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A decade after one of the deadliest industrial disasters in history occurred in Bangladesh, we’re unavoidably confronted with the question, what has changed? The Rana Plaza building housing several garment factories, collapsed on 24 April 2013, killing more than 1100 people and injuring over 2500. The tragedy, more urgently than ever before, opened the eyes of the world to the working conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh.
As we commemorate the 10th year of the Rana Plaza disaster today, it is crucial not only to reflect on the progress made but also the work that remains to be done to ensure worker safety and ethical practices in the garment industry. Although we have seen improvement in many factories in Bangladesh in the last decade, it is still clear that systematic change required to ensure garment workers’ safety is not progressing fast enough.
“Since civic space is shrinking in most garment-producing countries, even if labour conditions are in improved in certain places, workers often have less space to influence their own working conditions,” says Fair Wear’s Executive Director Alexander Kohnstamm.
“The state of the buildings and safety procedures in Bangladesh has improved since 2013, but many of the underlying problems have not. Workers’ voices are still largely unheard or ignored. On that terrible day in 2013, most of the workers in the Rana Plaza building did not feel safe – some had left the building because of it. But they were sent back inside under threat of losing their livelihoods. Instead, they lost their lives.” says Kohnstamm.
Numerous studies have shown that – despite all the social audits, ethical codes, corporate social responsibility disclosures and moral narratives global fashion retailers use – workers’ human rights globally have not improved. COVID-19 further aggravated the situation. Civil Society organisations and Trade Unions in most garment-producing countries have seen their space shrink, making it that much harder for workers to exercise their rights.
Industry leaders and stakeholders have an important role to play in promoting respect for human rights, including the freedom of association (FoA), in the workplace. Industry-wide advocacy for FoA and respect for human rights is crucial for creating a more just and equitable workplace. By promoting worker empowerment and collective action, industry leaders can help ensure that workers’ voices are heard and their rights are protected.
Individual brands still have a lot to improve in their purchasing practices – which need to allow for living wages and safe conditions. In choosing their suppliers, they should prioritise factories where workers are free to organise. And they need to be responsive to the risks of labour rights violations in their supply chains. To enable these improvements across the industry and ensure collective progress, as well as accountability, Fair Wear and its allies are working on – and advocating for – harmonised systems and meaningful legislation.
“Fair Wear aims to contribute tools and methodologies, so the industry can prioritise human rights across garment supply chains; we work with a dedicated group of member brands to show that change is possible,” says Kohnstamm.
Read more about Fair Wear’s approach here.
As a response to the tragedy, the International Accord for Health and Safety, a legally binding agreement between brands, trade unions, and labour rights organisations, was established to improve factory safety in Bangladesh. Since this year, the Accord is rolled out beyond Bangladesh to Pakistan. We urge all brands producing in Bangladesh and Pakistan to join the Accord. Currently, 194 brands and retailers are signed on to the Accord, covering around 2.4 million workers in Bangladesh (source: IndustriALL). The Pakistan Accord was announced four months ago and has been signed by 45 brands. (source: CCC)
Amin Amirul Haque, general secretary National Garment Workers Federation, says: “After Rana Plaza, because of the Accord, the safety conditions in garment factories have improved compared to before the collapse, but we need to continue this progress.”
Watch our video for more information on the Accord: