The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is one of the worst man-made disasters of our time. The now historic building was reported to have fallen down like a pack of cards on the 24th of April 2013, trapping many garment workers, labouring against their better judgment inside.
When incompetence and corruption mixed with the failure to listen to people, it resulted in an industrial disaster. Some call it the death of 1,000 dreams. The collapse tallied a body count of 1,138 innocent people and 2,500 more severely injured. Many of the survivors lost limbs and thus their livelihoods. Events such as these create a huge knock-on effect. In the wake of the tragedy, many family’s lives were to change forever, and circumstantially ours would too.
We all joke about overly attentive health and safety regulations in the UK. Unfortunately, in garment factories around the world, safety standards are often an afterthought. Can you imagine being forced to work in genuinely dangerous environments?
This gross negligence is a result of cheap labour. Factory owners are likely to be shrouded with pressure from the west, pushed to meet tight deadlines or face hefty fines. Orders get placed later and later due to buyer’s indecision and suppliers are expected to stick to the same deadlines.
Hearing the reasons why workers were in the Rana Plaza during the collapse, you have to bear in mind: The garment industry is a product of our own making. Marginalised workers are failed regularly, silenced by governments and even threatened in degrees of severity.
What caused the building to collapse?
The Rana Plaza was an 8-storey building, the original plans only accounted for 6 stories, to be fit for residential and commercial purposes. The owner, Mr Sohel Rana, instead illegally added two extra floors and as we know allowed it to be used for industrial purposes. A load the structure was not ever made to withstand.
This put a huge strain on the building, being tested daily beyond its original purpose, consequentially, large cracks began to form. Understandably, very anxious about entering the building and going to work the next day, workers became very concerned and alerted the factory bosses.
Now, there have been many mornings when we have all not wanted to go to work, Monday mornings can be hard; but never have I not wanted to go to work for fear of the environment being so unsafe that I might not return home in the evening.
Unfortunately, vulnerable factory workers are unable to survive without their $7 weekly income, even worse losing their job altogether. So, when threatened with both if they didn’t return into the building, most workers felt they were given no choice and obliged.
Power cuts are extremely common in countries like Bangladesh. To counteract this problem Rana Plaza had large generators situated on the top floor. The generator automatically kicked in during a routine power outage sending vibrations through the already flimsy structure, causing the cracks to increase and the building to tremble. The workers described instinctively knowing to run for their lives, within minutes the whole building had collapsed to the ground.
The horrors that occurred after that are hard to imagine. Workers shielded by heavy machinery waiting in the dark humid rubble for days. Search teams gathered trying to help and rescue survivors from the wreckage, witnessing death and desperation. Many bodies were decomposed but could be identified by mobile phones in their pockets or staff passes, Army Captain Shahnewaz Zakaria added that “most are female garment workers”. The last person to be rescued was found two weeks after the day of the collapse. Asking the very valid question, is fast fashion becoming one of the most dangerous industries?
What happened next?
After trying to flee to India Sohel Rana was jailed in Bangladesh facing corruption, breaching building codes and murder charges. In the past, no-one has been punished for garment factories “accidents”. Thus, showing the seriousness of the Rana Plaza. There is no way this case could have been ignored. But, it has not been easy to bring the guilty to justice, some politicians, officials and factory owners have allegedly tried to hinder the investigation.
The Bangladesh Safety Accord has been extended for three more years beyond its original deadline in 2018, in order to allow the current process of safety improvements to continue. Indeed, the Accord will continue its work until the local bodies meet a set of rigorous conditions. The main purposes of this new Accord, besides maintaining the progress achieved since 2013, is to support improvements to Bangladesh’s regulations, hoping to pass responsibilities over to the government in due time.
Public apologies were made and a compensation fund was set up by brands. Many that were found to be producing in the Rana Plaza, some were unsure if they were producing there or not, which highlights the problem of undiligent opaque supply chains. The biggest contributor was Primark, as they were found out to be producing there at the time of the collapse.
This money goes to the families affected by the disaster, but before we get too comfortable, there are many brands yet to give the compensation that is owed, and the target amount needed has yet to be reached, by a long way. Leaving many survivors reliant on family members.
What can we do?
2019 marks 6 years since the collapse. It was the wake-up call that started a Revolution in the fashion industry. Fashion Revolution is a non-profit organisation that goes from strength to strength every year. Anybody can get involved and thanks to their work, awareness about a fairer fashion industry continues to grow all year round.
It sounds like a small action, but, asking questions like “who made my clothes” places responsibility on retailers to be vigilant in controlling the quality of their supply chains increasing transparency. Further, helping to humanise the global industry, rejecting out of sight out of mind mentality.
The above advances prove that things can improve when given the right attention, but these problems are not isolated to Bangladesh. More needs to be done to ensure the same safety procedures are met in other big manufacturing countries, including the UK.
Unfortunately, retailers continue to demand bargain prices afraid to price themselves out of the current market. People still love convenient, disposable fashion and the desire for cheaper clothing holds strong.
Over the years we lost the ability to see the value in our clothes, which means we have forgotten the value of the labour behind them. Realistically, the only way the industry will get better is if we all take responsibility. Consumers need to worry less about getting a bargain and understand the concept of a false economy.
The bottom line is simple, no-one should die for fashion.
A very informative podcast by the BBC World Series, helped me write this post it goes into great detail about the disaster and the years after. With sound clips and real garment workers voices, it enabled me to get a real feel for what they endured.
If you would like to listen click here to join our monthly newsletter and I’ll attach the downloadable file at the end of the month.
Love, Lottie xx