Five years ago, the most tragic incident of the fashion industry took place. On April 24th 2013 the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka collapsed, while thousands of garment workers were still inside. In total 1.134 workers died, another 2.500 people got injured. Although it was not the first fatal incident in the global fashion industry by far, it was a wakeup call. To ensure this would not happen again, governments, employers, companies and NGOs all around the world promised fundamental changes. Now, five years later, it is time to look back. How was this tragedy handled? What has changed?
Compensation and transparency
After the collapse, it was of paramount importance that the injured and the families of the dead got fair financial compensation. In total 30 million dollars was needed. Only in June 2015 this amount had been raised, more than 2 years later.
Raising money turned out to be problematic. Just a handful of brands admitted to sourcing from one of the factories in the Rana Plaza building. Moreover, companies are not obligated to share their production locations. To find evidence, volunteers had to search through all the debris to look for brand tags. This shows why transparency is so important. Only then brands can be held accountable for their sourcing practices. Only then we can be sure they will invest in factories and workers that make their clothes.
In the end the total sum of 30 million dollars was raised, but for a large part by anonymous donations.
Luckily we have seen some positive changes when it comes to transparency over the last years. Organisations and consumers are pressuring brands to reveal the factories they source from. For example by the Fashion Revolution with their campaign: Who made my clothes?And the Clean Clothes Campaign with their campaign: Follow the thread.
And not without result. Big names such as H&M, Nike, G-Star (and of course many of the brands you’ll find on Go Frank) show at least some information about their production locations. While it is a step in the right direction, it is just the start. The information can often be more elaborate and many more labels need to follow.
Safety and the Bangladesh Accord
Once you learn that it was common knowledge the building was in an unsafe state, The Rana Plaza tragedy becomes even more terrible. The day before, people reported cracks in the walls. Workers of other sectors in the same building did not have to show up for work that day as the management decided it was too dangerous. However, the workers of the various textile factories in Rana Plaza all had to go. In some cases they were even forced to.
But how could the factory building be so unsafe? Was there no inspection? The sad answer is yes. There were inspections. The factories in the building were all audited and reported as safe. This makes it painfully clear that audits don’t always work the way they are supposed to. The dates of the audits are often announced in advance, and commercial enterprises carry them out. Workers are hardly questioned well, many times there is bribery involved. Many studies have shown that audits in itself are not enough to ensure a safe workplace.
However, after the Rana Plaza collapse many new initiatives came into existence. One of them was the Bangladesh Accord, which is seen as the most successful of all. This initiative is unique as it is binding, independent and transparent. It works together with both brands, unions and workers. All inspections of factories are done by an independent third party and are openly accessible online. When factories don’t have the financial means for the needed reparations, signatory brands have to ensure sufficient funds are available and that they maintain sourcing relationships. Currently, 84 percent of the safety issues that were identified during the inspections have been addressed.
But is it enough to prevent a next Rana Plaza?
After the collapse, our eyes have been opened and transparency has grown considerably. We now have experience with a quite effective program when it comes to factory safety. But is it enough to prevent a new Rana Plaza?
Unfortunately, we are afraid it isn’t. After Rana Plaza several more severe incidents occurred in which people got injured and killed. Transparency alone, and on its current level, is not enough to prevent disasters. While the Bangladesh Accord is great, it only applies for Bengali factories in the program. To tackle the problems in the industry we need governments, factory owners and companies to be active rather than reactive. Brands need to act before problems occur, instead of being accountable for when it goes wrong. We need third party, binding initiatives that involve unions and workers not only in factories in Bangladesh, but worldwide. We certainly hope we will never see disasters such as Rana Plaza again. But if we want to see the back of them for good, current measurements won’t cut it.