Ten years on from Rana Plaza, how much have conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry improved?

Rubi Akhter, 55, poses with a photo of her late daughter Morjina who worked at New Wave Bottom Apparels Ltd on the fourth floor of Rana Plaza on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and died when the building collapsed on 24 April 2013. (Piyas Biswas)

Ten years ago, on the morning of 24 April 2013, the world was shaken by the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story building that housed several garment factories in Savar, on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Reportedly constructed on unsuitable land, the building also violated construction regulations, used substandard building materials, was extended by four floors without permission, and involved the bribery of officials to overlook these issues.

The catastrophe resulted in the deaths of 1,134 people and left over 2,500 injured, sending shockwaves throughout the fashion industry and sparking global demands for improved working conditions and labour rights in the garment industry. Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, has spent almost a decade in prison despite attempting to secure bail earlier this month. He is still facing multiple legal cases following the incident and is one of 36 people currently on trial for murder for the deaths caused by the building collapse.

Although a decade has passed since the tragedy, for many of the survivors and the families who lost loved ones, the pain and trauma are still raw. Among them is Nilufa Begum, a 40-year-old former swing operator at the Phantom Apparels garment factory on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza. Nilufa miraculously survived the collapse, even after a concrete beam fell on her, but her life was forever changed.

“Before the accident, despite poverty, I had mental peace. Afterwards, everything changed,” Nilufa tells Equal Times. “I lost everything I had. Due to my crippled leg, my husband left me, my mother died of a brain stroke worrying about me, and I became unable to work. I could no longer send my son to school because of our poverty. This tragedy destroyed my life, my son’s future and the family that I had.”

Nilufa’s harrowing experience of being trapped beneath the steel and concrete rubble lasted for over nine hours, and she underwent 11 surgeries to address the severe damage done to the lower-right part of her body. Doctors say her right leg requires amputation, as it is non-functional and rotting gradually. She now lives in an impoverished informal settlement in Savar with her 16-year-old son.

Fifty-five-year-old Rubi Akhter lost her daughter Morjina who used to work at New Wave Bottom Apparels on the fourth floor of Rana Plaza: “After hearing the news of the building collapse, I screamed out loud and immediately rushed to the site. I found my daughter’s distorted, dead body 17 days after the collapse,” Rubi shares. “I live alone now, and I miss my daughter so much. Thinking about her always makes me cry. If she were still alive, I wouldn’t be struggling so much.”

Most of the survivors of the collapse are living in poverty. According to a recent study conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh, some 55 per cent of survivors remain unemployed, mainly due to their physical injuries.

“Some survivors now beg for a living. Our primary demand is for all survivors to receive compensation for their lifetime of lost income, amounting to 48 lacs taka [approximately US$45,660] each,” says Mahmudul Hasan Hridoy, president of the Rana Plaza Survivors Association of Bangladesh. But so far, the provision of fair compensation has been elusive.

“The same individuals who own the garment factories also hold positions in the parliament and cabinet. There is no representative of the workers in the parliament. The rulers are exploiting us,” he adds.

In addition, although survivors and victims’ families have received various donations – including US$30 million paid to 5,500 claimants from a voluntary initiative known as the Rana Plaza Arrangement that was overseen by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the government of Bangladesh, and funded by a small number of global brands – affected workers are yet to receive actual compensation, as underpinned by a national employment injury insurance system.

However, following years of trade union and labour rights advocacy, a three-year pilot Employment Injury Scheme (EIS) was launched in June 2022. Some 150,000 garment workers from 150 representative factories are now being covered by a social protection programme – financed by the Dutch and German governments with contributions from nine international brands such as H&M and Primark – that provides compensation for medical treatment and rehabilitation services, as well as income loss resulting from occupational injuries or diseases.

“We appreciate the EIS and other development initiatives. The fact that our worker brothers are getting compensation is a good thing for us. However, we want the implementation of the laws of the ILO in Bangladesh. We want Bangladesh’s labour law to be more worker-friendly,” says Hridoy.

