The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013 prompted a landmark agreement between brands and trade unions that promised better safeguards for workers. But labor organisers say much more needs to be done to overhaul the violations on which the industry is built.
When Kalpona Akter heard the news that the Rana Plaza building had collapsed, she was touring the US, campaigning for brands such as Walmart to sign an agreement on fire and building safety in Bangladesh. She was accompanied by Sumi Abedin who just five months earlier had jumped from the third floor of the Tazreen Fashion factory to escape the fire that killed at least 112 of her co-workers.
Akter, who started her life as a child worker in a garment factory, immediately cut her trip short. “I came back home . . . and the next 14 days in a row I was there at the ground of Rana Plaza where the building collapsed, where they were taking [out] the bodies. The gravity of the pain, you cannot believe it. The air was thick with the smell and with the pain that everyone could feel,” she said.
Like Tazreen Fashions, the Rana Plaza building was located in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a country home to over four million garment workers. On April 23, 2013 deep cracks began to appear in the eight-storey building’s walls. The shops and the bank on the lower floors were closed immediately, but garment workers were forced to return to the factories on the upper floors. The next morning there was a power outage, which prompted the diesel generators on the roof to kick in. The outage was ultimately a sign that the building, which was built on unsuitable land and had further floors added illegally, was falling apart. It took only 90 seconds for the entire building to collapse. At least 1,134 people died. Over 2,500 more were injured.
The collapse marked an awakening to the state of the modern, globalized fashion industry. People who shopped at retailers like Primark, Mango, Benetton, and Matalan—whose tags were found in the rubble—were forced to recognize the conditions which allowed for their clothes to be so cheap. “If workers had been allowed to unionize, they might have been able to refuse unsafe working conditions. . . If workers had been paid a living wage, bosses might not have been able to use the threat of losing a month’s wages to force workers into an unsound building. If there had been transparency and accountability in global supply chains, workers’ organizations would not have had to search through the rubble. . . for labels to identify the brands who had profited from the conditions that led to the disaster,” said Maya Thomas-Davis, advocacy lead at Labour Behind the Label which is part of the Rana Plaza Solidarity Collective.
Capitalizing on fresh public scrutiny, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was established in May 2013. The Accord, which serves as a legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions, is an evolution of prior agreement that people like Akter—founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity—had been campaigning for. It was a boundary-breaking outlier in a sea of voluntary initiatives. It consisted of, among other factors, an extensive inspection program, corrective action plans, a commitment from brands to provide sufficient funds for remediation, and the establishment of a complaint mechanism.
Over 200 brands signed the initial five-year 2013 agreement and its 2018 renewal. Those who have notably failed to sign include Amazon, Disney, Gap Inc., Levi’s, and Ralph Lauren. Other brands like Patagonia also didn’t sign, citing concerns around the limiting scope of the Accord as reasons why they won’t commit. In many ways the Bangladesh Accord has been a roaring success. “It has made a safer place for over two million workers who work at over 1,600 factories,” said Akter. Over 100,000 safety hazards have been identified and the majority have been mitigated. “Today, if workers see faulty wiring or a crack in the building they can totally say no to that work. The Accord definitely saved our workers’ lives”, she continued.
However, according to Thomas-Davis, many garment workers are still fighting for safe working conditions, freedom of association, dignified wages, and corporate accountability 10 years on.
Since Rana Plaza, dozens of other deaths and injuries have occurred as a result of incidents such as explosions, fires, floods, and electrocution. A total of 75 incidents in garment, textile, and related factories between 2021 and 2023 resulted in the deaths of 168 workers and the injury of over 800 more, spread across countries including Pakistan, Morocco, India, Peru, Egypt, Cambodia, Turkey, Chile, and Argentina.
The collapse marked an awakening to the state of the modern, globalized fashion industry.
Even in Bangladesh, home of the Accord, the industry is far from perfect. The Accord only covers signatory factories, so although over two million workers are now working in safer factories, nearly two million more are not. And the integrity of the Bangladesh Accord itself was compromised after the Bangladesh office of the Accord transitioned its functions to the Ready-Made-Garment Sustainability Council (RSC). Legal action brought by a manufacturer fighting termination resulted in a restraining order on the Accord’s inspection program, threatening the future of the agreement in Bangladesh, so the industry group, which many deemed unprepared, took control. Under the Accord’s governance, workers had equal representation to industry (six members from each) but under the RSC the set-up is tripartite, comprising six worker representatives and 12 representatives from brands and factory owners. “In the existing formation of the RSC it is not possible for the RSC to work in favor of workers,” said Salauddin Shappon, president of the Bangladesh Revolutionary Garment Workers Federation.
