Our Dhaka-based Bangladesh country manager, Jamil Ansar, reflects on the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. While never forgetting those who lost their lives, he asks what is the best way forward for the living? And for the garment industry as a whole?
It rained torrentially on the 24 April and had done so for three days. Nearly every street in Dhaka was water-logged.
Dhaka is a costly and busy city. According to the Economist, it is the 62nd most expensive city in the world alongside Abu Dhabi, Luxembourg, Dubai, Montreal, Montevideo and Istanbul – and we should remember that when we consider the wages that most garment workers earn.
Yet people stood back from their daily lives. Instead, they focused on a graveyard.
Thousands mourned and offered prayers in memory of 291 of the departed souls buried there, 235 women and 56 men.
The Jurain graveyard houses a quarter of those who died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse – after Bhopal, the world’s worst industrial disaster of recent times.
Four years before, on the morning of 24 April 2013, dreams of a garment factory-led path out of poverty received an appalling jolt.
The eight-storey Rana Plaza complex housing five garment factories collapsed. It killed 1,134 women and men, most of whom were crushed to death under concrete and iron as they were making clothes for nearly three dozen international brands.
Even now, the fallout continues for those who were directly affected.
Meanwhile, justice has still not been seen to be served, due to delays in the trial process.
Learning from Rana Plaza
In addition to addressing outstanding issues for the families of those who died (and for those who survived), we also need to ask what has been learnt and is still being learnt by the sector as a whole? What is the bigger picture?
Since that terrible day four years ago, we have heard Rana Plaza described as a “wake-up call”, with sectoral insiders dubbing the collapse an “eye opener” and the end of “business as usual” in the global garment supply chain. There were high hopes that it would lead to a fundamental change in the way clothes are produced and workers are treated.
And if we look through the timeline of change there is no doubt that there have been collaborative initiatives around guaranteeing safe and hazard-free working environments while enabling access to better workplace rights.
Global retailers have been put under pressure and are taking steps to better follow the ethics, rules and regulations that the international community and consumers increasingly expect of business.
Local factories supplying retailers also face higher expectations.
In June 2016, Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed told the Bangladesh Parliament that a total of 790 ready-made garment factories, including 39 export-oriented workplaces had been permanently closed.
The Minister confirmed that 42 factories were partially shut down following inspections under the supervision of the national initiative Jatiya Udyog, the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance of Bangladesh Worker Safety.
"There are 5,190 RMG factories in the country at present, and of them, 4,834 are export-oriented ones," he said.
On the eve of this year's anniversary, 23 April 2017, the Accord and the Alliance reported high levels of factory inspections, remediation, training and worker empowerment, as has been evidenced in one of ETI’s most recent blogs.
However, there remain serious issues.
"While millions of workers are significantly safer than four years ago, major life-threatening safety concerns remain outstanding in too many factories and need to be fixed urgently. These include inadequately protected fire exits, inadequate fire alarm and fire protection systems, and outstanding structural retrofitting work."
Furthermore, just concentrating on OS&H (Occupational Safety & Health) is not enough to guarantee improved workplaces for garment workers as the Accord, trade unions and increasingly leading global and local companies recognise.
Workers’ rights, the next step forward
Attention to building safety might prevent another fatal factory collapse, but much more needs to be done to address unfair labour practices around wages, working conditions and worker representation.
Last June, in Geneva, the International Labour Conference (ILC) adopted a 'special paragraph' (a designation given to countries for failing to comply with their obligations under an ILO convention) on Bangladesh on the grounds of serious concerns over anti-union activities in the country, and the state of freedom of association in Export Processing Zones.
Those concerns grew following the series of arrests of trade unionists and worker lockouts in Dhaka’s Ashulia industrial area in December 2016.
Since then, following international protests, the Minister of Labour and Employment, M Mujibul Haque Chunnu, has confirmed the right to join a trade union as a fundamental right for workers.
That needs to be fully embraced by all.
A study by BILS (Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies) and FES (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung) has shown that many workplace disputes could easily have been solved if there had been a proper mechanism of dialogue in place:
"The main reason for the dismal state of settling disputes among the conflicting interests is the lack of or poor functioning of the social dialogue mechanisms within the factories and in the sector level."
What we all need now is to establish greater synergy and a commitment to collaboration; to replace conflict with cooperation and mutual distrust with mutual interest.
A long-term sustainable solution must embrace increased communication and trust between global retailers, local factory owners and their representatives, workers and trade unions.
As Abraham Lincoln said in his first annual message to the American Congress: "Labour is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
A fairer industrial system that puts the needs of workers at the front and centre of its approach – as well as business – would ultimately be the most fitting memorial to those who died at Rana Plaza. It is one to which we should all aspire.