Improved safety standards – but more needs to be done

The Rana Plaza collapse may have been the world’s deadliest industrial accident since Bhopal, but Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) industry still accounts for more than 80 per cent of the country’s annual exports. More than 300 global brands, such as Walmart, Zara, H&M and Adidas, source RMG products from Bangladesh, with – according to the Mapped in Bangladesh research project – more than 2.8 million people working in 3,752 export-oriented RMG factories, just over 1,000 of which are thought to be subcontractor factories.

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Following the Rana Plaza disaster, two initiatives were established: the groundbreaking Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding Global Framework Agreement involving global brands, retailers, eight Bangladeshi trade unions and the global union federations IndustriALL and Uni Global Union; and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a corporate-led alternative for companies that did not sign the Accord. As a result, thousands of factories were inspected on electrical and fire safety as well as infrastructure risks, while workers and employers were trained on occupational health and safety, and improvements were made to labour rights and working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories. In addition, in 2021, a new International Accord extended the work to Pakistan.

President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Faruque Hassan, tells Equal Times that “a massive transition occurred after the Rana Plaza tragedy” 10 years ago: “We have conducted thorough audits of the fire, electrical and structural safety of every [member] garment factory, and have adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards safety lapses. We have closed down many factories that were deemed unsafe,” he says.

Some of the big suppliers have invested in more modern factories and Hassan tells Equal Times that subcontractor factories – whose services are engaged by larger manufacturers for specific stages of production, such as cutting or sewing, and whose workers have previously been the least protected – are now also under the spotlight in the new post-Rana Plaza regime, even though subcontractor factories were not included in the safety inspections of the Accord and Alliance as these factories are not members of the BGMEA or the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA).

However, Hassan still asserts: “We strictly monitor the subcontractor factories. We have instructed our member factories to only hire subcontractors that comply with safety regulations and take approval from the retailer client before hiring,” he says before continuing:

“We have taken the Rana Plaza accident as a lesson and we have been working very strictly on safety since then. For that, the buyers also gained confidence in us. In terms of safety, we think the Bangladeshi factories are the best,” he asserts.

Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garments Workers Federation (NGWF), is more measured in his assessment: “We recognise that after Rana Plaza, there have been developments and improvements in safety and security in the factories, thanks to the safety inspection activities by Accord and Alliance. But these safety inspections did not cover the full industry. Combined, they inspected around 2,500 factories while there are approximately 4,000 RMG factories in Bangladesh. Also, monitoring workplace safety is a continuous process, and to ensure this, frequent inspection is necessary [every three to six months],” he says.

The Alliance ended its tenure after five years in December 2018 and handed over its charge to Nirapon, a non-profit organisation, while in June 2020, after seven years, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) took over the operations of the Accord and started functioning as a safety monitoring body in Bangladesh’s garment sector.

However, unions are calling for improvements to the current state of affairs. There are currently 194 brands and retailers signed on to the Accord, covering around 2.4 million workers in Bangladesh, but IndustriALL and Uni Global Union are calling for more brands – particularly US brands like Levi’s, Gap Walmart and Amazon – to sign up. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi unions say that because the RSC’s mandate is not legally binding, factory owners are not obliged to carry out its recommendations.

In addition, workers’ groups have issues with the make-up of its board, which consists of six manufacturers’ representatives, six people representing the clothing brands and six members from trade unions. “The board of directors do not hold equal positions,” said Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, in an online group interview organised by Clean Clothes Campaign earlier in April. “We consider it as 12 seats on their [the employers’] side.”

She continued: “Though it is said that decisions will be taken on consensus, [so far] we haven’t seen that. In the RSC, there is a huge gap between information sharing, a lot of issues about slowing down the inspections, as well as not mitigating all the safety hazards they are supposed to take care of and issues of transparency, etc,” she explained.

