On the Anniversary of the Rana Plaza Disaster
April 24, 2014
Today is the anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed 1,137 workers and badly injured many more – the worst disaster in the centuries-long history of apparel manufacturing. Later today, we will be sharing additional information related to the efforts to address the worker safety crisis in Bangladesh. This morning, however, I want to share a few brief thoughts about the anniversary and its meaning.
It is difficult to comprehend the human magnitude of this disaster. Those killed and injured, and those among their families who have also suffered grievously, are many thousands in number. The suffering continues, as injured workers struggle to survive with the diminished earning capacity that is the result of lost limbs and other permanent disabilities, and as the families of those killed deal with the cruel combination of their personal grief and the loss of their primary source of income.
Their suffering has been exacerbated by the shockingly slow pace of compensation. As of this anniversary, most of those affected have still yet to receive any substantial help. Brands and retailers have shown far less generosity toward the victims of the disaster than many of us anticipated. A compensation fund, finally established at the end of last year after long months of difficult negotiation, remains grossly under-resourced. The sums due each family are modest – less than $30,000. However, the number of those killed and injured is very large, so the total amount needed is substantial. Of the $40 million that is required, well under $20 million has been contributed to date. Some companies, like Benetton and JC Penney, have contributed nothing. Others, like Walmart and Children’s Place, have made contributions far too small to be equal to the task. Some companies have done more, most notably the Canadian retailer Loblaw and the British retailer Primark. We continue to hope that the many other brands that produced at Rana Plaza will follow their example. It pains me to consider the fact that a year has passed without these families being granted even the small solace that financial compensation can provide.
I also remain mindful on this day of the industry practices that produced Rana Plaza, and the Tazreen Fashions fire before it, and the many other deadly fires and building collapses before that. The apparel industry had ample and repeated warning that something as catastrophic as Rana Plaza could occur. The warnings were never heeded. Western brands and retailers either ignored calls for change or insisted that their exiting factory inspection programs were adequate to protect workers. The Bangladesh government never made a remotely serious effort to regulate the factories; it instead applied itself to the task of protecting the ability of factory owners to offer the world’s lowest garment prices to their customers. The industry in Bangladesh grew ever larger and ever more dangerous, with millions of workers walking every day into grossly unsafe buildings. At the time of the Rana and Tazreen disasters, virtually none of the nation’s 3,500 garment factories even had fire exits. Hundreds were structurally unsound. The task of addressing this unbelievably dangerous situation has only just begun.
The vital lesson in my view is this: we cannot rely on brands and retailers, acting on their own, to guarantee the safety and rights of the workers in their supply chains. When we do so, we put workers at grave risk. The competitive pressures of the apparel business create too many distractions – and too much temptation to cut corners and postpone the cost of improving factory conditions. Brands and retailers are often quick to assure us – as they did for years in Bangladesh – that they have good programs in place to protect workers. Too often, those assurances prove empty. This is why the WRC urges all brands and retailers to make binding committments to ensure that their factories in Bangladesh are made safe, enforceable through a strong agreement with representatives of the workers who sew their clothes. I am happy to say that many university licensees have done so.
The WRC today rededicates itself to the goal of ensuring that there is never another Rana Plaza. We do so sick at heart over the unspeakable pain of those who lost sons and daughters, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers in the cataclysm of Rana and in the inferno of Tazreen – and mindful of the enormous challenges we all face in working to ensure that this circle of suffering expands no further. We also do so deeply appreciative of the support from our affiliate universities, which has enabled the WRC to play a useful role in addressing the crisis in Bangladesh, and of the continued commitment of the student activists whose passion and leadership help fuel the university community’s continuing dedication to do right by the workers who make our logo goods.
Worker Rights Consortium
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Washington, DC 20005
ph 202 387 4884
fax 202 387 3292