When the floor fell under her, Shahida Begum said, she just turned to ask her colleagues why the lights were out. Kabir Al Mulla said he was checking clothes when a friend called on his mobile phone, exclaiming that the building was on a precarious slope. Nazma Begum said that morning she washed her long black hair, leaving it loose and wet. When crushed by a concrete pole, this choice meant that she was unable to move her head or body.
On the morning of April 24, 2013, more than 1,100 people were killed when the Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building housing five garment factories on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed in about 90 seconds.
It is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the modern apparel industry, and one of the worst industrial accidents ever. Many large retailers used factories to produce their clothing, and the disaster led to a reckoning about workplace safety for garment workers and the responsibility of brands selling cheap clothing to Western consumers.
Ten years later, vigils were held to commemorate the incident Connected and all over the world, including Dhaka, London and New York. The New York Times spoke to five crash survivors about the crash and where they are now; Their thoughts permeate through this article. And for the current workers in the apparel industry, where has progress been made? What work remains to be done?
Why was the collapse of Rana Plaza so shocking?
The disaster followed a series of fatal garment industry accidents in Bangladesh, including a fire at the Tezrin fashion factory in November 2012 that killed 117 people.
The day before the collapse, cracks were discovered in Rana Plaza and workers were reassured that it was safe to go to work. IndustriALL, a trade union, announced that it is a Industrial mass murder.
It also revealed the price paid by low-wage garment workers in the Global South as demand for cheap trends rose in the West. Fast fashion retailers rarely own the factories that supply their wares. Instead, the vast majority of orders for clothing and footwear are outsourced to suppliers in emerging markets such as Bangladesh, where overhead and human labor are cheap.
Until the collapse of Rana Plaza, Western brands were not always required to ensure safe working conditions in the factories they used. After the disaster, that began to change.
Did it lead to immediate fixes?
After the crash, several international fashion brands that got their clothes in Bangladesh quickly announced the creation of two five-year agreements to ensure the safety of workers in garment factories. The Fire and Building Safety Agreement was first signed in May 2013.
It is a legally binding agreement between factory owners, global unions and European apparel brands such as Inditex, Primark and H&M that have created a screening and treatment program to mitigate the fire, construction, electrical and boiler risks for factory workers in Bangladesh.
The Alliance for Bangladeshi Worker Safety, a less restrictive, non-legally binding agreement that applies to North American brands such as Walmart, Gap and Target, was launched the same year. Both have an initial period of five years.
Why was the agreement so pioneering?
In the years since the agreement was signed, 56,000 inspections have been carried out at 2,400 factories in Bangladesh and more than 140,000 issues have been rectified, said Joris Oldenzel, executive director of the international agreement. The program also includes a way for workers to file grievances about health and safety concerns and violations of their right to organize.
“The agreement is unique because it is a legally enforceable agreement with protocols that clothing companies need to follow,” said Aruna Kashyap, associate director of the corporate accountability division at Human Rights Watch. Companies cannot sever relationships with suppliers and are obligated to support remedial actions. All inspection reports are available to the public.
There have been many iterations of the convention. The most recent is the international agreement, which was signed in 2021 and is due to expire at the end of October this year.
In January, the international agreement started to cover Pakistan as well, with 45 brands having signed. As due diligence laws affecting the fashion industry become more common, this is the first step in expanding the agreement outside of Bangladesh.
What are the activists paying now?
Today, there are about 7,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, which is the second largest garment exporter in the world after China. But for all the progress that has been made, there is still much work to be done. Many US companies that hail from the country, including Walmart, Levi’s, Gap and Amazon, have not signed the international agreement despite reaping its benefits.
This month’s report The New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights found that the exploitative buying practices of some major apparel companies continued to put garment workers and some factory owners in economic hardship and insecurity, especially in the wake of more than $3 billion in canceled orders and mass layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. . These practices included pressuring suppliers into unreasonable price cuts, withholding payments and canceling orders.
“Workers don’t have to be afraid to go to work the way they did before, but it should be the bottom line,” said Kristi Hoffman, UNI Global Secretary General. Brands have to pay more for their clothes, and workers need to be paid a lot more, too. (The minimum wage in Bangladesh is about $75 per month.)
Christina Hagagos-Clausen, Director of Textile and Apparel Industry at IndustriALL, pointed to another sign of progress: Work injury insurance program Which started in 150 Bangladesh factory. Provides compensation and rehabilitation for injured workers in the garment industry.
But thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh are still not covered by any agreements or protections (the agreement only covers about 1,500). And the lives of many of South Asia’s 40 million garment workers remain a constant struggle, as they grapple with low wages, physical or sexual harassment and union busting.
Accidents have not completely disappeared. Last week, four firefighters were killed and about a dozen injured after a fire broke out Garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan.
What does life look like now for the survivors of Rana Plaza?
A recent survey of tragedy survivors by ActionAid found that more than half were unemployed, with physical health being the main reason for unemployment. Just over a third have returned to work in garment factories.
A third of them also said that they remained traumatized and suffered from psychological problems. Most of the garment workers in the Rana Plaza complex were women. The complex has not been rebuilt.
In a March interview with Zoom, one of the crash survivors, Nour Bano, wept as she explained that the event changed her life in the worst way possible.
She was wearing an orange sari and had dark shadows under her eyes as she spoke from the offices of a local union, the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation. She said the injuries from the accident make it difficult for her to sit or walk properly, and with three children to support, she relied on handouts.
Shadida Begum said she missed out on an income earning opportunity and felt unlucky to be alive.
Chole Khanum, who worked for nine years on the eighth floor of Rana Plaza, wept until the morning of the collapse, when her forehead and spinal column were fractured, and said she had only received about $50 in government compensation. She is a widow with three young daughters.
“Even now, I can’t sleep,” she said. “I use sleeping pills but it’s not enough to keep away the ghosts of the past or all my fears for the future. My life will never be better.”
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