Reflecting on Rana Plaza
1,134 people died and over 2,500 were injured when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 24 April 2013. The building housed a number of garment factories employing around 5,000 workers but it was not designed for industrial use and additional floors had been added without permission. When cracks appeared in the walls on 23 April 2013, the bank on the lower floors of the building was immediately evacuated, but the garment factory managers ignored the warnings, telling workers the building was safe and they should return to work. The following day, the eight-story building collapsed in under 90 seconds. IndustriALL – the global trade union federation that represents garment workers – has described Rana Plaza as an incident of ‘mass industrial manslaughter’.
What improvements have been made?
Rana Plaza demonstrated the failure of global garment brands and ethical trade initiatives to ensure safe, decent working conditions in Bangladesh. Numerous ethical audits (inspections of factory working conditions) failed to identify structural defects at Rana Plaza, and health and safety training run by individual brands for their supplier factories failed to provide an industry-wide solution to an industry-wide problem.
Following the Rana Plaza collapse, a number of initiatives were formed in an attempt to deliver a more effective solution to poor building and health and safety standards in the industry. The Accord on Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety, formed by IndustriALL Global Union and over 200 garment retailers, brands and importers with an advisory committee of civil society organisations, was designed to provide a binding, multi-stakeholder solution to the problem. An alternative group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was also formed – this time by a group of 29 American garment brands – but without union involvement. Finally, the Bangladesh government has worked with the International Labour Organisation on a National Action Plan to inspect factories not covered by either the Accord or the Alliance.
Between them, these initiatives have inspected over 3,000 factories for building safety, and have provided specialist support to factory owners to ensure improvements are made. 77% of health and safety issues identified by the Accord and 72% found by the Alliance have been reported as fixed, and over 150 factories were closed or made to relocate to safer premises. The Accord and the Alliance have also supported the creation of over 440 elected health and safety committees in factories. This concerted, multi-stakeholder effort has gone a long way to improve the safety of garment workers in Bangladesh.
The easing of labour law restrictions following Rana Plaza was also an important step, resulting in a significant growth in the number of registered trade unions that are able to promote the rights of workers, including their safety. In his recent blog, Owen Tudor (Head of International Department at the Trades Union Congress) provides an example from Ananta Garments, where cracks were spotted in the walls earlier this month. Ananta Garments is a unionised factory, so worker representatives were able to take the issue to management, ensure that the factory was evacuated and a proper inspection was done. Recommended actions were followed to make the building safe and workers returned to work with full back-pay for the days they had missed whilst repairs were made. Ananta Garments could possibly have been another Rana Plaza, but an empowered workforce was able to ensure no harm occurred.
Will improvements continue?
Significant improvements have been made, but there is a lot of work left to do and Bangladesh faces significant challenges.
Both the Accord and Alliance are set to expire in June 2018 and the future remains unclear. Getting factories to address the safety issues identified has been a slow and arduous process and there is likely to be plenty of work left to do once the 2018 deadline is reached. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association does not want the Accord and the Alliance to continue, favouring the creation of a single initiative, but it is concerning that they do not intend to make this initiative legally binding. The International Labour Organisation has been supporting the Bangladeshi government to improve the effectiveness of its labour inspectorate, but it is not yet clear whether the government has the capacity to enforce compliance across the industry.
Concerns about the reach of current inspections and remediation programmes also remain. It is hard to calculate the exact number of export garment factories in Bangladesh, but an NYU Stern report estimates it is 5,000-6,000, thousands more than have yet been inspected. It is well known that there are also unregistered factories and small industrial units that avoid inspection and where working conditions are extremely poor.
The situation for trade unions and labour rights NGOs in Bangladesh also remains precarious. The government has taken some positive steps since Rana Plaza, including removing the legal requirement for workers to get approval from their employer before forming a union, which led to a significant increase in union registrations. However, whilst the number of applications has increased, an analysis by Solidarity Centre shows that the government has rejected nearly 50% of applications, often for no clear reason. The government has also added new requirements in 2015 which makes the application process particularly burdensome, and continues to enforce a minimum membership requirement of 30% to form a factory-level union: a figure civil society and unions have long considered to be unreasonably high. Union busting – including physical assaults, threats and intimidation – also remains common.
Finally, CARE’s research has highlighted that most female garment workers have little knowledge of the role of trade unions or the benefits of collective action, only 150,000 (approximately 3%) of workers are unionised, and many garment worker trade unions remain dominated by men despite the workforce being 80% female; demonstrating the many challenges facing trade unions in Bangladesh.
What should happen next?
Based on CARE’s many years of working with the Bangladesh garment industry, we believe that the following are vital for ensuring the safety of workers in Bangladesh and respect for their labour rights:
- Tripartite solutions to improve respect for labour rights. If long-term, sustainable improvements are to be made, they need to be industry-wide and based on dialogue between employers, the government and organised labour and civil society. Global brands should be included, as improvements in working conditions within Bangladesh also require more ethical purchasing practice to prevent the ‘race to the bottom’ on labour rights. Tripartite initiatives should be based on binding agreements to promote long-term and genuine engagement from all stakeholders.
- Respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining. Workers themselves play the central role in holding their employers to account on improving working conditions, but to do this effectively, workers need to be organised as part of in-factory committees, community-based solidarity groups and in particular, democratic trade unions. Effective tripartite solutions can only exist when workers are able to organise without repression. Particular attention also needs to be placed on unionising and promoting the leadership of female garment workers in the labour movement.
- More action to improve working conditions in the hidden parts of the industry. A lot of garment production happens outside of official workplaces, in subcontracting factories and in people’s homes, and this is where working conditions are often the worst.