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‘We Will Never Forget’: 10 Years After Rana Plaza, Are Garment Workers Any Safer?

The first thing you notice about Saliahe and Lipa is how painfully young they are. Sitting across from a reporter at a spartan office space in Ashulia, a suburban area near the capital of Dhaka, on a sultry March afternoon, they can barely be heard above the cacophonous din of traffic as they reveal their ages: 27 and 28, respectively.

When Rana Plaza, the eight-story, five-factory building where they had toiled as sewing operators, imploded into a pile of rubble—with them in it—on the morning of April 24, 2013, in neighboring Savar, they were only 17 and 18. Both remember standing outside the building with a crowd of fellow garment workers in the early hours of that fateful day, pointing to the visible cracks that rippled through the foundation. Both remember their bosses shouting at them to return to work, threatening the loss of a month’s or more wages if they didn’t.

“We wouldn’t be able to feed our families, so we went,” Saliahe, who fiddled with her blue headscarf, said through a translator. “Are you an engineer? Don’t worry about the building,” Lipa recalled her manager barking at her. She wiped her eyes with her headscarf, a brilliant yellow. She had been seven months pregnant.

Sometime after 8:30 a.m., the power cut off. Ten minutes later, four diesel generators rumbled online, one after the other. The building shook with every reverberation. As she stood at her station at Ether Tex on the sixth floor, Saliahe wondered if someone was bombing the building. A pillar fell on top of her, pinning her down, though it also likely saved her from being crushed by other debris. She cried out to Allah for her life.

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Lipa, at New Bottom Style on the eighth floor, was in her manager’s office negotiating maternity leave. When everything came crashing around her, she tried to slide under his desk. As she did so, she was caught by a falling beam, which smashed into her backbone. Her vision went dark as she felt blood—too much of it. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she knew that her baby was already gone.

Saliahe and Lipa are considered among the lucky ones. They survived. More than 1,130 of their colleagues did not. Though workplace deaths were commonplace before, the collapse of Rana Plaza was a singular event, one that has become a rallying cry for reform. Ten years later after the fashion industry’s worst industrial accident, the question looms large: Are working conditions for garment workers any safer?

For Bangladesh’s export-oriented sector, the answer is an almost unqualified yes. The world’s outrage forced brands to act. Over the next month, predominantly European nameplates like H&M Group and Zara owner Inditex rushed to create the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement, devised with the aid of labor organizations, that would hold them accountable for the inspection and remediation of fire, electrical and structural hazards. Gap Inc., Walmart and other mostly North American companies formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety to operate on a parallel, though less punitive and some argued less transparent, track. One thing both factions agreed on was that Rana Plaza—or something like it—could not happen again. Certainly not in Bangladesh, where 4.4 million workers made it the world’s second-largest exporter of clothing after China. The Accord brought together 200 signatories producing in 1,600 factories, while the Alliance ended up with 28 brands manufacturing in 700 facilities. A flurry of activity ensued: Electrical circuits were rewired, fire extinguishers placed, sprinklers installed and foundations fortified.

Despite their initial friction, the two groups reached a detente of sorts. There were a number of overlapping factories, for instance. Ultimately, they reached an agreement of their own—to avoid duplication and accept each other’s inspection reports.

“On a practical level, there’s been a fair amount of practical cooperation,” said Joris Oldenziel, executive director of the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which succeeded the Bangladesh Accord in 2021 with the goal of bringing similar pacts to other countries, beginning with Pakistan. “But of course, ideologically, there are fundamental differences between the two initiatives.”

What’s perhaps less known is that worker organizations were trying to raise support for a proto-Accord, known as the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, as early as 2005, not long after a boiler explosion leveled Spectrum, another Savar-based garment factory, causing the deaths of more than 70 workers. The agreement was brought up again in 2011 after That’s It Sportswear went up in flames outside Dhaka, killing nearly 30 workers and injuring 100. And again after an inferno at Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia killed 117 workers and injured 200. Many of the same names appeared over and over again, including C&A, Gap, H&M, JCPenney and Walmart. Ultimately, however, only Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp. and German retailer Tchibo would sign a Memorandum of Understanding, preventing the scheme from moving forward. The two companies would later sign the Bangladesh and International Accords.

“To me, the Accord, on the one hand, is a victory but on the other hand, also a failure because why did this have to take us so long?” said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of trade unions and labor organizations. “And why didn’t we manage to get this signed before the Rana Plaza collapse? If that would have happened, it could have been so different for so many people.”

