The Lesson of Rana Plaza: Corporate Self-Regulation Is a Formula for Disaster

The Rana Plaza factory collapse killed 1,138 workers, more than any other manufacturing disaster in human history. These deaths, and the injuries to 2,500 others on April 24, 2013, were the culmination of more than a decade of mass fatality incidents in Bangladesh’s garment industry—most of them in factories producing for leading fashion brands and retailers.

Bangladeshi unions, with support from the Worker Rights Consortium and many other organizations around the world, pressed fashion brands to change their approach to fire and building safety in Bangladesh for years before Rana Plaza collapsed. They—and we—did this through seeking a binding agreement between brands and worker representatives that would tackle deadly hazards in supplier factories. The agreement had been signed by two major brands before the Rana Plaza collapse, but that was not enough corporations to initiate the program. The international attention following the catastrophe finally persuaded a critical mass of brands to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. 

Over the past decade, the Accord has transformed factory safety in Bangladesh, eliminating major structural, fire, and electrical hazards in more than 1,600 factories through unprecedented collective action in the industry. In most cases, when the Accord’s inspectors went into factories to conduct their initial assessments, it was the first time a qualified safety engineer had ever stepped foot in the building. In the year following the Rana Plaza collapse, the Accord identified more than a dozen factories that were in danger of structural failure; these buildings were immediately evacuated and either renovated or closed. This action may well have prevented another Rana Plaza-level catastrophe. Thanks to the Accord’s unique model that leverages the buying power of brands to ensure their suppliers guarantee worker safety, 2.5 million garment workers are vastly safer at work today.

Now, with the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry set to expire in October 2023, the WRC warns that a failure to renew the agreement will place garment workers at grave risk.

It is crucial to remember that buildings in which workers died en masse, including Rana Plaza, had been repeatedly inspected under the brands’ social auditing systems. Those audits never addressed, or even identified, the hazards that were killing workers. How was this possible? Because the brands’ audits never included, as part of their checklists, the essential building safety issues: structural integrity and the enclosure of exit stairwells—vital in the event of a fire. This history demonstrates, with brutal clarity, that voluntary self-regulation through industry-run factory auditing cannot and will not protect workers.

This is why it is vital that the International Accord be extended long term and that more brands sign, both for the work in Bangladesh and the newly launched Accord program in Pakistan.

The Accord marked the first time that fashion brands took direct responsibility for the millions of workers who make their clothes, a turning point for the industry that had until then had no legally binding mechanism to protect workers or give them an independent means for redress. In the current regulatory environment, which leaves no doubt as to the responsibility that brands have to ensure the basic rights of their workers, the essential elements of the Accord—independence, transparency, high-quality inspections, and legally-binding assurances—must be protected to ensure another Rana Plaza cannot happen again.