Hope and Progress on the Anniversary of Rana Plaza
April 24, 2018
Today marks the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, the worst workplace disaster in the history of global manufacturing. On April 24, 2013, 1,137 garment workers lost their lives and thousands more were injured. The human impact of the disaster defies comprehension. Tens of thousands of people – the dead, the injured, their parents and children, siblings and spouses – all had their lives devastated in an instant.
The cause of this catastrophe? Years of recklessness and neglect by factory owners, the Bangladesh government, and major Western brands and retailers. Through years of safety disasters, the brands and retailers insisted they were monitoring their factories for safety, but their voluntary inspection programs never addressed the hazards that were killing workers.
The WRC and other labor rights organizations first proposed a binding factory safety agreement for Bangladesh in 2010, but it was only after the Rana collapse that it was finally possible to convince large numbers of brands and retailers to forego their voluntary CSR programs in favor of binding commitments. When they did, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was launched.
With the Accord nearing completion of its initial term, the anniversary of the collapse is an appropriate moment to look back on what has been achieved since that terrible day. Over the last five years, the Accord has led a sweeping transformation of the physical infrastructure of Bangladesh’s massive garment industry. Under the Accord, more than 97,000 safety renovations – from the installation of fire doors to the strengthening of faulty structural columns – have been completed, across 1,600 factories. Dozens of factories with structural flaws so severe as to create the risk of another massive collapse were identified and evacuated. As a result, 2.7 million garment workers now work in vastly safer factories. There is no precedent in the contemporary globalized garment industry for such a labor rights transformation.
Professor Mark Anner, who directs the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State, published a paper this month that documents in detail the safety progress achieved under the Accord. The paper is well worth reviewing. Dr. Anner’s central conclusion is that it was the binding nature of the Accord, and the central role of worker representatives in its governance, that allowed it to deliver such sweeping real-world results. As the paper explains, there has been far less progress in other labor rights areas that lie outside the scope of the binding Accord, including hours of work, wages, and freedom of association.
There is still much work to do on building safety in Bangladesh. Many factories have safety remediation items to complete. And the progress that has been made must be preserved through effective ongoing inspections. This is why the Accord has been extended for an additional three years. So far, nearly 150 corporations have signed the extension, including most university licensees sourcing from Bangladesh. The greatest concern: factories that are beyond the scope of the Accord because their customers, including lesser-known brands and retailers, have never signed. We need more brands and retailers to join the Accord and bring more factories under its umbrella of protection.
We will be reporting in more detail, in the coming weeks, on the status of safety efforts in Bangladesh, including the degree of safety progress at each collegiate factory covered by the Accord, which licensees have and have not signed the extended Accord, the status of the Alliance on Bangladesh Worker Safety, the challenges posed by the Bangladesh government’s hostility to the Accord’s continued work, and other topics. We will also be sharing with you the presentations on Bangladesh from last week’s University Caucus meeting. The WRC is committed to continuing its efforts, both in our role in Accord implementation and more broadly, to make the garment industry in Bangladesh safe.
We pause today to commemorate the anniversary of the worst day the world’s garment workers have ever seen. There is no recompense that can begin to salve the wounds of a catastrophe of the magnitude of Rana Plaza. The most important action we can take to honor the victims is to do everything possible to make sure such a tragedy never happens again.
Worker Rights Consortium