The power grabs and insider contacts which were central to the hasty transition of operations are at play in other issues the Bangladesh garment industry still faces. Trade unions were instrumental in establishing and carrying out the activities of the Accord, yet freedom of association is still not realized in Bangladesh, according to Shappon, who explains that campaigning programs cannot be organized in industrial areas due to police presence. In addition, trade union and federation leaders are under surveillance, their movements and phone calls tracked. The government also uses delay tactics and worker termination to frustrate the formation of unions, said Shappon. It’s a pattern seen in most major garment-making hubs, from Myanmar to Pakistan.
Also in the Bangladeshi government’s purview is the selection of the minimum wage board, which is heavily weighted towards employers, factory owners, and yellow unions. The current minimum wage, reviewed by a board in 2018, is 8,000 Bangladeshi Taka per month (around $75). “It is absolutely impossible in Bangladesh in 2023 to lead a life only with 8,000 Bangladeshi Taka,” said Shappon. Unions are demanding it increase to Tk23,000 (around $216) though industry representatives will argue against it, stating that they cannot sustain such wages and will have to let workers go.
“[Brands] are always looking for a cheap price, they are not providing the fair price for products so then it really becomes very hard for us to ensure the fair wage for workers from the factory owners or industry. For the better lives of workers, the purchasing policy of brands also needs to change,” said Amin Amirul Haque, president of the National Garment Workers Federation. It’s still common for brands to invoke government practices in the countries they manufacture in (by choice) to pass the buck on labor rights, but as Clean Clothes Campaign states “businesses have an obligation to remedy state failures” per the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Accord forces the remediation of dangerous working conditions but brands’ failure across the board to make similar, legally binding agreements in other areas hampers meaningful progress.
“I will work shoulder to shoulder in making sure this proven improvement will go everywhere that our sisters and brothers and those working in factories are not safe.”
“If we want to see the kind of progress on wages, on right to organize, on other issues that we’ve seen on building safety we need to apply that same model to those other issues. We need binding, enforceable agreements. . . to address labor rights issues across the board. And not just in Bangladesh, but in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and the rest of South Asia and the rest of the world,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium.
The first step towards that approach is the expansion of the International Accord into Pakistan, the evolution of the Bangladesh Accord which came into effect in September 2021 after much heavy lifting by labor organisations to push brands into re-signing. According to a 2022 report on worker safety in Pakistan, almost 50% of workers surveyed do not have access to basic facilities like safe drinking water and regular rest breaks, 74% experience verbal abuse, 22% have been threatened with dismissal, 80% work in tiring, painful or awkward positions, and 1 in 10 female respondents had noticed the presence of large cracks in their buildings.
Encouragingly, the Pakistan Accord expands upon the International Accord not just in location but in scope (it will also cover fabric mills) and focus. The health and safety issues it will address stretch beyond building and fire safety to excessive working hours, sexual harassment, and gender-based violence. As of April 11, 2023, there are 195 signatories to the International Accord and just 45 to the Pakistan Accord.
The monumental efforts of unions, organisers, and labor organizations to make it to the cusp of the Pakistan Accord isn’t to be diminished, but a decade is a long time, and the human and labor rights abuses garment workers face the world over cannot withstand that sort of timetable. The low prices and low pay, the factories working overcapacity to meet rush orders, the union suppression, the voluntary initiatives: every single one of the factors that caused the Rana Plaza collapse still underpins the global garment-making industry 10 years on.
While the industry has made progress on a specific issue in response to a specific incident, what it needs now is a system-wide overhaul that builds upon the legally-binding model of the Accord. “I will work shoulder to shoulder in making sure this proven improvement will go everywhere that our sisters and brothers and those working in factories are not safe,” said Akter. “It is in Pakistan now and we will be working to take it to Sri Lanka, India, Morocco, Mauritius, every place where workers are not safe. We will fight together on this.”
Editor’s Note: The images featured in this article are abstracted interpretations by photographer Adam Whyte.