A terrible toll: one of the Rana Plaza victims. Demotix / Bayazid Akter. All rights reserved.Today marks the first anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Savar district, Bangladesh. Almost 1,200 workers were killed—most of them young women. It was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history. Although the workers had seen cracks appearing in the factory building, with no union behind them they were too afraid to speak up about safety concerns.
Much of the commentary marking the anniversary has tried to lay responsibility for the disaster on the world’s consumers and their demand for cheap fashion. But if anyone should take the blame it should be those who chose to ignore the fact that goods were being produced for poverty wages in extremely dangerous conditions: the UK’s high street companies and, of course, the factory employers and government ministers in Bangladesh.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) showed last year that it would add just 2p to the price of a tee-shirt to double the wages of a worker in Bangladesh. And the factories which make cheap clothes for retailers like Primark also make more expensive fashion for others, like Zara, which charge double or even treble the price.
To increase wages UK companies must make sure that living wages are paid in their supply chains. In Bangladesh unions have been negotiating with employers for months, demanding that the minimum wage of $67 (on which no worker can live) be increased to $120.
Support for victims
Companies must also provide financial support to the victims of Rana Plaza. Many, such as Matalan and Benetton, which sold garments made in the collapsed factory have still not paid into the trust fund set up by global unions and employers, workers and government in Bangladesh for the victims and their families. This is a no-fault fund to which any organisation can contribute, regardless of whether they sourced items from Rana Plaza.
The fund needs £24m and is still some £14.9m short. The TUC, Labour Behind the Label and global unions want to see every company which sources clothing from Bangladesh donate an appropriate sum to the fund. LabourStart is collecting signatures to a petition to this effect.
UK consumers can’t improve safety on their own but high street names can—by insisting the factories they work with allow workers to voice concerns through independent unions and procedures set up under the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The accord, a legally binding agreement initiated by two global unions (IndustriALL and UNI-Global), has attracted the support of 160 companies. It seeks to ensure that any factories from which they source have been properly inspected and, where standards fall short, the signatories agree to work with factory owners and the workers to make any necessary repairs.
Women workers are becoming increasingly active in unions and are bearing the brunt of this harassment.
Sceptics had assumed companies would never commit to the accord. It was a challenge for unions, NGOs like the Clean Clothes Campaign and concerned consumers to prove them wrong. The TUC campaigned to encourage UK companies to sign.
Last September a Bangladeshi union leader and I were thrown out of River Island in Bournemouth for taking part in a publicity stunt to get the company to sign—which it did a few days later, as did the majority of the UK high street, along with many other global brands. Now over 1,600 factories in Bangladesh are covered by the accord and the first inspections have taken place.
But action by companies is only one side of the story. At the start of last year unions in Bangladesh were still suffering under decades-old repressive laws where violence, and even the murder of activists, went unpunished. Unions were also effectively banned in garment factories. This left textile workers with no backing and no voice, unable to resist demands to work long shifts for the lowest wages in the world.
Last summer, Bangladesh made several amendments to its labour law, following US suspension of its trade privileges, allowing unions to become legal. The union movement in Bangladesh has since grown rapidly, with 96 new unions in the garment sector registered with the Bangladesh Department of Labour in 2013.
Problems remain however, as I discovered on a recent trip to Dhaka. Talking to trade unionists, I discovered that the new law has resulted in workers being dismissed for being union members. Meanwhile, workers in the export-processing zones—which make clothes for multinationals—still have no right to join a union.
Women workers are becoming increasingly active in unions and are bearing the brunt of this harassment. Women make up the majority of the workforce in the country’s garment industry and told me of their frustration at the few opportunities to secure promotion to senior levels in the factories. Women are also discouraged from voicing their concerns about ill-treatment at work.
Further reform of Bangladesh labour law is needed and the UK government, as a large aid donor, could play a crucial role in lobbying for this change. If unions were free to operate they would also be able to use the accord properly for the purpose it was designed—to help unions negotiate improved safety with the factory managers. Real safety improvements will only be possible with their involvement.
Workers are first to be aware of any potential safety problem in a company and are crucial in monitoring the effectiveness of any repairs. Without better workers’ rights, Bangladeshi garment suppliers risk further accidents like Rana Plaza.