Five years after Rana Plaza, Bangladeshi garment workers are fighting for justice and dignity at work

The Rana Plaza collapse claimed over a thousand lives - and showed management contempt for the safety of workers. Marienna Pope-Weidemann reports on the struggle for better conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh.

April 24, 2018 · 6 min read

The family of Rosina Akter.

Five years ago today, Rosina Atker arrived to work as usual with her mother and sister at 8am, but she would never go home. Rosina was a garment worker in the Rana Plaza building. She was four months pregnant at the time. When they arrived at work, her sister asked the manager if they could go home; the building seemed unsafe, everyone could see the cracks in the walls, but they were told “not to worry and to keep working.”

In fact, local authorities had recommended the previous day that all factory operations be suspended. Bank and shop employees on the lower floors had been told to stay home. But the garment workers were forced to remain under threat of dismissal. Just a few hours later, the building would collapse, trapping hundreds of workers inside.

It took rescuers five days to find Rosina’s lifeless body amidst the rubble.

She was one of over 1,100 people killed in the Rana Plaza collapse.

The Rana Plaza disaster unveiled to the world the true cost of the fashion industry’s contempt for workers’ rights. Soon, it emerged that the collapse had been preventable; that the weight of the machines and staff was more than six times what the building was meant to bear. The danger had been wilfully ignored, not just by the factory bosses but by the fashion brands who audited the building.

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A wave of outrage encircled the globe. More than a million people marched, protested and signed petitions. War on Want worked with union partners on the ground to push for compensation for the families of those injured and killed in the Rana Plaza collapse and to mobilise people here in the UK. Under enormous public pressure, over 150 major brands and retailers joined a union-led initiative called the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

The Bangladesh Accord was a ground breaking tripartite agreement between government, corporations and workers. It was the first time that the brands and retailers making billions on the backs of garment workers agreed to deal with them collectively.

By February 2014 the Accord covered 1,600 factories. These were now legally bound to independent and transparent inspections, financing mandatory repairs and the right of workers to refuse unsafe work, access a union and take collective action when safety standards weren’t met. Each point in the Accord represented a historic turn away from the industry’s abysmal record of impotent voluntary agreements and secretive self-assessment.

Garment workers in Bangladesh discussing labour rights. Abiramy Jegatheeswaran.

The sight of their clothes strewn over a broken concrete graveyard wasn’t enough to convince everyone. Some brands, first amongst them GAP and Asda’s parent company Walmart, refused to join. Instead they promoted their own rival initiative: a plan based on the old voluntary approach, focusing on corporate responsibility instead of workers’ rights: the system that had failed Rosina, her unborn child and the 3,600 others killed or injured when Rana Plaza collapsed. They weren’t alone: the UK government led the EU nations opposed to a binding treaty.

In January of this year, unions representing Bangladeshi garment workers reached a $2.3m settlement with an anonymised multinational fashion brand over delays to fixing safety hazards in its factories. Five years after the Accord was introduced, it has shown its worth and the union has proven it’s possible to translate the Accord into action that saves lives.

Still, it took a two year fight for them to win that settlement. This also reflects an important truth: agreements will never be enough, without the workers’ right to organise and fight with them to defend their lives and livelihoods.

That goal remains a long way off. In Bangladesh, the Accord has made factories safer but the right to form and join unions or go on strike is still met with brutal suppression. Last year, thousands of workers took to the streets to demand their pay be doubled to bring them a closer to a living wage. They were met with arrests and prosecutions, with thousands of workers blacklisted by the industry. Wages in the Bangladeshi garment industry remain too low to cover basic costs and overtime is still routinely forced on workers who still have no right to a union.

Workers on the ground have responded innovatively to the challenge. Where the right to form a union is denied, the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) workplace committees introduced by the Bangladesh Accord have been used as an entry point for workers to start organising and a basis for trade union formation.

In Sri Lanka, for example, where we work in partnership with the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union (FTZGSEU), government and corporations have held back the formation of OHS committees but garment workers have moved ahead with ‘shadow committees’. We support these informal groupings, which engage in training on the factory floor, not just on OHS but on labour rights and the right to form a union. And recognised or not, unions are beginning to emerge.

With fashion brands making billions in profit every year, the idea that respect for basic labour and human rights should be optional is a disgrace. The Accord was an important step away from that and January’s settlement shows that it can be used to make companies pay for endangering their workers’ lives. But when it comes to putting people before profit, whether in health and safety or in a fair day’s pay, they will always strive to protect their bottom line.

That’s why the Accord alone won’t protect workers. It is worth as much as the worker on the factory floor who holds it and has the right to organise for dignity and justice.

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