Skip to main content

10 Years Later: Lessons from the Rana Plaza Tragedy

In the sad annals of industrial accidents, few dates can match April 24, 2013, in terms of infamy. As we mark the 10-year anniversary of the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry—the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka and the loss of 1,134 lives—we recognize that the reverberations from that deadly day continue to be felt, not only in Bangladesh but throughout the world.

Looking back over the ensuing decade, the natural question to ask is: what did we learn from this? The devastating toll of deaths and injuries was a terrible price to pay, but it resulted in the industry taking a long, hard look at itself and reckoning with how to ensure that sourcing practices (which, over the preceding 20 years, had shifted from the use of owned-and-operated facilities to outsourcing as the primary model) protected the welfare of the garment worker.

The passage of time affords us a view that permits a distinction between the short-term lessons, which still endure, and the long-term ones, that, having emerged more recently, are continuing to take shape.

On the short-term side, the natural, immediate focus was on addressing physical safety. Within months of the disaster, two key entities were established: the Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (I had the privilege of serving on the Advisory Board of the latter). Between them, these two organizations did an incredible job evaluating and remediating fire, electrical, and building safety issues in thousands of factories in Bangladesh. Today, their work continues to be carried forward in-country by the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) as well as organizations like Nirapon and the Life and Building Safety initiative (LABS), and has also expanded to other countries.

Related Stories

As time passed, the focus broadened beyond just physical safety to overall worker well-being. Even before the collapse of Rana Plaza, the industry had been paying increasing attention to social compliance, and social audits were already an established tool used to evaluate, among other things, how prospective vendors treat their workforce. Such audits are not meant to address questions about building structural integrity (social auditors do not possess the engineering skills those kinds of assessments would require; hence the need for specialized initiatives like the Accord and the Alliance) but focus instead on the working environment in production facilities as a tool for accountability for socially responsible practices. This led to two significant changes in thinking that have developed in the years subsequent to the tragedy.

The first involved the industry taking a deeper look at audits themselves. Much criticism was—and continues to be—levied on the practice, calling into question its effectiveness (I have written a prior op-ed in this publication about the fundamental flaws that fuel such negative thinking about audits), and serious, professional practitioners have long been frustrated with the fact that most people do not understand that not all audits are created equal. The years following the tragedy served as a period of education for the world to get a better sense of what “good” looks like in the social audit space.

There are vast differences in degree of depth and credibility between short, simplistic checklist-driven visits conducted by a buyer’s internal staff versus rigorous, in-depth management-systems-based audits conducted by independent social auditors. Yet another gulf exists between programs that are audit-only (resulting merely in the provision of information about where a facility stands without compelling compliance with a given standard) versus programs that involve certification to a standard (which necessitate meeting or exceeding the standard and thereby require corrective action implementation as part of the process if the audit reveals any areas of noncompliance).

As part of the deeper look into audits, the disaster provided further impetus to already burgeoning efforts, focused on the audit practitioners themselves, to develop criteria for that industry. Those efforts culminated in the creation—a couple of years after the tragedy—of the Association of Professional Social Compliance Auditors (APSCA), the professional standards body for independent social compliance auditors.

That was the first of those two longer-term changes, and it continues to evolve today. The world now has an increasingly improving understanding of the critical ongoing importance (but also the limitations) of social audits, and of the value of ensuring that they are done using credible, independent, certification programs that utilize professional, accredited social compliance auditors.

The second change began in conversations following Rana Plaza, but it took a different kind of disaster —the global pandemic—to drive home the point, which has to do with how we envision supply chains. As I mentioned in a an op-ed about post-COVID supply chain practices, the prior tendency was to not think of supply chains holistically, but to treat them more like two poles in opposition of each other. The pandemic showed us the error in that thinking by making clear that supply chains only work as a whole; we learned the hard way that, as the old adage goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

This realization manifests itself most saliently in the increasing recognition that social responsibility is really a two-way street, and buyers need to be aware of, and address, their own sourcing decision-making processes, and the effects these have on their manufacturing partners, if they are truly committed to ensuring appropriate working conditions in the factories from which they source products.

Beyond the recognition that ethical sourcing demands accountability at both ends of the buyer-manufacturer relationship, there is also an increasing realization that this relationship itself doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In addition to the buyers with their sourcing associates and the factories with their workers, there are a host of other players—ranging from regulators to civil society and investors to consumers—who are involved in creating the ecosystem in which supply chains operate, and who have their own share of duties and responsibilities. These stakeholders’ actions will either foster or inhibit the ongoing implementation of the lessons learned in the wake of Rana Plaza.

With that realization comes another—that social responsibility is a journey, not a destination. We have made great progress in the past 10 years, but there is (and always will be) more work that needs doing. This, then, is the lasting legacy that terrible tragedy left the sourcing and compliance world: the realization that all of us—from the worker who first makes the garment to the consumer who ultimately buys it—are in this together, and that we all have a continuing role to play when it comes to ensuring safe and socially responsible workplace conditions for all those who toil in our supply chains. We are all accountable.

Avedis Seferian is the president & CEO at WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production).