Rana Plaza: ten years later, has the fashion industry learned its lesson?
It is the worst disaster the fashion industry has ever known. On April 24, 2013, the world witnessed images of a collapsed building on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital. The collapse took the lives of 1,138 textile workers, 80% of whom were women, and injured more than 2,500 others. Among the ruins and the bodies, the labels of major Western brands were found, from Prada, Versace to Primark and Walmart through Zara, H&M, C&A and Mango. A massacre which, according to brands and representatives of the sector, was supposed to lead the fashion industry to question the working conditions of its workers. But what is really the case ten years later?
Rana Plaza was named after its owner, Sohel Rana, a member of the young guard of the Awami League, which has been in power since 2009. The site was built in 2006 in the north-eastern part of Dhaka. It was designed to house offices. However, from banks, shops and housing, in the end several garment factories took over the upper floors of the building, with up to 5,000 workers.
The prefecture's security services soon became concerned about the building structure, whose top four floors were built without a permit, thanks to political support. As the vibrations from the textile machines began to cause the walls to crack, the shops and bank left the premises.
The day before the tragedy, an engineer dispatched to the site ordered the evacuation. Outside the building, Sohel Rana explained, in front of journalists documenting the damage, that it was limited to the plasterwork.
Sohel Rana's trial shows that the owner called on thugs to force the textile workers back to work on the day of the tragedy. A generator in the upper floors was switched on, which caused too many vibrations and led to the death or injury of many. It took thousands of volunteers and several weeks to dig through the rubble. Not all of the missing have been found.
States, brands and NGOs reacted
From Washington to Brussels, there were many reactions as soon as the disaster was announced. The then British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stressed the weight that comes with a consumer's choice of clothing brand.
In the United States, the Obama administration put pressure on the Bangladeshi government, even going so far as to include a provision in the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 that would remove Bangladeshi customs benefits if worker safety was not improved. EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht issued similar threats against the country that was, and remains, the third largest supplier of clothing to the US, and the second largest supplier to the EU.
Devastated", "shocked", "concerned", "saddened"... Faced with the accusations from NGOs, but also from consumers via social networks, the brands for their part quickly published statements, often very similar. H&M, Inditex, Gap Inc, Primark, Benetton, VF Corp, PVH Corp, C&A, Esprit, Marks & Spencer and many others issued messages stating their commitment to work to improve worker safety conditions. However, many companies, such as Walmart, Benetton and Mango, also blamed their suppliers, claiming that they were not aware of local production conditions or that production was taking place at that site.
This strategy was quickly attacked by the NGO community. "Workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh have been working in inhumane conditions for years, and this has been ignored by the brands that have used these factories for their cheap products" said Ineke Zeldenrust, co-founder of Clean Clothes Campaign, a few days later. "These brands have the power to change this, but they have continued to seek ever lower prices, leaving workers in dangerous and unacceptable conditions."
A "national tradegy" for Bangladesh
"For us, it was above all a real national tragedy, which made everyone realise that things had to change," recalls Shafiul Islam, then president of the BGMEA, the Bangladeshi textile and clothing federation. A year after the tragedy, some 200 textile workshops were closed in Bangladesh for safety reasons, in a country where 80% of exports are generated by textiles and clothing.
About 200 brands had once sourced from Rana Plaza, according to the NGO Clean Clothes Campaign. These were all included in a fund to compensate the victims. It took three years, and public pressure on some of the brands, to raise the approximately $30 million needed. This pressure was exerted by NGOs, among which emerged, on the first anniversary of the tragedy, the Fashion Revolution Day, an international event that became Fashion Revolution Week, embodied by the "Who made my clothes? campaign.
"Rana Plaza was a shock but not a surprise," recalls Nayla Ajaltouni, general delegate of the collective of associations and trade unions Ethique sur l'Étiquette, who recalls that NGOs had already, before the tragedy, put the number of deaths among textile workers in Bangladesh caused by fires or factory collapses at 700. "The garment companies had always asked to be trusted, to be allowed to act (...) through simple codes of conduct and social audits. An ideological position that was overturned by the Rana Plaza."
Bangladeshi industry and brand hypocrisy
Shafiul Islam, who is now a Bangladeshi MP for Dhaka's 10th constituency, remembers that, as early as the summer of 2013, Western brands were showing contradictory behaviour. They were communicating extensively about the improvements demanded of their Bangladeshi suppliers. At the same time, the sales representatives of these same brands continued to put pressure on order prices. They even threatened to relocate in the face of the minimum wage increases introduced in Bangladesh following the tragedy.
"Everyone in the sector recognises the major transformation work carried out by the sector over the past ten years, but as soon as we talk about money, we come back to brutal questions of competitiveness," sums up the former BGMEA president. He deplores the fact that orders are progressively going to cheaper countries with limited, or even non-existent, socio-environmental commitments.
