WRC Update: Bangladesh Building Collapse

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova
Date:May 8, 2013
Re:Bangladesh Building Collapse

As you are likely aware from the extensive media coverage, the latest in a string of horrific disasters to visit Bangladesh’s garment workers occurred on April 24 when Rana Plaza, an eight-story building which housed five garment factories, collapsed.

The collapse has claimed the lives of at least 803 workers, making it the most deadly disaster in the history of the global garment industry – indeed, the deadliest disaster in a manufacturing facility in recorded history. At present, relief workers continue to recover the bodies of victims from the wreckage and the death toll may ultimately be substantially higher. More than a thousand people are injured, many seriously – in a substantial number of cases, survivors had to have a limb amputated on site in order to be freed from the wreckage. Words, of course, cannot begin to describe the horror the disaster has meant for victims and their families.

Details concerning the causes and circumstances of the collapse continue to emerge. At this point, it is known that on the day prior to the collapse, workers observed cracks in the building’s walls and expressed fear to supervisors, the police and media concerning the soundness of the building. A building inspector examined the situation and concluded that the building was unsafe.

However, when workers arrived for work the next day, factory owners told them that the building was safe and demanded that they return to work. When workers balked, many were threatened by managers with the loss of up to a month’s pay if they refused to enter the building. This bullying and intimidation was successful and most workers went in to work. Less than an hour later, the building collapsed.

It has since been revealed that the building was built on top of what had been a swamp. Then, despite the resulting weak foundation, three or four additional stories were illegally added to accommodate more factories. The structure was apparently fatally compromised the day before the collapse, when several large generators were turned on during a black-out. The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, who had reportedly sought to flee the country, has been arrested.

Brands whose goods were made in Rana Plaza include Benetton, JC Penney, The Children’s Place, Primark (a major British retailer), Loblaws (owners of the Joe Fresh label), El Corte Ingles (the largest department store group in Europe), Mango and numerous other brands and retailers. There is no evidence that collegiate licensed apparel was produced at the facility. The WRC and other organizations used a variety of research tools – in particular the work of people onsite who identified document and garments in the wreckage – to identify buyers.

The Rana Plaza collapse is the latest and worst in a series of horrendous factory disasters in Bangladesh. As you know, in November of last year, a fire at the Tazreen factory, which produced for Walmart among other companies, killed 112 workers. That disaster followed fires at two factories in 2010, producing for Gap, H&M and others, which 50 killed that year. Since the mid-2000s, more than 1,300 workers have died in apparel factories – including the 64 who died in an earlier, and very similar, building collapse at a factory called Spectrum.

Mass casualty disasters occur with such frequency in Bangladesh because the buildings in which garment factories operate are not structurally safe. Factories typically lack enclosed fire exits, a fundamental protection required by law in the U.S., Europe, and Bangladesh. And some buildings, like Rana Plaza, are built on weak foundations, constructed with poor materials, and/or have illegally-added floors.

This situation is the product of a lethal combination of lax local regulation; the tremendous price and delivery pressure under which factories produce, which gives factories powerful incentives to cut corners on safety; and the fact that most garment factories in Bangladesh are in multi-story buildings.

The factory auditing systems and certification schemes used by Western brands and retailers have failed abjectly to address these issues. Aside from the conflicts of interest and lack of transparency that characterize most of these systems, there is one huge reason why industry audits don’t address such vital issues as the structural integrity of buildings and the presence or absence of proper fire exits: these issues are not even part of the typical audit protocol. For example, Loblaw, the giant Canadian supermarket chain and owner of the Joe Fresh clothing brand, was a buyer from one of the factories at Rana Plaza. After the collapse, Loblaw acknowledged that its auditors simply do not check the structural integrity of factory buildings. We believe this is the case for most or all industry audits. Indeed, it has emerged since the fire that two of the factories in the building had passed audits done under the auspices of BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative) a large, industry-funded, Europe-based certification body. BSCI uses the SA-8000 auditing system – the same one used to give a clean bill of health to the Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan, three weeks before it burned, killing more than 260 people.

As we have outlined in prior communications, what is needed in Bangladesh is a nationwide program of factory renovations and repairs to convert unsafe structures into buildings that are fundamentally safe for workers. This must be funded in substantial part by higher prices to factories from brands and retailers.

The WRC helped to develop a binding, enforceable fire and building safety agreement under which such a program would be carried out and we continue to urge brands and retailers to sign it. The agreement was signed last year by PVH Corp (the owner of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Izod and other clothing brands) and a German retailer, Tchibo, but the agreement cannot be implemented until additional brands sign on. Since the collapse, there have been discussions with several major brands and retailers about potentially joining this agreement, including a key meeting last week in Germany, involving more than two dozen leading brands, in which the WRC participated, along with several other labor rights organizations. Major newspapers and news outlets have run editorials in recent days calling on brands and retailers to sign the agreement, including Bloomberg News, the New York Times, the Boston Globe and others.

As you know, Bangladesh is the second largest apparel producer in the world, after China, and a major source of university logo apparel. A transformation of unsafe structures, and of safety practices, in the industry in Bangladesh is essential to protecting workers, including the tens of thousands who manufacture university goods. If a fire and building safety agreement and program can be implemented, the WRC will immediately ask university licensees to become a part of it. Helping to bring an end to the terrible parade of death and destruction in Bangladesh and making that nation’s apparel factories safe is a top organizational priority for the WRC and will remain so until the job is done.

The text of the agreement can be reviewed here. The New York Times latest editorial asking brands and retailers to join the agreement is here.

Below are links to additional relevant news articles and editorials, which you may find informative. If you have questions or would like to discuss these issues, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Opinion Pieces

Editorial, For 25 Cents You can Wash the Blood Off Your T-Shirt, Bloomberg News, April 30, 2013

Editorial, Worker Safety in Bangladesh and Beyond, New York Times, May 4, 2013

Editorial, Global brands must step in to protect worker safety, Boston Globe, May 4, 2013

Editorial, Products are cheap, lives are not, Baltimore Sun, May 6, 2013

News Stories

Building Collapse in Bangladesh Leaves Scores Dead, New York Times, April 24, 2013

Last Hope in Ruins: Bangladesh’s Race to Save Shaheena, New York Times, May 5, 2013

Few Meaningful Changes in Wake of Dhaka Factory Collapse, Inter Press Service, May 3, 2013

400 factory deaths puts focus on worker safety, USA TODAY, May 1, 2013

Death Traps: The Bangladesh Garment-Factory Disaster, The New Yorker, May 1, 2013

Some Retailers Rethink Role in Bangladesh, New York Times, May 1, 2013

Tears and Rage as Hope Fades in Bangladesh, New York Times, April 28, 2013

Big brands rejected Bangladesh factory safety planAssociated Press, April 26, 2013 

Global Standards for Garment Industry Under Scrutiny After Bangladesh Disaster, PBS Newshour (television segment), April 26, 2013

Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh, New York Times, April 25, 2013