Remembering Rana Plaza
On the morning of the 24th April 2013, thousands of people went to work in the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1,138 people did not leave the building alive and over 2,500 more left with life-changing injuries.
Workers complained for days prior of growing cracks they could see in the walls and that they felt unsafe going into work, but managers said that anyone who refused to enter would have their wages docked not only for the day but for the entire month. Just as the workers had feared, the walls of the factory collapsed that day in the worst industrial disaster in the history of the textile industry. The collapse came after two severe fires in Tazreen Factory, also in Dhaka, killed at least 112 workers, and Ali Enterprises in Pakistan, where 250 workers were killed. These successive events spotlighted a clear pattern of blatant disregard for garment workers’ lives on a global platform.
At least 29 brands were found to be produced in Rana Plaza factory, including Primark, Walmart, JCPenney, Mango, Matalan and Benetton.
In the wake of these tragic events, many companies refused to confirm that they sourced garments from Rana Plaza until labels were found in the wreckage. At least 29 brands were found to be produced in Rana Plaza factory, including Primark, Walmart, JCPenney, Mango, Matalan and Benetton. Several of these brands paid multi-million dollar settlements to the families of those affected by the disaster. However, many brands also refused to take accountability with several failing to pay up and refusing to disclose how much they actually paid to garment workers and their families.
Sohel Rana, the owner of the collapsed factory complex, has faced years of prison time on several charges of misconduct and is currently on trial for the murder of workers. However, though accountability needed to be taken, it was not the actions of one man or a handful or brands that caused this disaster. The Rana Plaza factory collapse occurred as the result of systemic neglect of workers and the prioritization of profit over the lives of the people making our clothes.
Since 2013, over 122,000 safety violations were identified in Accord factories, with over 90 percent of those remedied.
The Rana Plaza factory collapse was a turning point in the history of the garment industry. The world took notice and while garment worker rights may fall out of the social consciousness fairly regularly, the impact of the collapse lives on in the work groups founded in its aftermath, such as Remake and Fashion Revolution, do to advocate for those who are continuously overlooked as brands prioritize profits. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse and we work to honor those who died in the tragedy by working to ensure another of its kind does not happen again.
A Turning Point in the Midst of Tragedy
The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was created in response to the Rana Plaza disaster as a means of preventing further garment worker deaths. The Accord is a legally binding agreement between brands, and trade unions, UNI Global Union and IndustriALL, which seeks to end building and fire safety-related issues in Bangladeshi garment factories, in an effort to prevent further incidents like Rana Plaza and Tazreen. Unlike other health and safety initiatives, the Accord is legally binding and independent from the brands it regulates.
Over two million workers across more than 1,600 manufacturing sites are covered by the Accord
The Accord has had significant impacts on preventing further industrial disasters on an expanded scale. Since 2013, over 122,000 safety violations were identified in Accord factories, with over 90 percent of those remedied. Over two million workers across more than 1,600 manufacturing sites are covered by the Accord, again, as of 2018. The Accord has proved it saves lives.
50 percent [of garment workers] lack access to basic facilities, including regular rest breaks, safe drinking water and clean bathrooms
In August 2021, the Bangladesh Accord was renewed and renamed to The International Accord. The renamed Accord continues operations in Bangladesh, and will work to expand the successful measures to other garment-producing countries across the globe.
74 percent [of garment workers] experience verbal abuse [and] 80 percent work in tiring, painful or awkward positions
In January 2023, the garment industry saw this expansion begin as the factories in Pakistan became covered by the Accord for the first time with the Pakistan Accord. This has already proved to be a monumental moment for garment factories in Pakistan, where, according to a 2022 report by Clean Clothes Campaign, an estimated 120 garment workers have died due to unsafe conditions since the Ali Enterprise disaster and one in 10 women garment workers had noticed the presence of large cracks in their buildings. The report found that of the 585 garment workers surveyed: nearly 50 percent lack access to basic facilities, including regular rest breaks, safe drinking water and clean bathrooms, 74 percent experience verbal abuse, 80 percent work in tiring, painful or awkward positions, one in five over age 30 experience bone, joint or muscle problems, and 44 percent of women workers have experienced a workplace accident in the last year, including fainting, heat exhaustion, or suffocation.