A situation that had still not changed in 2020, according to Rubana Huq, head of the BGMEA on the eve of the health crisis. "It's gotten worse," she said, adding that brands were still avoiding their responsibilities to suppliers who were investing at their request. "Improvements cannot only be punitive, they must be proactive, which implies that the principals commit to those who make the effort."
And the health crisis has only accentuated this observation: in 2020 Bangladesh saw major textile principals cancel orders already produced, or unilaterally renegotiate the price of the order. "Almost all the brands have withdrawn the promise of future orders," Miran Ali, vice-president of the BGMEA, told us in November 2022. He nevertheless aknowledged the orders maintained by the Swedish giant H&M and the French ID Kids despite their closed shops. "This is what I call a real partnership and, as a supplier, we will always remember it."
Has the industry really evolved "for the better"?
Ten years after the tragedy, the question arises as to what positive changes have emerged from the ruins of the Rana Plaza. One of the most obvious is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which brings together 200 brands with Bangladeshi manufacturers, elected officials and trade unions to ensure a standard of safety control for production sites. A project which, notably, was already supported by NGOs before the tragedy. But before Rana Plaza, no major retailer had agreed to commit to a contract that was considered too restrictive, recalls Nayla Ajaltouni.
The agreement is an initiative mainly driven by European contractors. A similar US-dominated initiative called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was disbanded in 2018. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, on the other hand, continues to operate and has recently begun to internationalise its activities by expanding to Pakistan. However, it has not aroused the same enthusiasm as in Bangladesh: only some forty brands have signed the Pakistani agreement.
In Europe, the Rana Plaza has helped to bring about a future framework on corporate "due diligence". This approach was inspired by the "duty of care" requirements imposed on companies, previously adopted in France. In theory, such measures should in future prevent contractors from shifting responsibilities to their suppliers in the event of socio-environmental problems. On April 24, 2023, the European Parliament is due to vote on a directive that will set the framework for the future EU regulation.
For brands, the Rana Plaza incident will have made a generation of professionals and managers more aware of environmental and social issues. In 2013, brands were already communicating widely on their "green" efforts. In 2023, they are also mentioning their initiatives on a human level.
Nevertheless, many NGOs openly criticise the acceleration of "social washing" (marketing manipulation to appear more invested on the human level) from clothing brands that talk a lot but do little. "Bad practices are back, its business as usual", Nayla Ajaltouni deplores, "with, at best, superficial measures to camouflage this refusal to really change."
Fast-fashion, Shein and Uyghurs
To find out what traces Rana Plaza has left in the social conscience of the sector, we must also look at the latest developments and scandals affecting the fashion industry. In particular, the acceleration of fast-fashion, which in ten years has become the embodiment of textile over-consumption. Its logic of rapid turnover of low-cost collections means that prices continue to be driven down, at the suppliers' cost.
As was recently mentioned at an OECD summit in Paris, this quest for low prices is leading some buyers to turn to ever more lenient suppliers. They may even maintain orders in countries in crisis, such as Burma, where unionised workers have become the Military junta's prime target since the recent coup.
This logic gave birth to clothing brands like Shein, a Chinese brand which was quickly associated with the Rana Plaza disaster by the Swiss NGO Public Eye: a 2021 report explored the network of small workshops in Nancun, in the Canton district to find machines and workers housed in buildings unsuited to the textile industry, where the few emergency exits were cluttered with bags full of the brand's logo.
The good social conscience of the fashion industry is also undermined by the Uyghurs tragedy. "Forced labour" according to the UN and NGOs, "integration through work" according to Beijing. The labour of the Chinese Muslim minority is essential to cotton production in Xinjiang, a province that produces 20% of the world's cotton. And this is only the tip of the iceberg: Uyghurs are sent across China to textile factories that have been transformed into closed camps, making it difficult to trace the real extent of the exploitation of this minority in Chinese textile-clothing production.
While Washington and many Western politicians speak openly of "genocide", the fashion industry has failed to display a common front on this subject similar to that which had, more suddenly and spectacularly, caused the Rana Plaza disaster.
A stele in memory of the victims
Initially facing the death penalty for murder, Sohel Rana, owner of Rana Plaza, was in the end sentenced to three years in prison for corruption in 2017. Due to the involvement of the accused's political connections, the trial was suspended for a long time. The trial finally resumed in 2022, after a five-year interruption.
The Rana Plaza site has never been completely cleared or rebuilt. On what has become a place of remembrance for Bangladeshis, a stele has been installed in memory of the victims. "We are committed to maintaining their dignity by ensuring fair compensation and safe working conditions for garment workers," it says, in Bengali and English.
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