SAVAR UPAZILA, DHAKA, BANGLADESH.
A four-story building is designed and built to house apartments, shops, and a bank. Later, and without a permit, the building’s owner adds four more floors to house a large garment-factory employing over 3,000 people. The building’s architect, Massood Reza, correctly worried that the building could not sustain the weight nor the vibrations of industrial machinery. Due to this illegal addition the building began to crack, and on 23 April, 2013, the building was quickly closed and evacuated. But later that same day, after an inspection and meeting with a local administrative officer, the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, declared to the public and the media that the building was safe to enter and that factory workers should return to work the following day. 1
On 24 April, despite protest from employees, Rana, along with factory managers, forced workers to return to the top floors for work. Witnesses reported that when workers refused to enter the building, they were beaten with sticks and threatened with losing a month’s salary. The workers, 80% of whom were young women between 18 and 20 years of age, working shifts of 13 to 14 ½ hours and earning as little as $0.12/hr for ‘junior helpers’ to $0.24/hr for senior operators,2 had no choice; Losing a month’s salary meant no food for them or their children.
Around 8am, as workers were beginning their arduous day, the building lost power and diesel generators on the top floor kicked on. By 9am, the building was in ruins, leaving only the first floor intact, and as many as 3,122 workers, along with many children in the daycare facilities, were caught in the rubble. Witnesses reported that it looked like an earthquake had struck. One survivor, Shila Begum, said that she “felt a shock and the floor gave way. People started running in chaos and the ceiling came down. I kept protecting my head, but I got stuck between the rubble. My hand got stuck and I thought I would die. People around [me] died.”3
In a what has been criticized as a moment of national pride, Dhaka leaders rejected an offer of assistance from the UN in their search and rescue efforts. Instead, they claimed that Bangladeshi forces were well equipped to handle the situation. In reality, much of the Bangladeshi force consisted of untrained and ill-equipped volunteers, climbing through the rubble in street clothes and sandals.4
In the end, 1,130 people lost their lives; another 2,500 were injured, but alive.
While the Rana Plaza collapse stands as the most devastating garment-factory accident in history, the global attention prompted quick responses from government agencies and textile manufacturers. Police in Bangladesh have charged the building’s owner, along with nearly 40 other individuals who certified the building as safe, with murder; to date, none have been convicted.5
Within a month of the accident, two organizations were formed by manufacturers, retailers, and government and non-government organizations. According to the organization’s website, The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord) is “an independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions designed to work towards a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready-Made Garment Industry. Our purpose is to enable a working environment in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures.”6
While the Accord is primarily composed of European and E.U. retailers and producers, another organization, The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance), was formed by U.S. and Canadian organizations:
Our vision is that the Alliance will substantially improve worker safety in the ready-made-garment (RMG) industry by upgrading factories, educating workers and management, empowering workers, and building institutions that can enforce and maintain safe working conditions throughout Bangladesh.7
While these programs have made significant achievements, real progress has been painfully slow. Since the inception of the Accord and the Alliance, some reports state that 50% of safety issues identified have been fixed.8 The Guardian, on the other hand, reports that only seven out of 1,660 factories have implemented their corrective action plans (CAPs), and 57 more are on track, leaving 1,388 behind schedule.9 23 factories have refused to cooperate and have not implemented plans at all, and have been deemed ineligible to do business.10 This slow progress, or total failure to comply, leaves “78,842 garment workers in Bangladesh … in buildings without fire exits.”11
The problem is not specific to Bangladesh or even India at large: Workers in 14 Cambodian factories supplying clothes to Walmart report “threats of termination, forced overtime, and denial of sick leave.” Cambodia’s work day is set at 8 hours, just like here in the U.S., but many workers report being forced to work 10 to 14 hours a day in intense heat, “without access to breaks or drinking water, which has led to mass fainting episodes.” Other factories have been reported as firing workers without notice, withholding their due wages and benefits, and even firing workers who become pregnant.12
Democrats in the U.S. Senate have even issued a press statement blasting the slow response from the Bangladeshi government:
The Bangladeshi labor code and export processing zone laws remain out of compliance with basic International Labor Organization standards, and the laws that are in place are not effectively enforced by the Government of Bangladesh. Far too often we read reports of workers being harassed and physically attacked because of their association with a union.13
Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU, in an interview with Reuters, said that “there’s definitely more transparency, more attention to the issue of human rights … But in addressing fire safety, building safety, workers’ protection - there aren’t enough practical discussions around these issues, not enough financing. So not enough has changed.”14
(1,4,5) 2013 Savar building collapse. Wikipedia. Accessed 8/15/16. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Savar_building_collapse
(6) The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh . Accessed 8/15/16. http://www.bangladeshaccord.org
(7) The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety . Accessed 8/15/16. http://www.bangladeshworkersafety.org
(2) “Factory Collapse in Bangladesh.” Global Labour Rights. Accessed 8/15/16. http://www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/factory-collapse-in-bangladesh
(9,11,12) Kasperkevic, Jana. “Rana Plaza collapse: workplace dangers persist three years later, report finds.” The Guardian, May 31, 2016. Accessed 8/15/16. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/may/31/rana-plaza-bangladesh-collapse-fashion-working-conditions
(3) Rana Plaza. Clean Clothes Campaign. Accessed 8/15/16. https://cleanclothes.org/safety/ranaplaza
(15) Talaga, Tanya. “A Year After Rana Plaza Collapse, Consumers Demand More Accountability.” The Star. April 21, 2014. Accessed 8/16/15. https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/04/21/a_year_after_rana_plaza_collapse_consumers_demand_more_accountability.html
(8,10,13,14) Zarroli, Jim. “3 Years Later, Bangladeshi Survivors Remember the Collapse of Rana Plaza.” NPR, April 24, 2016. Accessed 8/15/16. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/04/24/475499651/3-years-later-bangladeshi-survivors-remember-the-collapse-of-rana-plaza