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11 years since the Rana Plaza collapse factories are safer but the root causes of tragedy persist

by | Apr 18, 2024 | Blog, NEW Blog

“MEPs have made history today as this law represents a groundbreaking change for how large companies operating in the EU, including fashion brands and retailers, will now have to do business” said Muriel Treibich, Corporate Accountability Coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign “yet, its impact will unfortunately be limited as many intermediary and smaller (but still large) operators will be able to escape their responsibilities and continue operating with impunity.” she added.24 April 2024 will mark the 11th anniversary of the fashion industry’s worst tragedy: the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, killing 1,138 people. The catastrophic death and injury toll was caused by a deadly mix of fashion brands ignoring dangerous factory conditions, poverty wages, and centrally, constraints on workers’ ability to organise collectively. While unprecedented progress has been made to make factories safer, the brutal crackdown on workers’ rights still unfolding in response to protests to increase the minimum wage has shown that apparel brands producing in Bangladesh are still failing to ensure that the basic rights of their workers are respected.

  • The disaster provided momentum to push brands to sign a binding agreement with unions that has made factories in Bangladesh demonstrably safer and prevented mass casualty incidents. Yet major brands like Levi’s, IKEA, Amazon and others refuse to heed calls from workers and campaigners to join.
  • In 2023, international brands refused to meaningfully support an increase in the legal minimum wage to a sustainable level for workers and their families, locking in poverty wages that are among the lowest for garment workers globally.
  • As workers exercised their basic rights to demonstrate against the undemocratic wage setting process, brands failed to prevent predictable and premeditated repression, giving tacit approval to violent tactics that left four workers dead and many more injured.
  • Today, brands like H&M, Inditex (Zara), Next, C&A, among many others, remain passive while their supplier factories keep workers and union organisers under threat of arrest, thanks to baseless criminal complaints against tens of thousands of unnamed individuals associated with the protests .
  • On 24 April 2024, the European Parliament will vote on the proposed Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, which is a step towards holding brands accountable for human and labour rights violations in their supply chains. These recent events in Bangladesh show how much work global fashion brands still have ahead of them to live up to these new legal human rights due diligence obligations

The Rana Plaza building, housing five garment factories, collapsed on the morning of 24 April 2013. The building had been evacuated the day before as workers had pointed out dangerous cracks in the walls. While the shops on the ground floor remained empty that day, the garment factories refused to lose one more day of production and forced workers into the factory using the threat of withholding wages. Struggling to survive on poverty wages and without a labour union to collectively defend their rights, most workers entered their factories that day. This catastrophe was both predictable and preventable. Brands knew about the danger of the country’s multi-story buildings yet refused to take action. They also knew that the coercion implicit in poverty wages severely limited workers’ choices, and vitally, that the limitations on the fundamental rights to organise left workers exposed to serious risks.

Safer factories

Unions and labour rights groups had been raising these issues for over a decade and had developed a binding agreement for brands and unions to sign to make factories safer. Despite years of campaigning and dialogue with Bangladesh’s largest buying brands, only two brands signed this agreement before the collapse. Other brands continued to rely on the same social auditing system that had failed to prevent many previous disasters, and failed to recognise the risks at the Rana Plaza building. Making measures unavoidable, a mere three weeks after the disaster, a group of major brands signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

This agreement and its successor agreements (the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry) are the reason that Bangladesh, which frequently saw mass casualties in garment factories before 2013, has not faced similar disasters since. Improvements ranging from installing fire-fighting equipment and removing locks from doors, to large-scale renovations of structurally unsafe buildings, as well as worker trainings and a complaint mechanism have made a real change – especially in the first seven years of the Accord in Bangladesh, before employers started to exert undue influence over the programme. The Accord’s success is acknowledged by the 200 brands around the world that have signed the consecutive Accord agreements, including some of the world’s largest and most well known brands like H&M, Uniqlo, Inditex (Zara), and PVH (Calvin Klein). Yet, there continue to be major brands which continue to hide behind self-checks or industry-led initiatives without union participation. These includes Levi’s, IKEA, Kontoor Brands (Lee, Wrangler), Decathlon, Tom Tailor, VF Corporation, Walmart, Amazon, Columbia Sportswear and others.

Amin Amirul Haque, President of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) said: The refusal of brands like Levi’s and IKEA to sign the Accord means that they willing risk their workers’ lives for the production of their clothes and towels. They continue to rely on the same corporate-led systems that failed to prevent the Rana Plaza collapse. It is an absolute shame, just as it is absolutely shameful that there are about a dozen brands that made their products in the Rana Plaza factories and never paid any compensation to the families of the 1,138 workers who were killed and the over 2,500 workers who were injured. This is more than shameful, it is a double crime: they are guilty of death by negligence and of leaving the affected families without compensation.

However, the Accord only inspects and covers the final tier of garment production. This means that workers deeper in the supply chains of existing Accord signatory brands could also be risking their lives while toiling in textile mills and dyeing facilities without the same safety measures being taken. It is important that the Accord’s signatory brands take steps to ensure also these facilities are brought under the purview of the Accord. 