A quietly bustling air-conditioned office, eleven floors above the din of downtown Dhaka, offers Roger Hubert an interesting vantage point, both literally and figuratively. Hubert was an H&M executive who served as a board member of the Bangladesh Accord. When the Accord left the country to make way for the tripartite RMG Sustainability Council, or RSC, he joined the board there, too. The organization would later recall him from retirement in his native Switzerland to serve as the RSC’s managing director. When he spoke to a reporter in March, he was, once more, on the cusp of retirement, ready to be succeeded by Abdul Haque.

The Accord, Hubert said, was “pretty much a crisis response.” But the problem with making it a two-way agreement between trade unions and brands was that employers felt left out of the conversation. He understood their consternation. “They felt like it’s a colonial approach, right? The foreigners are telling us what to do,” he said. The RSC emerged as a sort of compromise, taking over the staff and operations of the Accord, including the workers’ complaints mechanism, while allowing manufacturers to have a say in decisions.

“We made sure that there is no two parties overruling another one and that there is no change possible without everybody agreeing,” Hubert said.

While there was some uncertainty and plenty of back and forth—it took half a year to hammer out the formal strictures—“people understood very quickly that this [was] something special and they [could] continue to do good work for the industry under the umbrella of a national organization but under a structure that is internationally supported [with] contributions from international partners,” he said. And he has absolute certainty that the goals of all stakeholders are, in the end, the same.

“Whether you’re a trade union, whether you’re industry or whether you’re a brand, you want to have safe factories, you want to have workers that are decently paid, that have the right to complain, have the right to organize [and] collectively bargain [and] you want products that are in good quality [and] come at the right time,” Hubert said.

The most used word back when Rana Plaza fell was “remediation,” he added. Now it’s “enforcement” because “it has been understood that without enforcement, you cannot really make the change in an acceptable time.”

Oldenziel agrees that the RSC is “carrying forth the work of the Accord,” which is now headquartered in Amsterdam. There was, on the one hand, the desire to hand the reins to a national monitoring body. But on the other, there was a recognition that local authorities didn’t have the capacity to take on the work by themselves. Since 2013, the Accord and RSC have conducted 56,000 fire, electrical, and building safety inspections at more than 2,400 factories and resolved 140,000 safety issues.

The Alliance, which evolved into an organization called Nirapon, was similarly asked to leave Bangladesh. It’s down to two full-time employees. They’re now, for the most part, based in the United States, though they travel to Bangladesh regularly to oversee the work of on-the-ground partners, such as BRAC and Elevate, who provide them with engineering, safety and training updates.

“We’re very much focused on education because we believe if you keep enforcing things—we’ve all seen Covid—eventually people just walk away from it,” said Paul Rigby, CEO at Nirapon. Of its current mandate, Rigby said that Nirapon “just deals with the people. We deal with the people who work in the factory and enable them to interact in the factory in a safe way.” Its number has grown from the Alliance’s 28 to 58, and it works with the RSC on capacity building.

“The tragic events of Rana Plaza over a decade ago will forever be in our thoughts, and Walmart remains committed to sourcing from factories that maintain safe working environments for the people that produce the products we sell,” a spokesperson for Walmart said. “Our core values of respect for the individual and for human rights demand it. In Bangladesh, much progress has been made over the last 10 years to create and sustain a culture of workplace safety starting with the work of the Alliance and continuing with Nirapon, both of which Walmart was a founding member.”

What caused the demise of Rana Plaza isn’t up for debate. For one thing, the building was constructed on top of a filled-in swamp, meaning it didn’t have to best structural integrity to begin with. It was also meant to be six stories tall, and the additional two were never cleared. Shoddy construction that was never meant for industrial use, weighed down by heavy, often vibrating machinery, sealed its fate, a committee appointed by the Bangladeshi government concluded.

Who is to blame is less easily answered. Was it Sohel Rana, the building’s politically influential owner, who was arrested but then recently granted bail? Was it the social auditors who didn’t clock that anything was wrong? Was it the factory employers who ignored their workers’ concerns and herded them back into danger? What about the government, for its lack of oversight? Or brands for their failure to conduct proper due diligence?

One thing Michael Bride, senior vice president of corporate sustainability at PVH Corp., knows is the relationship between suppliers, buyers and unions has changed “substantially” in the decade since, particularly in the context of the Accord.

“I think that buyers and suppliers have a more collaborative relationship and even between suppliers and unions relations have improved somewhat as evidenced by the call from Bangladesh unions at around the onset of Covid for brands to pay their suppliers,” he said. “I am not sure whether pre-Accord, we would have seen unions advocating for suppliers in the country. Essentially, even though different parties may hold differing views on a variety of issues, no one is questioning the underlying position of all that the sector has to remain stable and that workers have to be safe. This understanding was built in large part through having to work collaboratively through the Accord.”

Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said that Rana Plaza was a “very expensive lesson,” not just for the trade group but for the country as a whole. He said that the industry has “tried to take the lesson in full” and that Bangladesh’s garment factories are now the “safest in the world.” Now, Hassan wants all of the country’s manufacturers to join the RSC.

