A garment worker protest in Dhaka in 2013, demanding a rise in pay as well as compensation for the victims and those injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building. Photo: AM Ahad/AP
Five years ago, Asma Khatun pushed through the crowds that had formed around the Rana Plaza building, determined to see the destruction with her own eyes.
Deep cracks had appeared in the eight-storey building outside Dhaka the day before. That morning, workers who had been producing clothes sourced by major international brands had begged not to be sent inside. Managers would not relent. More than 2,000 people filed in. Some time before 9am, floors began to vanish and workers started falling.
Rana Plaza took less than 90 seconds to collapse, killing 1,134 people. Unions called it a “mass industrial homicide”. Standing in the rubble, Khatun promised to quit her job in a nearby garment factory. “Even if I don’t have any other work, I won’t do it.”
Revulsion over Rana Plaza forced brands and retailers to act. The full list of companies who were sourcing clothes from the building remains unclear, but had previously included Primark, Matalan and others. About 250 companies signed two initiatives, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the less constraining Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Both were designed to improve safety dramatically in 2,300 factories supplying western brands. Both complete their terms this year.
Few dispute that the Accord and Alliance worked. “I think right now, of the developing countries with a ready-made garment sector, Bangladesh is the safest,” says Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord.
Progress is less obvious for workers in at least 2,000 factories that do not supply major western brands, and are inspected either by the Bangladesh government, or not at all. Union activity across the sector remains stifled. And, analysts ask, how sustainable are the improvements? What happens when the Accord and Alliance end?
Khatun never did quit. She has worked in garments since the age of 11, one of successive generations of Bangladeshis brought out of poverty, marginally, by an industry that now employs close to five million people, earning the lowest wages of any garment workers in the world.
Yet some things have changed in the factory where she works. “The owners are careful about safety nowadays,” she says. “If we complain, they take action.”
Facing the threat of being cut off by western buyers, thousands of factory owners have invested in fire doors, sprinkler systems, electrical upgrades and stronger foundations, eliminating more than 97,000 identified safety hazards in facilities covered by the Accord alone.
Fewer factories could now be labelled “death traps”, says Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labour group. About 71 workers died each year in fire and building collapses in the years before Rana Plaza. In the years since, it is about 17 people annually, according to a report from New York University’s Stern Centre.
Brands are being held accountable. Two major multinationals agreed to pay million of dollars in December and January after global unions accused them of failing to compel suppliers to fix their factories.
In one sense, progress has been fast. “Bangladesh has made up what it took factories in the US and UK 60 years to accomplish,” says James Moriarty, executive director of the Alliance.
But both initiatives are also way behind schedule, mostly due to sheer stubbornness on the part of factory owners. “Major, life-threatening concerns remain outstanding in too many factories and need to be fixed urgently,” concluded a recent Accord update.
Workplaces covered by the Accord and Alliance are also just half the picture. More than 1,500 factories, producing for markets such as Russia and Turkey, receive inspections from the Bangladesh government alone.
Less than 15% of these have fixed even half outstanding safety issues in the past five years, according to the International Labour Organisation. “In terms of the actual progress made in these factories, it’s a black hole,” says Laura Gutierrez, from the Worker Rights Consortium.
Thousands more workers still labour in sub-contracting workshops. How many people these workshops employ, and under what conditions, is unknown.
Trade union activity, which surged in the three years after Rana Plaza, is slowing. Last year, the number of new unions registered fell to the lowest levels since before the disaster. The events of December 2016 have had a chilling effect.
Mohammad Ibrahim, a union leader who was beaten and jailed for 60 days after being accused of organising protests over pay. Photograph: Michael Safi for the Guardian
That month, as factories rushed to complete Christmas orders, thousands of workers walked off their stations, demanding their first pay rises since 2013.
A few days into the protests, Mohammad Ibrahim, a union leader, was called to a meeting by police. “Senior officials want to talk to you,” he says he was told.
At the police station, his hands were bound and he was beaten. One officer, who Ibrahim says was kinder, approached him out of the earshot of the others. “Just don’t run,” he told him.
That night, Ibrahim says he was driven to a forested area, untied and told to sprint. Bangladesh police are frequently accused of shooting suspects dead and claiming they tried to flee arrest. Ibrahim refused.
“I was in jail for 60 days,” he says. “I slept near a toilet. Other leaders were tortured in front of me.”
Bangladesh has repeatedly attracted the highest censure from the ILO for failing to protect trade unions. “Our opinion is that you cannot really have safety if the voice of the workers is not recognised,” says Tuomo Poutiainen, who oversees the Asian garments sector for the ILO.
All but two of the charges against Ibrahim were dropped last year after brands including Zara and H&M boycotted an industry conference in Dhaka, in protest at the treatment of workers and crackdown on unions. With competition growing from garment sectors in Vietnam and Ethiopia, threats by western buyers hold more sway than ever.
But factory owners complain the brands want it both ways, pressuring factory owners to invest in safety upgrades, but still relentlessly pushing for lower prices. The amount western brands pay for men’s cotton pants, for example, has fallen by an average 13% since Rana Plaza, according to research from Penn State University.
“Now the brands come and question us over minimum wages,” says Rubana Huq, whose Mohammadi Group is one of the country’s largest manufacturers. “Excuse me, where does that come from? Who’s going to pay the extra?”
Ensuring safe factories stay that way will be the next challenge. Both the Alliance and Accord are trying to work with Bangladesh in some capacity after their terms expire.
“The government is not ready at this time to take over and regulate factories at a satisfactory level,” says Wayss, the Accord chief. The Alliance director, Moriarty, agrees: “It’s still early days for the government.”
But both face resistance. A plan for the Accord to monitor factories until 2021 has been temporarily halted by the Bangladesh high court. A similar scheme by the Alliance is still the subject of fraught negotiations.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a powerful body for factory owners, wants both initiatives gone as soon as possible. “They did a lot for us,” says Siddiqur Rahman, the association’s president. “But if you want to teach me something, five years is enough time.”
Inevitably, the onus for safety in Bangladesh’s garment factories will soon return to the government. Whether it is able, or willing, to enforce the new standards will decide the real legacy of Rana Plaza.
“A fully renovated, safe factory could go back to being unsafe overnight,” says Gutierrez, the labour advocate. “It is scary to imagine that things could go back to business as usual.”
The report was originally published in The Gurdian by Mushfique Wadud