by Anna Rohwer
WHAT HAPPENED IN RANA PLAZA
On April 24, 2013, an industrial factory building called Rana Plaza collapsed on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,129 garment workers and injuring 2,500 more. The building housed five clothing factories, in addition to various other retail shops and residential apartments. The Rana Plaza building had been expanded without a permit and failed to meet safety codes. Heavy machinery had been added to top floors, placing pressure on inadequate building structures and ultimately causing the collapse. Out of eight floors, only the ground floor remained intact following the collapse. The Rana Plaza collapse is regarded as the deadliest garment factory accident to date and the most fatal accidental structural failure of the modern world. (While we’ll focus here in Rana Plaza, it’s important to realize that this was not an isolated incident. Rana Plaza received more attention than on average, but factory fatalities are commonplace in Bangladesh’s garment industry.)
At least 29 garment brands had placed recent (within the last 12 months) or current orders with the garment factories at the time of the collapse. These weren’t obscure brands but globally recognized European, American, and Canadian fashion retailers such as Walmart, J.C. Penney, and Primark—brands that most U.S. or European consumers have supported at one time or another. This means that the workers who died or were injured were directly part of these companies’ supply chains.
THE RESPONSE: AN ACCORD, AN ALLIANCE, AND A FUND
How have the companies responded? Following the collapse, two primary corporate initiatives were created: the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Though these initiatives represent a step in the right direction, it is still unclear whether they are simply a Band-Aid over the real problem in the garment industry, or whether they will serve as a catalyst for continued improvement of industry practices.
Let's take a closer look at both of these initiatives, the Accord and the Alliance:
The Accord is a legally-binding agreement sponsored by global trade unions and international NGOs that calls for independent factory inspections and requires that brands disclose their supplier factories. It legally commits brands to completing repairs when safety issues are identified. Nearly 200 apparel brands from 20 countries have signed the Rana Plaza Accord, including 16 of the 29 brands that were sourcing from Rana Plaza. There are currently 1611 factories covered under the Accord, and hundreds of factory inspections are underway.
Unlike the Accord, which is binding, the Alliance is a voluntary initiative designed and managed by 26 primarily North American garment companies, including Walmart and Gap. Though members are committed to conducting factory inspections, they are not legally bound. Three of the 29 brands that were sourcing from Rana Plaza (The Children’s Place, Walmart, and J.C. Penney) opted to join the Alliance. Members of the Alliance have not signed the Accord. Hundreds of factories are being assessed under the Accord, though there is no legal requirement to improve factories deemed unsafe.
Another response to the factory building collapse was the establishment of the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund. Governments, trade unions, NGOs, and members from the garment industry established this fund as a mechanism to provide financial support for victims and their families. The financial goal was set at $40 million, and corporate brands associated with Rana Plaza were expected to contribute to the fund. Less than half of this amount has been raised, even though the amount totals less than 0.2% of the combined annual profits of the 29 brands. Despite the shortfall, the compensation fund paid its first installments to more than 1,500 beneficiaries in August.
While a significant number of brands have responded financially, there are still a number Rana Plaza brands that have not contributed to the fund, including U.S. brands J.C. Penney, Cato Fashions, and Ascena Retail. Click here to see the list of contributors. Furthermore, a handful of brands have yet to respond at all. Some even denied that they had suppliers in the factory or blamed their suppliers for subcontracting without permission—a testament to the lack of transparency in fashion supply chains.
THIS DISASTER WAS NOT AN ISOLATED EVENT
Though labeled an “accident” by the Bangladeshi government and fashion brands sourcing from the factory, this collapse was not an isolated event; it followed numerous garment factory fires and collapses over the past decade. Between 2006 and 2009, 414 garment workers were killed in nearly 215 factory fires. Nearly 600 garment workers were injured and eight were killed between November 2012 and January 2013. Just months before the Rana Plaza collapse, a fire in the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh killed 112 garment workers and injuring 200, and in October 2013, six months after Rana Plaza, a garment factory fire killed 10 workers. Together, these tragedies point to systemic issues in the global garment industry that threaten the safety, health, and lives of garment workers around the world. One of the issues that must be considered in the ongoing dialogue is the “fast fashion” model, which is ultimately fueled by consumer demand. The more that consumers continue to demand cheap products, the more fashion retailers will continue to supply them, the more pressure that will be placed on suppliers and workers in developing countries, and the greater the chances that another tragedy like Rana Plaza will occur.