Recounting one of the worst ever accidents in the garment industry.
Bangladesh is the world’s the biggest exporter of clothing after China. Bangladesh’s ready-made garments sector accounts for 80% of the country’s exports and employs over 3.5 million people, nearly three-quarters of whom are women.
Estimates suggest that the garment industry supports a further 25 million people and has played a pivotal role in the country’s development.
Rana Plaza is an 8 story commercial building near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It houses 5 clothing factories in addition to a bank, apartments and a few shops.
The factories produce clothing for nearly 30 western retailers and brands, including Primark, Loblaw, Walmart, Mango and The Children’s Place.80% workers are young women, 18-20 years of age.Average shift is 13 hours, 90 hours a week, two days off a month.The minimum wage for the sector is one of the world’s lowest.
23rd April 2013:
Cracks appear in the building. Shops and banks on the lower floors immediately close.
24th April 2013:
Garment workers refuse to enter the factory. Administration uses force, also threatens the workers with a month’s salary cut, which would mean no food for their families.
The workers do not have a collective choice, since they are not part of a trade union.
Workers enter the building at 8 am. At 8:45 a.m. the electricity goes out and the factories’ five generators are kicked on. Almost immediately the building moves, a loud explosion as the building collapses, pancaking downward.
Over 1100 dead, 2400 injured and 2500 rescued.
The world’s attention is turned to the human cost of cheap, fast-fashion and dismal worker safety practices. Consumers demand more supply chain transparency. The structural failure in the building is attributed to:
A valid permit for only a five-story building from the local municipality.Illegally extended by a further three stories to a total of eight, allegedly due to industry-politician nexus.Built without observing proper building codes and laws, and using poor materials.
The Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, calls it a “symbol of failure as a nation”. He urges global fashion brands not to pull out of the country, saying that subcontracted garment factory be seen as de facto employees.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) calls on the government of Bangladesh to demand liability from manufacturers and distributors. Clothing brands and their international clients pledge to take responsibility for improving working, health and safety conditions and allow independent inspections of workplaces.
NGOs, civil society organisations and advocacy groups press for:
Fair compensation for survivors and victims’ relativesAmendment of labour lawsRegistration of trade unionsIncrease in average pay for workersWork safety insurance
The work triggered in the aftermath of the tragedy continues. Researchers and activists claim that while some progress has been made, it is insufficient. 3 years later, a lot remains to be done, in Bangladesh and across the world. Some examples:
60% of the total workforce in Turkey’s giant textile industry is unregistered, working informally, often employing children. (Guardian, 2016)Factory administrations in Bengaluru’s garment sector were reported to be housing migrant women workers in hostels guarded by men and allowed to leave only a few hours a week. (ICN Report, 2016)Every year the government of Uzbekistan forces over a million citizens to pick cotton and deliver harvest quotas under threat of penalty. Many are forced to live in unsanitary conditions and exposed to unknown chemicals in the fields.
If every stakeholder plays its role within its circle of influence – i.e. factory owners provide safe working conditions, brands take more responsibility for the factories in their supply chain, consumers are aware and concerned about ethical sourcing and governments value the workforces that drive their economies, tragedies such as Rana Plaza are entirely preventable.
Even as they find means of sustenance through this work, workers in the textile trade continue to face infrastructural neglect on the one hand and a loss of basic human dignity on the other. While individuals may agree that no one deserves to be treated this way, the challenge is to collectively strive for a systemic solution that is efficient, economic and humane.
As one of the placards in a protest by activists and victims read “No one should die for fashion”. Try to understand where your clothes come from. Make responsible choices.