One Year After the Rana Plaza Disaster, Reforms are Piecemeal

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On April 24, 2013 the nine-story Rana Plaza building hosting multiple garment factories manufacturing garments for Western clothing brands collapsed in a sub-district of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The nearly month-long search and rescue operation sent devastating pictures of the victims and survivors around the world in what would become one of the world’s deadliest industrial disasters.

One year later, there are signs of progress towards reform but it is also clear that the disaster will not be the wake-up call many hoped could change the garment industry both inside and outside Bangladesh.

The Rana Plaza building collapse is a lesson in the consequences of putting profit before people. The top four floors of the building were built without a permit in order to house multiple garment factories for which the the building was not designed. When cracks appeared in the building the day before the collapse, the Industrial Police recommended the building be vacated until building inspectors could evaluate the structural integrity of the building. Business owners on the first two floors that housed multiple shops and a bank did evacuate but factory managers for the remaining seven floors threatened workers with dismissal and garnished wages if they did not report for work. An hour after the day shift started, the building collapsed killing at least 1,134 of the estimated 5,000 workers and severely injuring thousands more.

Poor safety conditions resulting in worker deaths within the Bangladeshi garment industry are nothing new. In 2006, between 54 to 84 workers died in a factory fire in the port city of Chittagong while 29 workers died at the Hameem factory fire in 2010. Just five months before the Rana Plaza building collapse a fire at the overcrowded Tazeen Fashion factory became the country’s deadliest factory fire as at least 112 but as many as 200 workers died when many jumped to their deaths after managers locked them in after the fire alarm sounded. The Tazeen Fashion fire left many asking why such conditions are allowed to persist but such questions were not enough to prevent the Rana Plaza disaster months later.

Since Rana Plaza some reforms have come to Bangladesh. In July 2013, parliament passed several amendments to existing labor laws designed to make it easier for workers to unionize and protect worker rights in case of labor unrest. The amendment bill also mandated factory inspection for licensing, established a common fund focused on improving working conditions, put in place group insurance and compensation mechanisms as well as brought subcontracting under government regulation. These amendments bring Bangladeshi law closer to international standards set forth by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) but significant gaps remain that leave workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The other major domestic reform concerned wages. In November following widespread violent street protests, the minimum wage for garment workers was raised to roughly 38 cents an hour ($66.25 a month) from 21 cents an hour ($38 a month) but still remains the lowest minimum wage in the world and well below the $100 a month workers were asking for. The low wages and lax labor laws are what makes Bangladesh the world’s second largest global producer of clothing and why the country is expected to eclipse China for the top spot in the near future. The garment industry already accounts for 80% of the country’s exports, a number that will likely increase as more international brands outsource their manufacturing to Bangladesh’s factories.

The significance of the garment industry to Bangladesh’s economy helps explain the government’s hesitance to enact meaningful reforms but they are not alone in dragging their feet at the expense of workers. The low wages and high labor availability of Bangladesh allows Western companies to increase their profit margins, making it an attractive place for outsourcing, but those factors do not provide much incentive for factories to improve worker conditions. The symbiotic relationship between the garment industry’s importance to the overall economy and the never-ending need of such services by foreign firms has created a difficult synergy. Non-union labor and overcrowding are key to keeping costs down but also make abuse rampant. Neither government officials or foreign firms are keen to change current practices or allow others to upset the balance between workers and factory owners. Violence against workers and activists working towards better pay and conditions is common, as seen with the ongoing intimidation of workers trying to unionize and the suspicious murder of a high profile labor activist in 2012.  While some foreign companies have publicly urged the government to raise wages and improve conditions, the government’s inertia in both these areas has not stopped these companies from continuing to invest there.

Such is the dichotomy when the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility meets the reality of sweatshop labor. In the aftermath of the Tazreen fire, clothing labels from Wal-Mart, Sears, C&A, Li & Fung and ENYCE were identified in rubble and all tried to distance themselves from the disaster. But they are part and parcel of the problem; by tolerating or intentionally ignoring possible problems these companies are accepting the conditions that make these disasters possible and encouraging the low value of worker lives with their money. While Western companies involved in the garment industry have started two high profile initiatives for better supply chain transparency in the wake of Rana Plaza, they cover less than 2,000 of the estimated 6,000 factories in operation today, demonstrating a serious lag for reform at the top of the supply chain and not just with Bangladeshi government.

The reluctance for accountability in the face of such dire working conditions extends to the Rana Plaza tragedy itself. Overseen by the ILO, a committee made up of representatives from the Bangladeshi government, trade organizations, unions, local and international garment companies and NGOs created the Rana Plaza Arrangement to establish a claims process for victim compensation. But a year later the Rana Plaza Donor Trust fund has only reached a third of its extremely modest funding goal as many of the companies involved in the disaster have so far refused to contribute. As it is, there is still no definitive list of victims as several – it is unclear how many – were unidentified at the time they were buried. Of those who survived, over 1,000 are still unable to work due to injuries sustained that day and less than 800 were rehired within the industry but only an estimated 248 have received assistance from the Rana Plaza Donor Trust. Many survivors are struggling to survive financially but the companies involved and the government are still slow to respond, if they opt to respond at all.

In 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City killed 146 in one of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history. That disaster galvanized new labor laws to provide for safer working conditions in the US and ultimately helped motivate similar reforms in other countries. In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, many hoped that the tragedy would provide the same impetus for Bangladesh. But a year later it is clear that without serious will from both Bangladesh and the international firms that rely on the country’s labor for its manufacturing, more Rana Plaza disasters will be inevitable.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons