Last April, we looked on with horror at images of Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh. The eight-storey building housed 5 garment factories manufacturing apparel for export. When it collapsed on April 24, 2013, thousands of garment workers were crushed or trapped by the structure. Bolts of unfurled fabric became improvised slides for those who could escape from the mountain of rubble. Family members aided the rescue or gathered together, holding photos of beloved kin and awaiting news of their fate. All in all, at least 1,134 lives were lost, and hundreds injured, making Rana Plaza the single most deadly disaster in garment manufacturing history.
National Garment Workers Federation and Rana Plaza survivors rally for compensation in Dhaka. Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Demotix.
In the immediate aftermath of Rana Plaza’s collapse, news stories from Bangladesh focused on its proximate causes. It turned out the building only had planning permission to be six storeys high, not eight, and was partly built upon a reclaimed pond. Although cracks appeared in the building the day before it collapsed, garment workers’ jobs were threatened if they did not return to work. Political corruption meant that landlords with government connections were not held to the national building code. The building owner, Mohammad Sohel Rana, was portrayed as an unscrupulous businessman with powerful ties to the ruling political party. When the building named for him collapsed, he fled. Many cheered when Rana was arrested near the Indian border and charged with criminal negligence.
In the weeks and months that followed, journalists and commentators began to focus on the secondary causes of the Rana Plaza disaster: Bangladesh’s struggle to survive in a fiercely-competitive and footloose global industry, and the dizzying demands of the ‘fast fashion’ market. Big brands like H&M and Gap do not own their own factories but instead subcontract production from suppliers in low-wage countries. Bangladesh is dependent on the garment trade for export earnings and employment for millions of its citizens. As high-street consumers have grown accustomed to cheap clothing and endless variety, suppliers in places like Bangladesh are forced to contend with rising expectations of quality and speed at lower and lower prices. These competitive pressures are exerted upon workers in the form of quickened production rhythms and excessive overtime, and – tragically – made those employed in Rana Plaza return to their sewing machines last April even after local engineers determined that the building should be closed and workers sent home.
Now, a year later, we have the distance and perspective to consider some aspects of culpability in the Rana Plaza disaster that are much more elusive: the inner workings of the global economy itself, and our repeated failures to scrutinise them. In much of the analysis of the incident in Bangladesh, the relentless downward pressure on garment prices is presented as a lamentable but inescapable reality. Bangladeshi garment workers are depicted as living in a double bind whereby the low costs that justify their employment also make their livelihoods risky and insecure.
But global capitalism is not an inexorable force, like gravity. It is instead humanly constructed through trade agreements, tariff rules, labour laws, and taxation structures, not to mention the regulations, laws, and social norms that govern and shape our shopping practices. The end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement, an international quota system that governed the trade in garments and textiles between 1974 and 2004, has created a situation in which garment producers in every corner of the world are now in direct and ruthless competition with one another. We might ask ourselves whether the disaster at Rana Plaza is the natural outcropping of a system we have created: a complex array of arms-length relationships between retailers and suppliers; working conditions hidden by both the intricacies of the global supply chain and its geographic dispersal; a regulatory regime comprised largely of voluntary compliance with ethical codes set by multinational corporations; and a lack of protections for labour organisers in low-income countries.
After years of trade liberalisation, corporate self-regulation, and a global race-to-the-bottom, we need to consider what kinds of systemic reforms are needed to improve worker safety and welfare worldwide. As many commentators have noted, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh could be an important first step, with more than 150 companies signing an agreement with trade unions to safeguard basic labour standards. What makes the Accord unique is that businesses will be legally bound to ensuring humane working conditions. This turn away from self-regulation towards legal responsibility is a welcome move, but joining the Accord still remains voluntary. North American companies have, for the most part, rejected it in favour of their own non-binding version, citing concerns over liability. Questions remain over who will pay for factory safety upgrades, which if they fall on the shoulders of local manufacturers may be just as impractical as the failed system of forced compliance with company codes of conduct.
The anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster presents an opportunity for broadening our conversation about working conditions in the global garment industry, and for challenging our assumptions about what will and will not work to improve them. Many predicted that a recent rise in the minimum wage in Bangladesh to £42 a month would create an exodus of big brands from the country, in search of cheaper production sites. This has not proven to be the case, partly because provisions in the Accord commit businesses to maintaining production in the country for at least the next five years. As we eagerly watch how the Accord is implemented, we need to think imaginatively about how to support freedom of association, collective bargaining rights, and a living wage. The question we must always return to is what our shared global economy would look like if we truly valued human lives.
For more on the series go to the Cities in Conflict main page.