10 years after Rana Plaza, fast fashion still resists change – DW – 04/23/2023

The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, on 24 April 2013 killed 1,138 people. Its legacy one decade on is a mix of reform and endless battle to keep workers safe.

The groundbreaking so-called Bangladesh Accord agreement came into force in 2013, giving unions greater say while holding fashion brands legally accountable for ensuring factories remained safe. Over 220 brands eventually signed on to the original accord, which ran until 2018 and has since been renewed as the “International Accord.”

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign group, the accord has made more than 1,600 factories in Bangladesh safer for over 2.5 million workers. Only two brands have been brought to court for violating the regulation contract since 2013.

“We have seen dramatic change in terms of workers being safe in the factories that are covered by the accord. Nobody needs to fear being hurt anymore like that,” Alke Boessiger, deputy general secretary of Uni Global Union, told DW.

The collapsed Rana Plaza factory
Experts described Rana Plaza as being “among the worst industrial accidents on record”Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Abdullah

A preexisting proposal for factory safety signed by two brands, however, was already on the table before the Rana Plaza disaster.

“If we take a step back and consider what would have happened if brands said this is a great idea and signed up [earlier], you think to yourself what could have been prevented,” said Christie Miedema, campaign co-ordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign group based in the Netherlands.

“It was a long battle to even get the two brands to sign, and there was a clause that said it would only go into effect after a total of four brands signed. It wasn’t even operational yet,” she told DW. In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, brands clamoured to sign up to legally binding agreements, she said, “because there was no way out for them and it was very convenient that there was a proposal already on the table.”

Europe leads, America lags

Europe has led the way in cracking down on human rights abuses in the supply chain. Germany introduced the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, in effect since January 1 this year. Firms found using child labor, forced labor and inadequate safety standards can expect fines in excess of €400 million ($443 million) and up to 2% of the average annual turnover. 

The EU published a draft proposal in February 2022, though it is yet to be presented to the European Parliament.

Some major brands continue to dodge signing the International Accord protecting safety standards, among them German brands Tom Tailor and Deichmann, Swedish homestore giant IKEA, and US online retailer Amazon.

Bangladesh garmant factory safety ‘improving’

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America has been particularly resistant to reform. In July 2013, US brands Gap and Walmart announced their own program, rejected by accord advocates as a corporate-driven scheme that shunned trade unions.

After five years, the American alliance declared its work “done.”

“Factory owners can put products in front of a fire escape at any moment in time,” said Babul Akhter, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Worker Federation and one of the founders of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity group.

Akhter, who was imprisoned in Bangladesh for his trade union work in 2010, told DW that “continuous inspection” of factories was needed which is why “the work is never done.”

Unpaid wages and violations persist

The accord has its limitations. It is primarily focused on factory safety issues and does not address key issues, most notably wage theft and mass redundancies.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, garment workers across Asia, particularly in the supply chains of companies like Nike, Levi Strauss, and North Face, suffered wage theft and income loss.

German clothing group s.Oliver recently paid €100,000 to 2,000 former garment workers in Indonesia, whom it legally owed $5.5 million (€5 million) in severance pay.

The fear of losing work is pertinent to Rana Plaza.

Just hours before the collapse, banks on the ground floor of the complex shut their doors while factory workers were forced to step inside a structurally unsafe building. “Dismal wages and the lack of union representation [meant] that people felt they had to go back. They couldn’t lose a day or a whole month of wages,” said Miedema.

Still, Rana Plaza’s legacy lives on. The accord has now been extended into Pakistan, a move that’s been welcomed by campaigners after a factory blaze on April 14 injured dozens.

But the accord also has a limited timeframe, and must be negotiated every few years.This is a problem, said Miedema, because each time you have to “dedicate a lot of energy” negotiating a new agreement. “You’re giving an opportunity to actors who would like to see a weaker accord. You’re using a lot of energy with people fighting against the accord.”

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

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