Poverty Wages

The Rana Plaza disaster was however caused by more than an unsafe building. One reason that workers felt compelled to enter the Rana Plaza building was the threat to withhold wages, which are so low that workers often have significant debt. The negligible minimum wage increases of 2013, 2018, and 2023 maintained the poverty wage levels, with the five year intervals meaning that inflation further chipped away at workers’ ability to put food on the table. The most recent, highly undemocratic wage review process of 2023 yielded a new minimum wage of 12,500 BDT (113 USD), little over half of what unions were asking for based on cost of living calculations. This is a mere fraction of what would constitute a living wage.

Unions and labour rights organisations repeatedly reached out to brands during this process to urge them to speak out in support of the workers’ demands and ensure their supplier factories that they would increase the prices paid for their product to meet the increase. Brands, whose power to enforce low pricing directly influences the wages and conditions at their supplier factories, kept their commitments vague and failed to instil any trust among factory owners that a wage increase would be financially feasible. Only after the wage announcement, brands like H&M announced to do the bare minimum by meeting the newly declared poverty wage into its pricing, and received praise from media around the world for this, showing how low the bar on brands’ behaviour is. This downward price squeeze limited the wage increase, and now even seems to affect implementation of this very limited wage increase. Several factories, including suppliers to major international brands, are reportedly failing to implement the new wage – meaning that workers don’t even receive the poverty wage they are legally entitled to.

Babul Akhter, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) said: “The new minimum wage is little over half of what unions were asking for during the wage setting process. That demand was based on basic cost of living calculations and still far removed from a real living wage that could properly sustain a family. The new minimum wage is a poverty wage that keeps workers on the brink of destitution for the next five years.”

 

Freedom of Association

Workers did not remain silent as a new poverty wage was decided through a process that excluded their voices. Unions started organising for a wage proposal meeting workers’ cost of living early in 2023. In October 2023, when employers shared a dismal wage proposal, many more workers took to the streets in protest, growing stronger again in November when the country’s wage board made its final recommendation of only 12,500 BDT (113 USD). At the behest of industry, the police, army, and special units were deployed to repress the spontaneous demonstrations. Employers failed to protect workers from the clear risk of deadly violence; rather as tensions rose, many closed their factories and sent workers into the streets without notice or assistance to workers, exposing them to serious danger. Protesting workers and workers with no intention of protesting were both met with violent repression and arbitrary use of force, which caused four deaths and many more injuries.  

The four workers who were killed (Rasel Howlader, 26, Jalal Uddin, 40, Anjuara Khatun, 23, Imran Hossain, 32) produced for international brands including H&M, Zara, C&A, Bestseller and Walmart. The deaths in brands’ own supply chains reflect a grave failure of due diligence and to use economic leverage to protect workers. Given the identical outcomes and worker death in 2018, the violence surrounding protests was both premeditated and predictable, yet brands took no meaningful action prior to or during the minimum wage process to prevent a tragic repeat. Nevertheless, each of these brands have refused to provide compensation for the families beyond the paltry compensation of around $4,500 that families have thus far received, which falls far short of the widely accepted compensation approach established in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster (based on ILO Convention 121).

Police complaints and legal cases, filed against workers and union leaders by factory owners and the police, led to arrests, long term detentions, and criminal charges. As the vast majority of the charges are against “unnamed workers”, the threat of legal prosecution now hangs over the heads of any worker who steps out of line and could suddenly be “identified” as being part of an ongoing case, as has already occurred with several prominent labour organisers. Labour rights organisations have urged the major international brands in whose supply chains factories have filed such cases to use their leverage with suppliers to ensure charges are withdrawn. While this has led to the withdrawal of several cases and others in progress, most brands have failed to act, allowing around two dozen cases to remain active. Brands like H&M, Inditex (Zara), Next, and C&A have the leverage to ensure these cases are dropped, but have shirked their responsibility.

Rashadul Alam Raju, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation (BIGUF) said: “Trumped up legal complaints against unnamed workers instil fear among workers and organisers, because anyone could be identified as a culprit in a case. Several union organisers, including from my union, have spent time in prison for an alleged crime that happened while they were at the other side of town. Brands like H&M, Zara, and Next need to do all in their power to ensure these complaints are dropped.”

The legal cases are particularly egregious because they have a further chilling effect on worker organising in Bangladesh. Despite some initial improvements in the years directly after the collapse, it remains exceedingly difficult to register a union in Bangladesh and violence and harassment against organisers are common. In June 2023, Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation organiser Shahidul Islam was beaten to death after leaving negotiations with the Prince Jacquard Sweater factory about wages. Earlier this year, two organisers of the Akota Garment Worker Federation were attacked and hospitalised after leaving a factory they were trying to organise.

 

New laws to hold brands accountable

The Rana Plaza collapse opened the eyes of citizens and policy-makers in consumer countries to the responsibility of corporations in relation to human and labour rights abuses in their global value chains and the need to regulate company behaviour. Activists, trade unions, and labour rights groups highlighted the need for binding obligations on companies and increased corporate accountability.

