Bangladesh: Seven years on from Rana Plaza factory collapse, garment workers' lives at risk again amid COVID-19

Dhaka Savar Building Collapse

24 April 2020 marks the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed at least 1,134 people and injured over 2,000 others. The collapse of the eight-story building, which housed over five garment factories supplying global brands, remains one of the deadliest industrial accidents to date. Seven years later, unsafe working conditions and deadly incidents continue to characterise the global garment industry. In Bangladesh, significant progress made with the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety - established in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster - is under threat as it is soon to be replaced by a national RMG Sustainability Council, which labour groups have warned lacks effective safeguards to protect workers.  

The response by brands and retailers to the Coronavirus pandemic has further put the lives of garment workers in their global supply chains at risk, with Bangladesh being severely hit by order cancellations and extended payment terms. More than two million mostly women garment workers have lost their jobs or been furloughed, many without pay or severance. Thousands of workers have staged protests over unpaid wages, risking infection due to the fear of starvation. Where factories remain in operation, workers are reporting being forced to work without adequate precautions, leaving them, their families and communities at risk of infection.

Below is a selection of coverage reflecting on the disaster and looking at the current situation for garment workers in Bangladesh amid the Coronavirus pandemic. 

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28 April 2020

Bangladesh garment factories reopen, defying virus lockdown

Author: Bangkok Post

27 April 2020

...  Hundreds of Bangladesh's garment factories defied a nationwide coronavirus lockdown... [to reopen] raising fears the industry's vulnerable and largely female workforce could be exposed to the contagion...

Factories shut their doors in late March but some suppliers said they were now being pushed by retailers to fulfill outstanding export orders... MB Knit company had reopened part of a factory that makes clothing for Britain's Primark and several other retailers...

Mofazzal Hossain said he felt compelled to return to his factory, where he earns $115 a month. "The fear of coronavirus is there," he told AFP. "But I am now more worried about losing my job, wages and benefits."..

Labour rights leaders said they were fearful the return to work could spark an explosion of Covid-19 cases. "Its impact could be worse than Rana Plaza," said activist Kalpona Akter...

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28 April 2020

On 7th anniversary of Rana Plaza, MEPs call on EU Commission to introduce mandatory due diligence as COVID-19 exposes continued inequalities

Author: Lara Wolters & Agnes Jongerius, Medium

"Covid-19 shows Rana Plaza lessons have not been learnt", 24 April 2020

[A]t the time of the 7th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in which over 1,000 Bengali workers lost their lives, these [Western clothing] companies are treating Bangladesh to a cynical birthday present. Over the past weeks, as a consequence of the corona-imposed closure of retail clothing shops, big Western brands have cancelled more than 3 billion euro’s worth of orders...

The story [...] again demonstrates the flagrant power asymmetry between Western purchasers and local producers...

In order to do better, we need European legislation on “due diligence”... This [...] would improve the accountability of Western companies — including those acting abroad in three ways. We urge the European Commission to table a proposal including (but not limited to) the following.

First, the legislation as we envisage it would require firms to build buffers to mitigate and compensate for health- and social impacts... Second, if a crisis like Covid-19 struck again and a company considered canceling orders, we would want legal requirements in place requiring that adverse impacts stemming from that decision would be addressed... Third, the legislation should give local communities, or NGOs or trade unions acting on their behalf, access to the European legal system to stand up for their rights.

Covid-19 has laid bare global inequality and power asymmetries once more... We need solid due diligence legislation at EU level, that would requires businesses to take their responsibility, and in the process make global supply chains more sustainable and resilient.

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24 April 2020

Bangladesh: COVID-19 pandemic undermines ongoing worker struggles for social protection, living wages, freedom to organise & safe factories

Author: Clean Clothes Campaign

"Remembering the Rana Plaza workers by continuing the fight for workers' rights during the pandemic", 24 April 2020

...Today, we remember the workers who died in the Rana Plaza collapse... While we commemorate this crisis, workers’ lives are again at risk. The Covid-19 pandemic... is undermining the ongoing worker struggles for social protection, living wages, freedom to organise, and safe factories in Bangladesh...

[W]ith demand drying up, orders being cancelled and postponed, and millions of garment workers facing destitution, it is of paramount importance that hard fought labour protections are not rolled back...

[T]he Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, established in direct response to the Rana Plaza disaster... [is soon to] be replaced by a national RMG Sustainability Council... [yet] safeguards to ensure its effectiveness in protecting workers remain conspicuously absent...

Some buyers have since reversed their decision [to cancel orders in response to COVID-19]... However, a significant number of major buyers from Bangladesh, notably Arcadia (Topshop), Gap, Walmart, Bestseller... continue to... refuse to pay and receive their completed orders...

Some factories have... reopen[ed] despite the government-declared extended lock down, forcing workers back to work under threat of dismissal or loss of already earned wages... Workers’ health and safety should not be put at risk by prematurely opening the factories...

The workers of the Rana Plaza factories knowingly were forced to enter the unsafe building, because their managers threatened they would withhold a full month of wages. Now millions of workers again might soon have to chose between their health and safety on the one hand and livelihood on the other...

