Shahida Begum said she had just turned to ask a colleague why the lights went out when the floor beneath her fell. Kabir Mollah said he was checking his clothes when a friend called him, screaming that the building was on a dangerous tilt. Nazma Begum said she washed her long black hair that morning and it was loose and damp. The choice meant she couldn’t move her head or body as a concrete column weighed on top of her.
On the morning of April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories, collapsed in about 90 seconds, killing more than 1,100 people.
It is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the modern clothing industry and one of the worst industrial accidents ever recorded. Many large retailers use the factories to make clothes, and the disaster has prompted reflections on workplace safety for garment workers and the responsibility of brands to sell lower-priced clothes to Western consumers.
A decade on, vigils commemorating the accident are being held online and around the world, including in Dhaka, London and New York. The New York Times interviewed five survivors of the collapse about the accident and where they are now; their thoughts are interspersed in this article. But for the current garment industry practitioners, where is the progress? What work remains to be done?
Why was the Rana Plaza collapse so shocking?
The disaster follows a string of deadly accidents in Bangladesh’s garment industry, including a November 2012 fire at the Tazreen fashion factory that killed 117 people.
The day before the collapse, cracks were discovered at Rana Plaza and workers were assured it was safe to go to work. The workers’ union, IndustriALL, declared it a “mass industrial homicide”.
It also exposed the prices paid by low-wage garment workers in the global south, as demand for cheap trends soared in the west. Fast fashion retailers rarely own the factories that supply their wares. Instead, the vast majority of apparel and footwear orders are outsourced to suppliers in emerging markets such as Bangladesh, where overhead and labor costs are cheap.
Before the Rana Plaza collapsed, Western brands didn’t always need to ensure safe working conditions in the factories they used. After the disaster, things started to change.
Did it lead to immediate reform?
After the collapse, many international fashion brands sourcing their garments in Bangladesh were quick to announce two five-year agreements to ensure the safety of garment factory workers. The Fire and Building Safety Agreement was first signed in May 2013.
It is a legally binding agreement between factory owners, global unions and European clothing brands such as Inditex, Primark and H&M that sets out an inspection and remediation plan to mitigate fires, fires among factory workers in Bangladesh. Building, electrical and boiler safety risks.
The Bangladesh Workers Safety Alliance was launched that same year, a less restrictive and non-legally binding agreement for North American brands such as Walmart, Gap and Target. Both have an initial five-year term.
Why is this protocol so groundbreaking?
In the years since the agreement was signed, 56,000 inspections have been carried out at 2,400 factories in Bangladesh and more than 140,000 problems have been corrected, said Joris Oldenziel, executive director of the international agreement. The plan also includes a way for workers to lodge complaints about health and safety issues and violations of their right to organize.
“The agreement is unique because it is a legally binding agreement that includes agreements that apparel companies must abide by,” said Aruna Kashyap, deputy corporate accountability director at Human Rights Watch. Companies cannot sever ties with suppliers and are obliged to support remedial action. All inspection reports are public.
The protocol has been iterated several times. The most recent is the international agreement, signed in 2021 and due to expire at the end of October this year.
In January, international agreements also began to reach Pakistan, with 45 brands signed. It is the first step in expanding the agreement beyond Bangladesh at a time when due diligence laws affecting the fashion industry are becoming more common.
What are activists pushing for now?
Today, Bangladesh has about 7,000 garment factories and is the world’s second largest garment exporter after China. But, despite all the progress, much work remains to be done. Many U.S. companies that source from the country, including Walmart, Levi’s, Gap and Amazon, have yet to sign up to the international agreement despite benefiting from it.
A report this month by the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights found that exploitative sourcing practices by some major apparel companies continue to leave garment workers and some factory owners in economic hardship and insecurity, especially after more than $3 in Billions in canceled orders and mass layoffs amid the coronavirus pandemic. These practices include pressure on suppliers to make unreasonable price cuts, chargebacks and order cancellations.
“Workers don’t have to be as afraid to go to work as they used to be, but this should be the minimum bar,” said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI’s global union. “Brands need to pay more for their clothes, and workers need to pay more.” (Minimum wage in Bangladesh is around $75 a month).
IndustriALL’s textile and apparel industry director, Christina Hajagos-Clausen, cites another sign of progress: a pilot workers’ compensation insurance scheme launched at 150 Bangladeshi factories. It provides compensation and rehabilitation services to injured workers in the apparel industry.
But thousands of Bangladeshi garment factories remain without any agreement or protection (the agreement covers only about 1,500). For many of South Asia’s 40 million garment workers, life remains a constant struggle as they grapple with low wages, physical or sexual harassment and union disruption.
Accidents haven’t completely disappeared. Last week, a fire at a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan, killed four firefighters and injured nearly a dozen others.
What is life like for the Rana Plaza survivors now?
A recent ActionAid survey of tragedy survivors found that more than half of them were unemployed, and that health was the main reason they lost their jobs. More than a third returned to work in garment factories.
A third also said they were still traumatized and had mental health issues. Most of the garment workers in the Rana Plaza complex are women. The complex has not been rebuilt.
In a Zoom interview in March, collapse survivor Noor Banu explained in tears that the incident had changed her life in the worst possible way.
She was wearing an orange sari with dark shadows under her eyes as she spoke at the offices of the local union Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation. She said injuries from the accident made it difficult for her to sit or walk normally, and with three children to support, she was relying on handouts.
Shadida Begum said she was desperate to miss out on earning opportunities and felt unlucky to be alive.
Shiuly Khanom, who worked on the eighth floor of Rana Plaza for nine years until the morning of the collapse, which broke her forehead and spinal cord, cried and said she had only received about $50 in government compensation. She is a widow with three young daughters.
“Even now, I can’t sleep,” she said. “I use sleeping pills, but they’re not enough to get rid of the ghosts of the past or all my fears of the future. My life will never be better.”