In these times of Covid-19, international news outlets are so consumed by the rapidly changing infection and mortality numbers that many milestones and news items go unnoticed. Such is the case with the 7 year anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories, killed at least 1,132 people and injured more than 2,500.
So what happened? On 24th April 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building was the worst ever industrial incident to hit the garment industry. There were harrowing stories of survival, of people who had no choice but to amputate their own limbs in order to be freed from the rubble and survive.
This horrific scene did not need to occur because, on 23rd April, 2013, large structural cracks were discovered in the Rana Plaza building. While the discovery led to the immediate closure of the shops and the bank on the lower floors, due to management pressure, on Wednesday 24 April thousands of workers went to work again at their garment factories located in the cracked and compromised Rana Plaza building. Mere hours later, the collapse occurred.
Many need to be held accountable. You see, Rana Plaza was built originally to house shops and offices. However, bowing to the garment industry’s increasing demand, 3 additional storeys, accommodating heavy machinery and hundreds of workers, were illegally added to the structure. Inquiries revealed that no fewer than 25 global clothing brands conducted business with at least one of the five garment factories in the Rana Plaza building, capitalising on the cheap labour rates paid in the poor third world country.
Seven years (and more than 100 global garment industry “accidents”) later, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, established in direct response to the Rana Plaza disaster, has done a tremendous job in making factories safer for over 2 million workers. However, the absence of robust social security systems and the power imbalance in today’s supply chains have been painfully exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After an initial slowing down of production because of lack of raw materials from China, the garment industry further suffered from Western buyers cancelling their orders and refusing to place new ones. As a consequence, nearly 2 million garment workers (mostly females) have lost their jobs or been furloughed, many without pay or severance. Thousands of workers have staged protests over unpaid wages, risking infection due to the fear of starvation. Where factories remain in operation, workers are reporting being forced to work without adequate precautions, leaving them, their families and communities at risk of infection.
Whereas the whole world is undergoing challenges due to Covid-19 and private companies are dealing with financial uncertainty for the future, we agree with the Clean Clothes campaign that it is “vital that factory owners start taking full responsibility for their workers’ health and well-being by ensuring workers receive their full wages during the crisis, through the digital systems provided by government, ending the retrenchment of workers and reinstating workers dismissed at the onset of the crisis and, once safe return to work is enabled, providing sufficient protection and paid sick leave.”
Moreover, consumers in the West must mandate to the Western companies which retail clothing made by these vulnerable garment workers to act responsibly in the circumstances and to utilise some of their phenomenal profits made over the years to secure the workers’ rights and livelihoods.
All of us have important roles to play in this dark scenario. Let us not fail to act when it is in our power to do so!
For more on this story, please check – https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/bangladesh-seven-years-on-from-rana-plaza-factory-collapse-garment-workers-lives-at-risk-again-amid-covid-19