Due to recent initiatives, within the next decade there will be nowhere left for unethical companies or suppliers to hide
A relative holds portraits of Rana Plaza victims during an event in Dhaka in February. Protests and international action have led to positive change – but there’s still more to do. Photograph: Shafiqul Alam/ Shafiqul Alam/Demotix/Corbis
On 24 April 2013, 1,200 people died in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, in the worst single incident in the history of the apparel industry. The collapse was caused by the illegal addition of two floors on what was already likely a substandard building.
Often it takes a tragedy to deliver real change. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911, for example, transformed the US industrial landscape and resulted in a dramatic improvement in worker safety.
Did the unspeakable tragedy at Rana Plaza lead to the change we would hope? Almost one year later, many things have changed for the better:
1. Consumers are now far more aware of issues in the supply chain. Campaign organisations are playing a key role. Social media has shone a spotlight on this problem like never before.
2. More than 150 companies have signed the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh. This is a legally binding agreement between companies and unions where companies commit to independent inspections and transparent reporting, including developing strong worker-management committees in factories. Brands have committed to working with factories to fix the problems, and where necessary, contributing financially to do so. Meanwhile, 27 US brands have also set up their own non-legally binding industry-led version, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Thanks to the efforts the accord, the alliance and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, 675 factories have been inspected.
3. A number of brands operating in Rana Plaza have paid compensation to the victims, though many still haven’t.
4. The US has suspended, pending improvement in workers rights, Bangladesh’s preferred status under a trade policy known as the generalised system of preferences, affecting a range of non-garment exports. This is a powerful driver of change.
5. Membership organisations for garment workers, such as the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, which had been targeted by the Bangladesh government are now allowed to operate freely.
6. There is an understanding that a different set of skills and technical expertise is required to deal with fire, electrical and structural safety issues. Previously, there was little capacity in these areas.
7. The Bangladesh government has delivered a 77% increase in the minimum wage to $68 per month for garment workers.
8. Bangladeshi factory owners now recognise they face a threat to the “made in Bangladesh” brand if things do not change.
9. Brands are starting to shift from short-term transactions to fewer but more strategic, lengthier partnerships with manufacturers.
10. New investment models are being developed to upgrade factories in Bangladesh and beyond, making them productive, ethical and sustainable while lowering risk.
However, many challenges remain. It is still difficult for unions to negotiate collective bargaining agreements. And the auditing and monitoring industry that has failed for years is still the main tool to address labour issues in Bangladesh. Less visible issues such as overtime, unauthorised subcontracting, discrimination and harassment still exist.
So should we be optimistic? Yes: millions of low-income workers now have smartphones and access to social media. They are tweeting and posting their experiences on social platforms. Information is now flowing more freely across the industry. We are beginning to know whose clothes are made in what factories, and even the GPS co-ordinates for those factories.
Within the next decade, there will be nowhere for unethical companies or suppliers to hide. More importantly, there are now new tools and solutions emerging for those who want to see their industry change.
Source: The Guardian