The April 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, which resulted in the death of more than 1,125 people working in garment factories in the building, drew widespread attention to hazardous labour conditions in the export garment-manufacturing industry in Bangladesh. Five years later, two international agreements—the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety—signed in the aftermath of this tragedy, to monitor and inspect garment factories, have been analysed.
The building is safer, but as workers in the factory we still don’t have any security in our lives … Even if I am on my death bed, they will ask me to fi nish making two more pieces before I die…We are nothing but machines to them. —Factory worker, Ayesha Clothing (Kamat 2016)
On 24 April 2018, it will be fi ve years since the deadliest garment factory accident in history. More than 1,125 people died and 2,000 were injured when an eight-storey building, Rana Plaza, on the outskirts of the capital of Bangladesh, collapsed. The building, which was originally built as a shopping complex, was not meant to serve as a garment factory fi lled to capacity with more than 3,000 workers and their machines. Four storeys had been added to the building without proper permits or documentation. The Dhaka building safety agency, the entity authorised to issue construction permits, simply could not keep up with the explosive growth of the industry over the last few decades. Large cracks in the building had appeared the day before the disaster and, other than the garment factory, all other parts of the building were closed that day. When the garment workers pointed out the cracks to their supervisors, they were reprimanded and told to get back to work, or they would lose their jobs.
Two Unique Agreements
In the aftermath of this tragedy, Western companies and brands invested in two organisations designed to strictly monitor and inspect a portion of Bangladesh’s registered factories.1 The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is an agreement between global unions and over 180 retailers and brands from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. The accord is a legally binding agreement where all signatories agree to arbitration, or enforcement of fees can be pursued in their national legal system. Companies commit to sourcing and maintaining purchasing volumes in Bangladesh for fi ve years. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is an agreement of 28, mainly United States (US)- based retailers. It is similar to the accord in its mandate, but the agreement is not legally binding, nor are labour groups or unions a part of the alliance.
This move by Western brands has been touted as unprecedented and innovative, and it is important to understand now, fi ve years later, what has been achieved and what still needs to happen to make the industry safer. This is critical because both organisations are due to leave the country over the next few years, although there are discussions that the accord may extend its tenure for another three years.