These calls were first successful in 2017 when in France the first ever due diligence law was passed, which was nicknamed the “Rana Plaza law”. Germany followed suit in 2023. In the UK, new research shows widespread support from the general public, business, and politicians from various parties for new laws requiring companies to prevent human rights abuses in their supply chains, and a groundbreaking Private Member’s Bill of this nature, the Commercial Organisations and Public Authorities Duty (Human Rights and Environment) Bill, will have its second reading in the House of Lords on 10 May.

Meanwhile, in the European Union, exactly 11 years after the Rana Plaza collapse, in a landmark vote the European Parliament has approved the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive on 24 April 2024. This EU Directive will oblige companies to carry out a due diligence process in their supply chain, including upstream value chain and direct and indirect business relationships to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remediate negative impact occurring in their value chain. In some cases, companies could also be held legally accountable for their actions and impacts on workers. The proposed legislation will only cover the largest companies active in the EU, but it nevertheless is an important step to hold brands accountable for their impact in global value chains and will contribute to preventing new disasters from happening.

 

Muriel Treibich, Lobby and Advocacy Coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign says: “For the first time over the last decade, this day of commemoration will also be a day of hope. On the day where we remember the lives lost in the Rana Plaza collapse, this vote represents a significant milestone for workers, communities, and activists worldwide and a major step for corporate accountability.”

 

Brands’ complicity to the recent crackdown in Bangladesh, shows that they still have a long way to go to fully respect human and labour rights in their supply chains. To fulfil their commitments and carry out an appropriate due diligence process as newly codified in the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, in the Clean Clothes Campaign we believe that international fashion brands must:

  1. Require their suppliers to immediately withdraw all criminal complaints they have filed against workers related to the protests; 
  2. Require any other retaliatory action taken against workers by their suppliers to be reversed, including reinstating workers that were dismissed to the same level of seniority, with full back pay;  
  3. Publicly condemn the wave of repression against Bangladeshi garment workers, highlighting support for workers’ fundamental rights to association and assembly and an immediate dropping of all mass charges against workers; and 
  4. Ensure that financial compensation consistent with international standards is provided to the family of workers killed in their supply chains;
  5. Use their leverage and adapt their pricing policy in order to ensure payment of living wages;
  6. Sign the International Accord and all relevant country programmes, and within the Accord actively engage for effective implementation of the programme and expansion to more factories within the own supply chain.

 

Resources:

– For more information on the crackdown on workers’ rights and inactivity of brands, see https://cleanclothes.org/news/2024/bangladesh-crackdown. The Clean Clothes Campaign network has reached out to 45 brands sourcing from factories that filed cases against protesting workers. The brands with most of these cases in their supply chain are H&M, Inditex, and Next. These cases have real effect on workers and organisers and the fact that many of the accused are “unnamed” allows for these baseless complaints to be used against any worker or unionist. In a particularly egregious case, two union organisers were charged with attempted murder and jailed for 66 days, even though none of them were named in the report or even in the vicinity of the factory on that particular day. This shows how the threat of unnamed charges hangs over every worker and organiser in Bangladesh. This criminal complaint, which alleges vandalism, arson, and the death of a worker, is still active against several named and over 700 unnamed people and has led to the imprisonment of a dozen people. Brands with leverage on the factory that has filed this complaint are Bestseller, H&M, Aldi South, Next, Gap, Kmart Australia, and Tom Tailor. Several brands, such as KIABI, Esprit, Kmart Australia, Decathlon, and Target Australia have refused to take responsibility entirely and not responded at all. 

– The Rana Plaza Never Again timeline documents the most important events and developments in the garment industry in Bangladesh of the past 11 years and includes key dates in the years before the Rana Plaza collapse: ranaplazaneveragain.org/timeline.

– Even though mass casualties in factory incidents are a thing of the past in Bangladesh, smaller incidents continue to happen and cost people’s lives. It is important that the scope of the Accord is expanded to also cover facilities deeper into brands’ supply chains, such as spinning mills and dying facilities. Read more: cleanclothes.org/keep-all-workers-safe

– More information on the International Accord can be found on their website. A list of which brands that did and did not sign is available here. A petition calling upon brands to sign to Accord is available here.

– Actions and commemorations across and in cooperation with the Clean Clothes Campaign will take place in Chicago (16 April, photos), Strasbourg (23 April), Brussels (24 April), London (24 April, anna@labourbehindthelabel.org), Netherlands (various locations and dates, carson@schonekleren.nl), Barcelona, Bilbao/Vitoria, Granada, Pamplona, Madrid (24 April) and other locations across the world. 

-In 2022 a pilot Employment Injury Insurance Scheme (EII or EIS) started in Bangladesh, meant to ensure that compensation is guaranteed for families of workers killed in the workplace and for those injured at work. This pilot is meant to lead to a law covering all garment workers. CCC encourages brands to participate in the pilot, but this is not sufficient. Firstly, brands should commit to fair pricing explicitly factoring the cost of EII into the purchasing price. Secondly, brands should commit that, once the law is in effect, they only source from suppliers participating actively and faithfully in the scheme, according to the law. Thirdly, brands should sign a legally binding agreement to this effect.