Dhaka, Bangladesh – It’s been 10 years, but the trauma of gasping for more than 10 hours under the rubble still haunts Rehnuma Akter.
April 24, 2013 was a fateful day when Akter went to work at a garment factory in Savar, a city outside Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, that produced ready-to-wear for a British fashion label.
An hour after her shift started, Rana Plaza, the nine-story building that houses her garment factory and four other factories, collapsed into a heap of bricks, machinery and factory bolts.
Ackert was lucky. She survived one of the deadliest industrial disasters. However, by the end of the week-long rescue operation, a total of 1,134 people had died under the rubble.
Akter, 34, never worked in a garment factory again. After working as a domestic helper, she is now working as a cleaner in a private hospital in Dhaka.
“I can never go back to any factory. The memory of Rana Plaza still gives me nightmares,” she told Al Jazeera.
Like her, more than 63 percent of Rana Plaza survivors no longer work in garment factories, according to a report released this year by the ActionAid NGO.
The Rana Plaza disaster had a profound and lasting negative impact on the lives of its survivors. But for Bangladesh’s ready-to-wear (RMG) industry – the backbone of its $460 billion economy – it has brought about a sea change.
According to data released by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), more than 80 percent of Bangladesh’s 3,200 ready-made garment factories, formerly rough sweatshops with little concern for workers’ working conditions, are now compliant. International Safety Standards, the country’s top trade body for apparel producers.
Currently, the South Asian country is home to half of the world’s top 100 energy and environmental design (LEED) certified green industrial units, according to a February report in the Business Standard newspaper. In fact, a company called Green Textile Limited topped the 2023 LEED list compiled by the US Green Building Council (USGBC).
A 2021 report by consulting firm McKinsey said Bangladesh’s RMG industry leads in terms of transparency in terms of factory safety and value chain responsibility. A separate report by global supply chain compliance solutions provider QIMA showed the country ranked second in the Ethical Manufacturing Index in the same year.
Bangladesh also revised its labor laws twice, in 2013 and 2018, to safeguard workers’ rights and ensure workplace safety.
how the transformation happened
So, what led to a major shift in safety standards for garment factories in Bangladesh?
In the wake of the Rana Plaza incident, leading global retail brands have signed on to two international efforts to improve factory standards.
The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement and the Bangladesh Workers Safety Union are two bodies helping factories in the country improve and standardize fire, structural and electrical safety measures.
The alliance, which left the country in 2018, claims a 93 percent remediation rate at the 700 factories it inspected, while the agreement, which runs through 2020, has helped more than 2,000 RMG factories standardize on fire and building safety.
Following their departure, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) – an entity comprising RMG manufacturers, global brands and retailers, global unions and their Bangladesh branch – was formed in 2020 and has undertaken the same Task.
“RSC is a very unique organization as it brings together three stakeholders with very different mindsets under one umbrella to improve safety standards in industrial units. This is probably the first of its kind worldwide,” RSC board member Rubana Haq told Al Jazeera.
She added that since RSC is licensed by the Bangladesh government, state ownership and accountability is also inserted here.
“The collective national tragedy of Rana Plaza taught us a lesson, so we worked together to achieve a complete overhaul of the entire garment industry,” said Haq, who is also a former member of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Chairman), the country’s top trade body for apparel producers.
According to a report by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Bangladesh’s apparel industry will grow 79 percent from $19 billion in 2015 to $34 billion by 2022, making the country the world’s second largest apparel exporter, accounting for more than 80% of its export earnings.
“The RMG industry has seen tremendous growth due to the ethical and safe manufacturing revolution we have brought about in the past few years. Unfortunately, it has happened at the cost of a great tragedy,” BGMEA Chairman Farouk Hassan ( Faruque Hassan) said. “But we have learned our lessons and acted accordingly.”
Workers in Bangladesh say they now feel safer in garment factories.
“The building where I work has everything I like, spacious floors and proper ventilation. It also has fire escapes and we have regular fire safety drills,” Mansura Begum, an employee at Fatullah Apparels, told Al Jazeera .
Located on a 2.7-acre (1.1-hectare) site in Narayanganj, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Dhaka, Begum’s knitwear manufacturing plant is a LEED Platinum-certified industrial unit. Its owner, Fazlee Shamim Ehsan, says he has invested millions of dollars to make the factory as worker-friendly as possible.
“We operate on thin margins to cater to international brands’ desire to reduce costs. But out of responsibility and care for my workers, I have made sure to provide them with the best possible working environment,” Esan told Al Jazeera.
According to BGMEA data, there are currently 187 LEED-certified garment factories in Bangladesh, and 500 more are waiting to be certified.
Before the Rana Plaza incident, there were only two LEED-certified factory units in the country.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Union, said working conditions for RMG workers had “improved markedly” over the past decade.
“But that doesn’t mean the industry is completely safe and there is nothing that can be improved,” he told Al Jazeera.
A 2016 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) said there had been at least 35 textile factory accidents in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza disaster.
That year, a boiler explosion at Tampaco Foils Ltd, a packaging plant in Tongi, on the outskirts of Dhaka, killed 24 people. A year later, a boiler explosion at Multifabs Ltd, a textile factory in Gazipur district, killed 13 people.
“The 37 workers died in two accidents, both in the factory’s boiler room,” Amin said.
By the way, boiler inspections are not covered by Accord or Alliance, which are tasked with inspecting fire, electrical and structural safety. However, the RSC has been incorporated into the Boiler Safety Program since its inception in 2020.
Amin, who is also a representative of the RSC union, told Al Jazeera that the problem with regular boiler inspections is that there are only six government-appointed inspectors for the more than 5,000 operating industrial boilers in Bangladesh.
“It is almost impossible to inspect such a large number of boilers with such manpower. The government should take immediate steps in this regard,” he said.