Kapona Akter, ​​founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, agreed that there has been a “phenomenal difference” in terms of safety in the nation. But other aspects of worker well-being lag, including freedom of association, wages, gender-based violence and social protections. These aren’t separate issues, either. If workers had been able to refuse to enter Rana Plaza because they were making more than survival wages, they wouldn’t have had to “surrender themselves to death,” she told a group of journalists on a joint Zoom call. The pandemic threw into further relief the economic precarity most garment employees face. Bangladesh’s minimum wage for the sector has remained unchanged at 8,000 taka ($74.40) since 2018.

Akter was in the United States campaigning for the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement at the time. As the number of the dead went up, “like a cricket match,” she changed her ticket so she could fly home. For the next two weeks, she was at the site every day. As she watched the bodies being carried away, she felt the “gravity of the pain” from the families waiting for some sign of their loved ones. “The air was thick with the smell and with the pain that everybody can feel,” she said. “You just cannot stop crying.”

The past 10 years have been instructive for Christina Hajagos-Clausen, director, textile and garment industry, at IndustriALL Global Union, the union federation that helped orchestrate the original Accord in 2013.

“I think my biggest learning would be that if there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said. “So when everyone says, ‘Oh, we can’t do living wages, or, ‘It’s too hard to link our purchasing practices to living wages,’ for me, that’s like the biggest frustration. There doesn’t have to be a tragedy. You can be proactive.”

Hajagos-Clausen is hopeful about the fomenting due-diligence legislation in the European Union and elsewhere that “now pushes brands to have to do this because it’s mandatory.” Bangladesh may be safer but garment factory accidents are still commonplace in countries like Brazil, India, Morocco and Egypt. Unlike Pakistan, they shouldn’t have to wait another decade for an Accord of their own.

In the next 10 years, she’d like to see stronger remediation around health and safety for garment workers worldwide. If she had her druthers, sectoral bargaining with greater worker agency, as well as living wages, would also become realities.

“I would like to see stronger systems of social protection,” Hajagos-Clausen said. “We know that there’s a lot of continued uncertainty in the supply chain, and without a strong safety net, we’ll continue to see what happened [to workers] during the pandemic. And brands can really help fund that development [through where they choose to source].”

Not a day goes by when Saliahe and Lipa don’t think about Rana Plaza. The wounds are as much psychological as they are physical, Saliahe said. Their backs still hurt and neither can stay in a seated position for very long without feeling pain. Neither is currently employed. Garment work is unforgiving in its hours and pace and there’s a stigma against hiring Rana Plaza survivors anyway. What little aid there was is long gone. Dependent on their husbands’ meager incomes—Saliahe’s is a bus helper while Lipa’s drives a rickshaw—daily life is a struggle, particularly as inflation continues to soar.

“Dead people get money,” said Lipa. “Injured people get money. Less injured people don’t get any support.”

More than 54 percent of Rana Plaza survivors are unemployed, with physical health cited as a leading reason, according to a study published this month by ActionAid Bangladesh. More than one-third of 200 respondents (36.8 percent), the majority of them women, said they suffer from back pain, while one-quarter (24.6 percent) reported struggling with headaches. Nearly 47 percent of them have monthly family incomes below 15,000 taka ($141.59), insufficient to cover many expenses.

“For the workers who have lost their working capabilities or [are facing] physical and mental traumas, repeatedly, we are raising these demands for the rehabilitation of those workers,” Rashadul Alam Raju, general secretary of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation, said through a translator at a call for journalists over Zoom. “And maybe they have got some money as compensation, but they have spent [the] whole amount of money for the medical treatment. What they will do now and how will they and their family members survive now? Government has no such initiative in Bangladesh so far for the rehabilitation of the workers or their family members.”

Raju would also like to learn more about the government’s plans to remediate factories not covered by the Accord, Nirapon or the RSC. According to Mapped in Bangladesh, there are more than 3,750 garment factories in the country. Earlier this month, the Center for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank, published a brief pointing out that a “decrease in inspections, lower remediation progress and underreporting of accidents” are still “key concerns” for the Ministry of Labour and Employment’s Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments.

Today, the site of Rana Plaza is an empty lot overgrown with weeds. Very little distinguishes it beyond a dusty concrete monument featuring two fists gripping a hammer and a sickle, a red flag hanging limply above them. On a day in March, a pair of moldering bouquets and a single desiccated rose lay in front of it. Pressed into the ground where cars frequently park was a plaque that was installed in 2020. Below the Bengali dedication were some words in English: “Rest in peace,” they read. “Our memories are sprayed with a million tears. We will never forget.”