Poor wages persist

Despite the changes that have taken place, the overall structure of the global supply chain – in which Bangladeshi garment factories are under huge pressure to produce cheap, fast-fashion for global retailers – remains intact, and workers are at the bottom of the food chain.

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Low wages for garment workers have always been an issue in Bangladesh. Despite a partial increase in wages following the tragedy, workers still struggle to make ends meet. The government last reviewed garment workers’ wages in 2018, when the minimum wage of an entry-level garment worker was fixed at BDT8,000 (US$75), but unions are calling for that amount to be increased to BDT23,000 (US$215) to reflect the massive increases in the cost of living that have taken place.

“My monthly salary is 10,000 BDT (approximately US$95). And if I do overtime the amount goes to around 13,000 to 14,000 BDT (US$123 to US$133). With this amount, it is really tough to go by a full month. My daughter and I can’t even afford our own room to live in. The cost of everyday things has gone up and it is actually tough to meet all the basic necessities with this salary,” says Rozina Begum, 25, a junior swing operator working in a garment factory.

Workers often resort to working overtime in order to earn extra income to support their families. However, this leads to working long hours in cramped spaces that are detrimental to their health.

“Usually, my shift starts at 8am and is supposed to end at 5pm. However, some days we work overtime [to meet order deadlines]. On those days, we might finish work at 7, 8 or even 10pm,” Rozina shares.

In addition, the overwhelming female workforce of Bangladesh’s garment industry (an estimated 85 per cent) are vulnerable to sexual harassment and discrimination, and are denied access to the maternity leave enshrined in Bangladeshi law.

Trade union rights remain violated

Forming trade unions to protect workers’ rights has become a bit easier since the tragedy but many obstacles are still present. Although workers are technically free to form trade unions, many are hesitant to do so due to intimidation and the fear of losing their jobs. The process of registering new trade unions is challenging, and rejections of new union registrations are common.

Amin, president of the NGWF, tells Equal Times: “The Department of Labor has problems in its practices when it comes to registering new trade unions. A lot of obstacles come from the powerful owner’s side as well.” For example, Pioneer Casual Wear Limited, a garment factory located in Ashulia, Bangladesh, terminated the employment of 64 workers after they applied to the Department of Labor to register a trade union at the factory.

By law, the Department of Labor is supposed to either register or cancel the registration of proposed trade unions within 55 days. But the application from Pioneer Casual Wear’s workers was dismissed after the 55 days were over. When trade unionists applied again, the application for registration was cancelled. “They also blacklisted the fired workers so that we can’t get jobs in other factories,” says 36-year-old Mohammed Abdullah Al Baki, the proposed president of the trade union at Pioneer Casual Wear.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the challenges facing workers in the garment industry. At the beginning of the pandemic, an estimated 357,000 jobs were lost between January and September 2020 after Western brands cancelled over US$3 billion’s worth of orders. With factories forced to shutter, many workers were left without income and struggled to provide for their families.

To address these issues, the Bangladeshi government and international organisations launched various initiatives to support RMG workers during the pandemic.

For example, the ILO established an initiative to provide emergency cash transfers to workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The Bangladeshi government also provided financial support to vulnerable workers and established a hotline for workers to report labour rights violations. However, these initiatives have faced challenges, including limited funding and difficulties in reaching all affected workers.

International brands source from Bangladesh mainly because of the low labour and production costs. However, this often leads factory owners to cut costs in ways that exploit workers, who are paid very low wages and struggle to make ends meet despite rising prices.

The Rana Plaza disaster will forever be remembered as a preventable tragedy that highlighted the need for improved safety standards and workers’ rights in the global garment industry. While progress has been made, workers’ rights advocates say there is still much work to be done to ensure that workers are treated justly and with respect. “Since the Rana Plaza incident, some progress has been made in terms of safety and security measures in the garment industry. However, we believe that further development is needed to ensure that workers do not face similar accidents in the future,” says Hridoy of the Rana Plaza Survivors Association of Bangladesh.

With additional reporting by Alfred Pithu.

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