Flashback to a man-made human tragedy: a victim of Rana Plaza is carried from the building. Demotix / Bayazid Akter. All rights reserved.
On the morning of 24 April 2013 in Dhaka, the nine-storey Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing 1,137 and injuring more than 2,500 workers. The images flashed around the world and when the dust settled it became clear that this was an international and not just a Bangladeshi tragedy: 29 fashion brands sourced garments from the various factories in the faulty building. Rana Plaza was depicted in international media as a “wake-up call”, an “eye-opener”, the end of “business as usual” in the global garment supply chain—and a signal that there would be change in the way clothes are produced.
Shortly after, promising steps were taken. The government of Bangladesh amended the labour law and started hiring additional factory inspectors. The minimum wage was increased. The owner of the building was arrested and he awaits trial.
But actions didn’t stop at the national level. Only a month after Rana Plaza, the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety was agreed among international and Bangladeshi trade unions, the brands and retailers, with several NGOs as witnesses and the International Labour Organisation in the chair.
Involving unions representing workers on the shop floor as equal partners, the accord is a milestone in ensuring safer working conditions at the bottom of the supply chain. More than 1,000 factories have been inspected by the international engineering team under the accord, with more to follow. After every inspection the team develops as necessary specific, transparent remediation plans, simultaneously communicated to factory owners and unions. The international brands must financially support remediation.
The accord has achieved what years of voluntary “corporate social responsibility” measures or social-audit initiatives launched by brands have not. It has improved safety in garment factories in Bangladesh and has done so with accountability, demonstrating what can be achieved when brands and unions work together in a legally binding framework.
The accord is good for business too: In October 2014 the garment employers’ association, BGMEA, admitted that factories inspected under it had gained orders from international brands, having convinced the latter that they were safe. With improved safety, garment exports from Bangladesh have increased to $24.5 billion. The growing ready-made garments (RMG) industry employs more than 4m workers—one of the factors behind the reduction of poverty in Bangladesh and other socio-economic achievements.
Role of workers
While fires and building collapses in Bangladesh have become less likely, thanks in large part to the accord, what else needs to happen to prevent such tragedies in the future?
There is often a misconception in the West that changing working conditions in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia or Pakistan is solely dependent on enlightened consumers and the goodwill of brands who feel their pressure. Yet while consumer pressure, rather than boycotting, is important—as are instruments such as the accord—these are only part of the solution. Even more important is the role of workers in changing the conditions that need to be changed, and having influence on decisions which directly affect them.
Fast fashion, catering to accelerating changes in the tastes of mostly Western consumers, means tight deadlines. In getting clothes from the factory floor to the retail shelf, the burden ultimately falls on the workers under pressure from factory owners, they in turn being pressed by the brands to deliver orders. This can be unrealistic and lead to dangerous decisions.
The day before Rana Plaza collapsed, the structural integrity of the building had already been questioned by workers and engineers, as cracks in the wall were discovered. Workers who didn’t want to enter the building because of safety concerns were confronted by factory management with the choice of coming into work or losing their jobs. There was no collective voice for the workers to refuse entry into an unsound workplace. Not a single worker killed or injured was a member of a trade union.
Unions have the power to represent the concerns of workers, who in turn can take collective action on decisions which affect their safety. Sustainable change can’t be achieved by well-meaning consumers trying to figure out where and what to buy, nor by brands who make their goodwill to workers a selling point. Better working conditions can only be achieved when workers at the beginning of the supply chain have a bigger say in the conditions which they deem acceptably safe for work. Bottom-up, not top-down, is the way to go.
This requires solidarity. There is good news coming out of Bangladesh that workers are making use of the amended labour law and are organising to advocate more effectively for better working conditions. Trade-union registrations in the textile sector have been growing and more and more workers are becoming union members.
While representative unions offer one of the best early-warning systems to prevent catastrophes like Rana Plaza, they also help to avoid conflict, often violent, on the streets in front of Bangladesh’s garment factories, through mediating among workers, employers and police. Unions and factory management can jointly identify and address grievances before skirmishes happen outside the gates. An atmosphere of social partnership for peaceful industrial relations, which allows of dialogue and compromise, is ultimately good for workers and the RMG industry. There is only one area where no compromise is possible: that is workers’ safety and dignity.
Despite the initial successes, still fewer than 5% of workers in the industry are organised. The window of opportunity after Rana Plaza is closing and, for membership to grow, established unions in the country must prove to workers that they can represent the interests of members, supported by the international movement. At the same time, employers need to change their attitude: many factory owners in Bangladesh perceive unions as a threat to their businesses and measures are sometimes taken to block them.
Brands can also make a difference if they remind the factories from which they source of the importance of upholding international labour standards and encourage engagement with workers’ representatives. They can place more orders at factories with independent, free trade unions and withdraw them from factories in which union rights are undermined by management.
If brands truly want to contribute, such a gesture should not be voluntary. Governments in host countries could look into better ways of demanding accountability from the brands for what happens down the supply chain. The globalisation of trade has to be accompanied by a globalisation of accountability. Why for example, is it not possible to take a brand to court in Germany or the UK when workers are injured because of unsafe workplaces in a south Asian outsourcing factory?
Responsibility ultimately lies where the profit is appropriated. Workers in the producing countries have little negotiating power compared with decision-makers in the headquarters of international brands, who have immense influence over working conditions in the source countries. Unions in Bangladesh are limited to negotiating with local factory owners, who control only a small margin of the profit on a garment.
The accord shows how unions in Bangladesh can become equal partners along the international supply chain but this agreement will end in four years. Similar international agreements could be developed covering additional sectors and countries or existing agreements and conventions could be built on to incorporate the emerging issues of a complex, global supply chain.
While things have changed in Bangladesh’s RMG sector, more needs to be done. And the best starting point is where garments begin to be produced—with the workers on the factory floor.