Eight years after factory collapse, garment workers are at risk again, unions warn
Unions warn garment workers in Bangladesh are again at risk after measures to improve safety introduced following the deaths of more than 1,000 people in a factory building collapse. watered down.
On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory – which made clothing for brands such as Primark and Matalan – collapsed, killing 1,132 people. The disaster – one of the deadliest industrial accidents in history – sparked an international uproar and highlighted the dire working conditions of many Bangladeshi garment workers, who mainly make clothes for Western consumers.
International brands – even those whose clothes were not made locally – have come under fire for failing to master their supply chains, outsourcing manufacturing overseas to keep costs down.
Originally a five-story building designed to house offices and stores, the collapse of Rana Plaza was blamed, in part, on the three additional floors that were added to house the garment factories and, in part, vibration and the weight of their heavy equipment. .
The day before the disaster, factories closed briefly when cracks appeared in the walls, but workers were quickly ordered to return to work and the building collapsed hours later.
Three weeks after the disaster, more than 200 retail brands – including H&M and Primark – signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, widely regarded as a breakthrough in defending worker safety.
The deal introduced independent safety inspectors to factories in Bangladesh and required international brands to ensure that factory owners promptly repair any safety breaches or cease trading with them. The agreement is legally binding and enforceable by arbitration and the courts.
But just five weeks before the deal expired at the end of May, no brand signed a new deal with UNI Global and IndustriALL, the global clothing unions who drafted it for the first time.
Instead, the brands signed up for the Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), which took over the deal’s operations in Bangladesh last year.
The national body, which has 18 seats on its board of directors split evenly among manufacturers, retailers and unions, was established by the government of Bangladesh in 2019, after factory owners disputed attempts by accord members to extend his term.
Garment factory owners are a powerful lobby group in Bangladesh, making up over 10% of the country’s MPs.
âRSC is a worthy and best successor to the Accord,â said Miran Ali, director of RSC and vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Telegraph.
âThe RSC is made up of the same global unions and the same global brands, but this time we have the voice of factory owners,â Ali said, adding that progress on the deal will continue. not only but at a faster pace.
However, the unions say the RSC, which is not legally binding and has no international control, does not replace the agreement. They called on brands to sign a new agreement with global garment workers’ unions and extend the model agreement to other garment-producing countries.
In the past eight years, nearly 200 Bangladeshi factories have been blacklisted as supplier companies who signed the agreement after failing to comply with safety standards. Accord engineers have carried out more than 38,000 inspections at factories covering two million workers.
“Since 2013, there has been a lot of progress in Bangladesh, but the RSC does not have the same responsibility and enforcement mechanisms to hold brands accountable as we did under the Agreement,” said Alke Boessiger, deputy general secretary of the unions.
For brands to be held accountable for their supply chains, there must be a global agreement between the brands and the international union – in addition to the RSC, she said.
âThe job is not done,â said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign lobby group, adding that more than 900 factories still do not have a safe way out.
Yet without a legally binding agreement, brands will revert to the self-verification practices they used before 2013, which allowed disasters like Rana Plaza to happen, said Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. . Telegraph.
Online clothing giant Asos pledged to sign a new deal, subject to certain conditions, in a letter sent on April 21. So far, no other major retailer has followed suit.
If no new deals are made with the brands, the unions will withdraw from the RSC, said Ms Akter, who is also president of the Bangladesh Industrial and Garment Workers Federation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to Bangladesh’s garment export industry – the second largest in the world after China. Retailers canceled orders worth $ 3.5 billion. Total apparel exports, which account for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s annual export earnings, fell 17 percent in 2020. Despite a $ 590 million government bailout to support the sector, many of the 4.1 million of the country’s workers, 60 percent of who are women, found themselves without pay.
For the survivors of Rana Plaza, many of whom continue to struggle with physical and mental health issues resulting from the disaster, the pandemic has compounded existing hardships. Nearly 60 percent of the 200 survivors are currently unemployed, according to a survey by the charity ActionAid, and 92 percent received no government support during the pandemic.
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