Last updated: December 2015
Rana Plaza: Two Years On
It is now more than two years since the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a thousand people and injuring 2,500 – people who managers had ordered back to work despite cracks appearing in the walls.
Demonstration for compensation for Rana Plaza workers, London. Darren Johnson Photography, Flickr.
Rana Plaza is considered the most fatal garment industry accident in history. The resulting public outcry led to promises that things would change.
So have they?
The Accord and the Alliance
There are three different factory safety schemes that were created in the aftermath of the disaster. Two are industry-led ones: The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (the Accord), and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (the Alliance). There is also a government-led scheme whose remit is to cover any factories not covered by the other two, called the National Action Plan.
For any industry scheme to be convincing, it has to be substantially different from what went before, because the track record of company safety audits in Bangladesh is not impressive.
Rana Plaza had twice been audited by Primark and declared safe. Primark says that it didn’t do a structural survey because nobody did them then, but a building collapse was hardly unprecedented: in 2005 one had killed 64 workers. And this is only one of a string of audit failures that have been luridly illustrated by mass fatalities.
Aftermath of Rana Plaza collapse, International Labor Rights Forum
In 2010, a fire at the Garib & Garib sweater factory killed 21 workers, four months after H&M had audited it. H&M officially required suppliers’ factories to have adequate exits and fire-fighting equipment but this one passed the audit with neither, and two people had already died in a fire at the factory a few months earlier.
The Accord, however, is different. It is not another self-policed scheme that companies can adhere to if they feel like it. It is a legally-binding agreement between brands and trade unions, and signing it means that if safety issues are found in a company’s suppliers’ factories and are not fixed, the company can be sued.
Campaigners had spent years trying, and failing, to get brands to enter into such an agreement. Within weeks of Rana Plaza’s collapse, nearly 40 companies had signed. The number is now over 200.
Some notable clothing brands who have signed the Accord:
However, many American companies have refused to sign, most notably Walmart (ASDA) and Gap. They created the other, alternative industry scheme: the Alliance, which is not legally binding and is widely believed to be basically meaningless window dressing. It has only 26 members.
Most, although not all, of the 3,500 clothing factories in Bangladesh have been inspected under one of the three schemes over the past two years, largely by the Accord. The Accord has closed thirty-five factories altogether, and safety upgrades have begun in hundreds of others. All of the Accord’s inspection reports, with photographs, are freely available on the web – transparency is one of its central principles, which is another big break from the auditing schemes of the past.
However, progress on the upgrades has been terribly slow, and the unions are now initiating a formal complaint about several brands, including H&M, who they say are not fulfilling their obligations at a reasonable pace. The complaint is the first step towards legal arbitration, which would be quite unprecedented.
A further development is that, in June 2015, 42 people in Bangladesh were charged with murder over the Rana Plaza deaths, including the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, the owners of the five factories in the building, and 13 government officials. If convicted they could face the death penalty.
In 2014 Labour Behind the Label ran a “pay up!” campaign pressuring companies to compensate Rana Plaza’s victims’ families. The good news is that, although it took a huge struggle, the campaign was a success.
Thousands of garment workers rally on the 1 year anniversary of Rana Plaza, Solidary Centre, Flickr
The Rana Plaza Donor’s Trust Fund met its target of $30 million in June 2015:
- Primark comes out by far the best in this story. It donated a total of $8 million – $1 million to the fund and $7 million directly to victims.
- Walmart is estimated to have donated $1 million.
- Matalan initially refused to donate anything but, after being hounded by campaigners, it made a rather half-hearted donation of $100,000.
- H&M donated approximately $200,000. Unlike the three companies above it was not sourcing from Rana Plaza, but it is the biggest buyer from Bangladesh as a whole.
Rana Plaza has started to change the game in more ways than one. After the Garib & Garib fire, H&M commissioned Save the Children to assess workers’ families’ needs, and it decided to focus just on helping children and the elderly. But the Rana Plaza fund goes further and is compensating all victims’ families based on loss of income.
There is talk in campaign groups about how to take the Accord further – extending it outside Bangladesh or using the same model in other areas, such as wages.
Watch this space.