Ten Years Since Rana Plaza – What Has Changed?
What the biggest disaster in the garment industry has brought about
This week it has been ten years since ‘Rana Plaza’ in Bangladesh collapsed, also known as the ‘9/11’ of the garment industry. Thousands of workers had to keep working in this 8-floored building despite concerns about the structure of the building, expressed towards their supervisors. Clothes of famous international brands like Gucci, Prada, Versace and Moncler were made in the textile factories based in the top floors of the building, added without permit. These floors were not suitable for heavy industrial machines, important bearing walls were missing. The collapse of those floors tore down the rest of the building, and over 1,130 people did not survive. The biggest disaster in the history of the garment industry was a wake up call that the safety of textile workers desperately needed improvement.
Until the Rana Plaza collapse, working conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh were systematically unsafe. Factories lacked emergency exits and were architecturally unsafe, safety inspections were voluntary and insufficient. Meanwhile, Bangladesh’ garment sector accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports and employs over 3.5 million workers. One month after the disaster, a five-year agreement – the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh – was signed by trade unions, textile producers and over 220 clothing brands. The 2013 Accord (formerly known as the ‘Bangladesh-Accord’) contained an obligation for standardised independent safety inspections. On top of that, workers gained the right to refuse working in unsafe circumstances, and a complaints procedure was installed. Five years later, the 2018 Transition Accord was signed by global unions and over 190 brands, to maintain and expand progress, with fire alarms and structural remediation as key priorities. (The 2013 Accord and the 2018 Transition Accord together will hereinafter be referred to as the ‘Accord’.)
The 2018 Transition Accord lasted three years. In 2021, the Accord signatories established the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile & Garment Industry, currently signed by 197 brands. The International Accord continued safety programs in Bangladesh, and aspired to establish these programs in other countries such as Pakistan, where garment workers' lives are routinely put at risk. (Recently, the 2023 Pakistan Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry was signed, based on the model of the Accord.) The International Accord contains similar components to the Accord, like feasible remediation, safety training and a complaints mechanism. It also maintains the vital elements of the ground-breaking model established by the Accord: legal enforceability of brands’ commitments, independent oversight of brand compliance, the obligation to pay prices to suppliers sufficient to support safe workplaces, and the obligation to cease doing business with any factory that refuses to operate safely.
Since the Rana Plaza collapse, a lot of improvements have been made. Structural integrity of factory buildings is strengthened, fire doors and fire alarms are installed. Other occupational safety and health (OSH) issues like excessive working hours and gender-based violence and harassment are addressed through safety training and a complaints mechanism. Workers are made aware of their right to refuse unsafe work, and through Safety Committee training they know how to evacuate buildings in case of fire. The Accord and RMG (Readymade Garment) Sustainability Council (RSC) – which carried forward Accord operations in Bangladesh since June 2020 – have conducted nearly 56,000 safety inspections at over 2,400 garment factories, resolving over 140,000 safety issues.
Even though working conditions have become safer, there is still plenty of room for improvement. The International Accord does not effectively protect the freedom of association nor liveable wages. Wages in Bangladesh are still extremely low. This leads to health and safety issues, since liveable wages are necessary for sufficient drinking water, food, and electricity. In addition, many workers still lack freedom of association, which is necessary to stand up to exploitative practices still occurring in factories. On top of that, according to research conducted by ActionAid, over 60% of the factory workers still declare their working conditions to be unsafe. Therefore, organisations call for regulations on mandatory due diligence, as a next step towards a sustainable garment industry.