Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of one of the worst industrial accidents in the international apparel industry. On April 24, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building, outside of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, collapsed during work hours. More than 1,100 people, most of them employees of several garment and apparel factories housed in the building, were killed. About 2,500 others were pulled from the wreckage.
The horrific scenes following the disaster brought new attention to Bangladesh’s economically essential garment industry, which supplies clothing for many western retailers, as well as its long record of deadly accidents coupled with low wages and unsafe working conditions.
Under pressure to avoid future tragedies, many of the companies that purchase apparel from Bangladeshi factories formed organizations to improve safety and working conditions at those factories.
“The safety record of Bangladeshi factories is unacceptable and requires our collective effort,” leaders of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, an umbrella group of North American apparel companies, wrote last July. “We can prevent future tragedies by consolidating and amplifying our individual efforts to bring about real and sustained progress.”
But what, if anything, has changed in the aftermath of Rana Plaza?
So far, promises of compensation for survivors of the disaster and the victims’ families have been only partially kept, according to Human Rights Watch. The non-governmental organization says a financial trust fund, chaired by the International Labour Organization, was targeted to receive $40 million from global companies that purchased products from the Rana Plaza factories. However, only $15 million has been contributed so far.
The group also says none of the 15 international retailers “whose clothing and brand labels were found in the rubble of the factory by journalists and labor activists” have donated to the fund.
The Rana Plaza survivors and families were expected to receive their first payments from the trust fund this week, but activists say the $645 per person payout is far from enough.
“One year after Rana Plaza collapsed, far too many victims and their families are at serious risk of destitution,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, said in a statement. “International garment brands should be helping the injured and the dependents of dead workers who manufactured their clothes.”
Bangladesh’s textile industry makes up 17 percent of the nation’s GDP and more than 75 percent of its total exports, most of which end up in European and North American retail shops.
Writer Jason Motlagh recently looked at the state of Bangladeshi apparel factories in the aftermath of Rana Plaza. He found many of the nation’s garment factories are indeed being upgraded. Monitoring of safety conditions has improved, and new labor laws are making it easier for workers there to organize.
“But we’d be foolish to believe that the industry has thoroughly cleaned up its act,” he added, “or that it will continue to try to as Western concern flags.”
Some industry observers believe there’s enough blame to go around for Rana Plaza and other deadly accidents at Bangladesh’s factories.
“The retailers must work together — European and American — to be transparent, to not hide behind indirect sourcing to say they didn’t know where their products were made,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League.
Many of the factory jobs in Bangladesh, like elsewhere in economically developing nations, were sent overseas decades ago by companies in the U.S. and Western Europe. Some experts wonder if most retail shoppers will allow their consciences to be troubled by a far-away tragedy.
“We’ve got American consumers who want to buy things at the cheapest price possible,” said Cindi Fukami, professor of management at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. “We’ve got the inability, with very small exceptions… to produce less expensive items here in the United States, so we go offshore.”
Growing competition and rising demand for inexpensive products also creates a moral dilemma, she said, for American companies that purchase Bangladeshi goods. “Should [those companies] outsource the production of these items made under conditions that wouldn’t be approved of in the United States, but… are perfectly legal in the situation where they are [produced]?”
Fukami notes that consumers have make a difference in the past, citing the public outcry over brutal work conditions reported at Foxconn manufacturing plant in China. And given social media and global connectivity, workers themselves can quickly access information in unprecedented ways.
“It’s a much more transparent world than it used to be,” she said. “It doesn’t take much for somebody to see what life is like in more economically developed countries and to say, why can’t we have that?”