Two years ago, on the morning of April 24th 2013, garment workers at Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh, were afraid to enter the eight-story building that housed five factories. Cracks had appeared in supporting pillars the day before and the workers had been sent home. Bank and retail stores on the ground floor did not open that day.
Industrial inspectors had urged the owner of the building to keep it closed. But its well-connected landlord, Sohel Rana, got another local official to say he could inform the factory owners that the building was safe. Supervisors standing at the entrance to the building threatened workers with the loss of their month’s overtime pay (as much as half of their total earnings) if they stayed away. In an account reported by an Australian journalist, one worker was quoted as saying, “The bosses came after us with beating sticks. In the end, we were forced to go in.”
Shortly after the workday began, the building collapsed. More than 1,100 workers were killed; about 2,500 were injured.
The Rana Plaza disaster made headlines worldwide but it’s hardly unique for South Asia’s booming garment industry. In April 2005, the collapse of Spectrum sweater factory not far from Dhaka killed 64 and injured another 80. Five years later, 29 workers were killed when a factory owned by That’s It Sportswear caught fire. And then in 2012, fires at Ali Enterprises Factory in Karachi, Pakistan, and Tazreen Fashion Factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed more than 350 workers in total.
I began examining fires in Bangladesh around the time of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died when a fire broke out at the New York City factory; women and boys had died from smoke and from jumping from the ninth floor of the building near Washington Square.
Pretty soon I was crying at the computer. How many times can you read about women trapped in a fire-enveloped factory because exits are locked? How many times can you see pictures of relatives and co-workers standing outside of buildings, waiting in grief?
I had been building a spreadsheet, but I had to stop. The 2010 fire at the sportswear factory in Dhaka marked a point at which I began to crumble. Survivors of the fire reported that the building's emergency exits were closed, thus trapping the workers on the ninth floor. In desperation to escape the smoke and heat, workers jumped out of the windows and fell to their deaths. Twenty-nine souls perished that day. There was a terrible symmetry between the fire in Dhaka and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire nearly a century before.
I told my friends at the International Labor Rights Forum about the methods I was using, and they took up the work. A report, Deadly Secrets, resulted; Bjorn Claeson wrote it and Liana Foxvog tended to the data with great aplomb.
While there are some singular features of Bangladesh that heavily contribute to the appalling rate of accidents there, the larger context of the global rag trade is inescapable. Apparel production is, as the economists say, a “footloose” industry. The required capital investment is small in comparison to other manufacturing industries and relative to the number of workers engaged. There are many tens of thousands of apparel factories around the world, and they are competing for contracts among a relatively small number of Western brands and retailers—none of which actually own factories. Contracts tend to be for short periods and limited production runs. Immense churning in supply chains is one of the realities of the business.
In the meantime, the informalization of apparel norms has made the ubiquity of cheap, ever-changing fashion (“fast fashion”) a larger fraction of the market. Even so, relatively stable items—say, men’s dress shirts—have been outsourced to the lowest bidders in Asia.
So the global context is ruthless competition among factories and ruthless scanning by sourcing agents for least-cost production sites. The dominance of big buyers (brands and retailers) over little producers (factories in poor countries, even if they have thousands of employees) leaves little room for already callous owners to invest in safety equipment, training, or building improvement.
And to the toxic mix, add chronic corruption. The Rana Plaza building was built on wetlands; four technically unauthorized stories were added onto the original four-story building permit. It was designed as an office building—and the structural stresses of industrial use, including rooftop generators, were not in the original plans. The owner was an official in the Youth wing of the ruling government party, the Awami League; a significant proportion of Bangladeshi parliamentarians own garment factories.
After the disaster, what appears to be a truly precedential agreement—the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety—was hammered out among Bangladesh unions, local NGOs, Western NGOs, and a group of leading European fashion-brand firms (now totaling 190). Only a handful of North American firms joined. Gap and Walmart prominently stayed out, rejecting the mandatory standards and adjudication aspects.
The accord requires worker voice at the factory level, and is governed by a management committee with union representation. It give workers the right to refuse to enter places they believe are dangerous and the rights of redress, including the right to take participating companies to court in their home countries if they are in breach of the agreement.
A more voluntaristic, American-led “Alliance” was formed by Gap and Walmart. Nearly two years later, questions abound: What is working and what is not? Can a mandatory accord that aims to empower workers and compel the big brands to live up to their codes of conduct succeed in a state that is weak and often corrupt? Does it really encourage worker self-defense in a political and economic environment unfriendly to their interests? Alternatively, can a coterie of firms that have not signed a contract with workers improve safety as well?
Today marks the second anniversary of the disaster. Other human issues are pressing. The families of the slain and injured workers have lost vital parts of their livelihoods. Some of the largest firms have yet to contribute to a fund to compensate them. The International Labor Rights Forum has organized a delegation to press for action, to learn about the accord, and to witness this moment.
Editor’s Note: Robert Ross’s full report on conditions in the Bangladesh garment industry will be published in our summer issue. He is research professor of sociology, Clark University, and author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.