Civilians rescuing the garment workers moments after the Rana Plaza building collapsed in April 2013. (Photo: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/NurPhoto/Zuma Press)
April 24 marks 11 years since the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh which led to the deaths of over 1,100 garment workers and injuries to over 2,000. The collapse of the eight-storey building where garments were produced for leading brands in the west led to a global outcry and calls for better safety measures and rights for workers. However, all these years later, there remain major lacunae in this area.
A number of clothing brands operating in the country have still not joined the Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which could prevent accidents like the one that occurred at Rana Plaza in April 2013.
In its report on April 18, Human Rights Watch noted that “as of April 11, 195 brands are part of the Accord in Bangladesh, and 45 brands are part of the Accord in Pakistan. Many other brands, mostly from the US, have yet to join.”
“Only four large US brands signed the Bangladesh accord. Instead, 26 US retailers signed a voluntary agreement led by Walmart Inc. that didn’t mandate independent inspections or bind signatories to make repairs,” said a report titled “A Broken Partnership: How Clothing Brands Exploit Suppliers and Harm Workers—And What Can Be Done About It,” released by the New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights on April 12.
“The garment industry in Bangladesh, which comprises 80 per cent of the country’s total export earnings, grew entirely in security zones, offering workers few prospects to unionize. It is no wonder that these factories are a warzone,” said the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research in its newsletter.
Since the Rana Plaza devastation, “at least 109 other buildings in the area have collapsed, resulting in the death of 27 workers (at minimum),” according to the newsletter.
Activists and garment workers’ unions in Bangladesh have been raising the red flag on how corporate buyer behavior and exploitative purchasing practices have had a worsening impact on workers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garment workers also blame apparel brands and retailers for passing on the financial fallout of the pandemic to the suppliers, and ultimately onto the marginalized and already underpaid workers by cutting down their wages.
According to estimates, there are over four million garment workers in Bangladesh. The minimum monthly wage for an entry-level garment worker in the country is 8,000 Bangladeshi taka (US$ 75), which is just 26% of the country’s estimated living wage.
A survey by the University of Aberdeen published in January 2023 quoted a supplier saying that “the biggest problem is paying workers on time. As we don’t operate at high margins, we have the problem of cash flow.”
The survey notes that “Nearly one in five factories reported that they had been struggling to pay the Bangladeshi legal minimum wage for garment workers since reopening when interviewed in December 2021.”
Accord on Health and Safety
The Accord on Health and Safety, which came into being in May 2013, is designed to improve safety measures as companies pledge to allow independent inspections and to pay for needed repairs. Under the Accord, clothing companies cannot prematurely cut business ties with factories after inspections and remediation programs detect any fire, electrical, or building safety gaps. “The brands are obligated to support remedial action and give factories sufficient opportunities to correct safety hazards,” HRW notes. It also provides a “trusted avenue for workers to raise safety concerns through an independent complaints mechanism,” HRW adds.
The Accord is legally binding and can be enforced at the factory and brand level, and all inspection reports and remediation efforts are published. Workers can pursue arbitration if brands breach their contractual agreement with workers’ unions.
In its last year’s report titled ‘Cheap Tricks’, the Clean Clothes Campaign also called out US brands that have not yet signed the Accord, but which, in some cases, indirectly get the benefits of the inspection program without having to pay the annual fees by sourcing products from factories in which Accord members also operate.
While the victims of the Rana Plaza live with its aftermath each day, their plight has been overlooked by the authorities. According to the latest survey by Action Aid Bangladesh, over half of the survivors were found to be unemployed and 89% had been without work for the past five to eight years.
On April 18, rights activists organized a program in capital Dhaka, where union leaders noted that at least 18 cases related to the tragedy are still pending in courts.