One in five [garment workers] over age 30 experience bone, joint or muscle problems, and 44 percent of women workers have experienced a workplace accident in the last year, including fainting, heat exhaustion, or suffocation.
The expansion of the Accord is crucial to ensuring the safety of garment workers across the world.
We’re Not Done Just Yet
Along with JCPenney, Amazon and IKEA, Levi’s is a brand that is refusing to sign the International and Pakistan Accord. Levi’s insist that the health and safety mechanisms currently in place in their supply chain are sufficient to protect the wellbeing of their workers. The brand consistently falls back on the fact it was “the first multinational company to introduce a comprehensive code of conduct” back in 1991 and the fact that this code of conduct adheres to guides set out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). However, the key difference in the Accord is that it is legally binding and independent from the brand, compared to ILO guidelines which are voluntary, with Levi’s self-regulating the safety of its supply chain. Signing the Accord would bring additional measures of accountability to the brand that centers the voices of garment workers.
According to the brand’s most recent Sustainability Report, 57 percent of Levi’s Tier 1 facilities that were assessed and 55 percent of Tier 2 facilities had health and safety violations. This figure excludes possible health and safety violations in the small percentage of Tier 1 facilities that, for reasons unknown, do not seem to have been assessed by the brand. Unfortunately we’ve already seen that safety hazards like these can have a detrimental impact on workers.
The Accord’s workplace programs have successfully trained over 1,020 safety committees, included over 1.7 million participants in safety trainings, and processed over 1,800 worker complaints.
In late 2022, four Levi’s workers died at Artistic Milliners Unit 5 in Karachi, Pakistan after inhaling toxic gasses in an underground tank inside the factory where they worked. Their names were Mohammed Imran, 37; Sheeraz, 19; Ghulam Husain, 35; and Shaharyar, aged 37.
The deaths of these workers and the significant number of health and safety violations in their factories shows that numerous brand’s current health and safety practices are not working. With adequate health and safety measures in place, these workers could all still be alive today. Worker deaths are preventable and no brand can claim to care for their workers’ well being without ensuring worker safety. Voluntary and non-legally binding schemes without independent accountability is not enough and self-regulation clearly does not protect the lives of workers.
The facts on worker wellbeing in Levi’s factories contradicts the socially conscious messaging used in the brand’s advertising. One advert from 2022 opens with the production of a pair of jeans in a clean and calm environment. How different does that scene look from the current reality of the factories where people like Mohammed, Sheeraz, Ghulam and Shaharyar work? Levi’s needs to step up and sign the Accord to stop tragedies like these from happening.
Look How Far We’ve Come and Where We’re Headed
Many of the same conditions that led to the Rana Plaza tragedy still exist across most garment producing countries, including hyper-competitive pricing that encourages factories to cut corners on safety. Without the Accord, we risk the disintegration of progress made to improve factory conditions and worker wellbeing, alongside brand evasion of responsibility for addressing safety hazards in the factories where our clothes are made.
To date, the Accord’s workplace programs have successfully trained over 1,020 safety committees, included over 1.7 million participants in safety trainings, and processed over 1,800 worker complaints. The Accord’s expansion into Pakistan will have significant outcomes for garment workers and establishing safe factory conditions. Thus far, with over 40 brands and retailers currently signed on to the Pakistan Accord as of April 11, 2023, approximately 300-400 factories across Pakistan will be covered.
The Accord not only ensures worker safety and well-being for brands’ supply chain workers in covered countries, but also presents an opportunity for companies to actually live up to their often hollow ethical production claims. This in turn builds customer, worker, and supplier trust, as brands show genuine follow-through when it comes to making good on their social promises, with the added benefit of improving public image.
As we continue to build a more conscientious fashion industry, it is imperative that we speak up for those who are often overlooked: garment workers. The tragedy of the Rana Plaza collapse forced consumers and brands to acknowledge and address the mistreatment of garment workers, and their marginalization. As we commiserate for those lives lost 10 years ago, we also celebrate the hard work done and accomplished so this tragedy never happens again.