed moment for an industry rife with cost-cutting and human rights violations. The International outcry saw the creation of governing bodies and popular movements such as Fashion Revolution whose aim is to raise greater awareness and avoid a future catastrophe like Rana Plaza at all costs.
Now six years on, has anything changed?
Rana Plaza six years on
Two major initiatives were created in the immediate aftermath of the collapse. These were the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. 250 of the worlds largest garment companies signed them both. They vowed to drastically improve the safety of 2,300 Bangladeshi factories.
Regulators identified some 97,000 safety hazards and tackled them headlong in the ground-breaking safety initiatives. Both have reportedly gone some way to improve the situation but is it enough?
According to Scott Nova, the executive director of the independent labour group 'The Worker Rights Consortium', fewer factories are now “death traps”. A new report from New York Universities Stern Centre also found that deaths due to accidents have reduced from an average of 71 annually in the years prior to Rana Plaza, to 17 in the years following the disaster. However, this is hardly a cause for celebration.
The situation is far from resolved
A 2017 Dhaka fire department report discovered that of 3,700 buildings in the city only 129 were deemed as “satisfactory”. The rest were classified as “risky” or “extremely risky”. Fires and other accidents have continued to plague the country since Rana Plaza. In March 2019 a deadly blaze cost the lives of at least 25 workers in a commercial property in central Dhaka. Despite new fire regulations, owners never equipped the building with safety exits.
A recent report published by the Workers’ Rights consortium paints a bleak picture for individual workers too. It found that “since December of 2018, at least 65 workers have been arrested and subjected to baseless criminal charges, brought at the behest of factories that supply brands like H&M, Mango, and Next”.
It goes on to say that “Factories producing for these and other brands have fired as many as 11,600 workers without legal justification”. The reason? Workers were protesting for the right to an increase in their minimum wage. One which is still by far the lowest in the world. Workers currently earn as little as $22 per week, the equivalent of just $0.45 per hour.
Poor Government management
Of the roughly 795 factories whose renovation has been managed solely by the government and not the accord, there is reportedly not a single one that has managed to fully eliminate all the “high risk” safety hazards found at the time of inspection some 6 years ago.
In spite of this, Bangladesh’s garment factory owners along with the labour ministry argue that the industry is much safer than it was six years ago and that state inspectors are ready to take over from the Accord. There is a very real risk that improvements that have been achieved could be negated or even reversed should the government be solely responsible for the situation again.
It seems that in a country where roughly 83% of all exports are textiles, the health of individual workers is still far outweighed by the desire to maintain a large textile export economy that benefits a small, wealthy handful of the country.
An Industry of violations
Whilst steps have been taken to improve the situation it’s abundantly clear that much more needs to be done. And not just in Bangladesh. The country is just one small cog in a much larger textile machine. Ultimately corporations continue to source many of their garments from unqualified factories who like Rana Plaza have little concern for human rights or ecological preservation.
Further to this, should regulations in one country cause prices to become uncompetitive, companies can simply move their business elsewhere. For instance, many textile production facilities have relocated to Indonesia to take advantage of cheap labour, and this has subsequently resulted in the environmental destruction of the Citarum river and made it one of the worlds most polluted. Even here in the UK, there have been reports of ‘modern slavery’ within the garment industry.
We need a Fashion Revolution
Clearly much more needs to be done to avoid disasters such as Rana Plaza and create a more ethical industry. One movement championing this goal is Fashion Revolution. A global movement set up in the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse. Their aim is to “create a fashion industry that values people, the environment and creativity as much as it values profit.”
This week is Fashion Revolution Week. It’s a time when "we all come together to use the power of fashion to change the world”. It’s a time when we can make our voices heard collectively that we won’t stand for such poor standards.
Become a Fashion Revolutionary
This Fashion Revolution Week we urge you to join us in calling out brands. Ask them #whomademyclothes on social media and demand greater transparency in their supply chains.
The more we use our voice, the more they will listen. Together we are stronger!
Fashion Revolution Week runs from 22nd-28th April 2019. You can find a whole host of events, talks and discussions throughout the UK. Take a look at their calendar here.
The Fashion Revolution website also has many resources to help the cause.