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24 April 2020

Bangladesh: Millions of garment workers continue to be threatened with job & income losses, as global brands cancel orders due to COVID-19

Author: David Schilling, Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)

“The collateral damage of Covid-19 in the Bangladesh apparel sector”, 24 April 2020

[T]he…Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh [killed]… 1,138 garment…and [injured]…2,500 injured…, expos[ing] the human rights risks of outsourcing…to factories with inadequate safeguards. 250 investors…, organized by [ICCR]…, appeal[ed] to apparel brands and retailers to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety…, help[ing] to…create safe factories through a binding agreements between global brands and trade unions.

Today…, in Bangladesh: the jobs of 4.1 million garment workers are being threatened as global brands cancel over $3 billion…due to the COVID-19…, [with] many…brands refusing to accept completed garment orders…, to pay for raw materials…already purchased by their suppliers [and]…to pay suppliers’ production costs. More than 2 million garment workers in Bangladesh have already been fired or furloughed. The situation in Bangladesh is replicated in other countries.

Companies that have committed to pay their suppliers in full…include[e]: adidas, H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Nike, PVH, Target (USA), UNIQLO and VF Corporation. More companies must step up to do the same. In the coming weeks, ICCR and KnowTheChain (KTC) will be coordinating investor letters and engagements with the 43 apparel/footwear companies ranked in the KTC’s 2018 Apparel and Footwear Benchmark Findings Report. We invite investors to join this initiative and add their voices to the call for responsible action to ameliorate the desperate situation of apparel workers…

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24 April 2020

Bangladesh: Seven years on, victims of Rana Plaza disaster remain without justice as trial has been stalled

Author: Md Sanaul Islam Tipu, Dhaka Tribune

"Seven years on, justice still eludes Rana Plaza victims", 24 April 2020

...The worst disaster ever in the Bangladeshi apparel industry left at least 1,136 people dead and more than 2,500 people injured, some of them crippled for life, at Savar, just outside capital Dhaka.

But justice continues to elude the victims as four years have gone by after a court in Dhaka formally charged 41 people with murder, including the building’s owner Sohel Rana. The prosecution is yet to begin witnesses’ depositions. 

Prosecutors said the trial has been stalled due to stay orders issued by the High Court in 2016...

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24 April 2020

Commentary: Rana Plaza factory collapse and fall out of COVID-19 for garment workers highlight the power imbalance & exploitation underlying global garment supply chains

Author: Worker Rights Consortium

“Two crises, one flawed supply chain model: How the imbalance of power in global supply chains harms worker”, 23 April 2020

… [T]he Rana Plaza factory collapse … put a spotlight on the grossly unsafe labor conditions plaguing Bangladesh’s garment sector and catalyzed fundamental reform.

… [I]nternational attention and public outrage … forced brands to agree to sign the … Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh …  [T]he  … Accord has resulted in sweeping improvements in safety conditions…

On the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, the well-being of millions of garment worker is again at grave risk … [B]rands and retailers have abruptly halted production and canceled orders across their supply chains. Many brands are refusing to pay for apparel that suppliers have already produced … leaving [suppliers] unable to recoup their costs and pay workers.

Brands and retailers’ responses to the pandemic have had a devastating impact on … millions of workers [who] have been suspended or terminated with little or no compensation … [and] risk economic destitution … Informal, home-based, and migrant workers are especially vulnerable …

… [The crises] were both made worse by a flawed supply chain model ... Brands and retailers’ market power allows them to dictate how profits are made and distributed … [resulting in] an ever-smaller share for suppliers.  This … has meant unsafe practices, poverty wages, and non-payment of benefits, including compensation due to workers when they lose their jobs.

A glaring example of the inequities … are the terms of payment between buyers and suppliers … [S]uppliers … must cover all the up-front cost of apparel production … Brands don’t pay … until weeks or months after they receive the finished goods. In effect, suppliers with a tiny fraction of the financial resources their customers possess are required to subsidize their customers’ cash flow.

Brands and retailers are now taking advantage of … [this] to protect their own bottom line at suppliers’ expense …

In response to garment union protests … a number of brands and retailers have recently … committed to pay in full for all apparel orders already in production or completed, greatly reducing harm to suppliers and workers …

… [I]t is imperative that buyers honor their obligations ... Beyond the immediate crisis, fundamental reform to address the deep inequities of the existing supply chain model are a prerequisite for the living wages, safe conditions, and basic economic security every worker deserves.

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24 April 2020

Post-Rana Plaza, fashion industry & unsafe working conditions continue to risk garment workers' lives; COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated crisis

Author: Asia Floor Wage Alliance

"Brand Take Responsibility to Build and Maintain Safe Factories: Remember the Victims on the 7th Anniversary of the Rana Plaza Tragedy & Commit to Change the Global Garment Industry", 24 April 2020

... In this time of COVID-19 pandemic... Rana Plaza is an important marker that holds many lessons... [and] punctuates a long list of egregious tragedies in the garment or fast fashion industry... [Garment] factory fire and deaths continue... because workers are not treated as human beings, but disposable bodies. The fast fashion industry, driven by brands and retailers, refrain from investing in safe factories and working conditions as it increases the production cost, unless compelled by law regulation and strict enforcement. Workers’ lives are put at risk to sustain increasing profits for fashion brands... Brands offload costs of their global supply chains to supplier firms while at the same time demanding cheap products and the ultimate burden falls on the workers, who are forced to work in conditions that neglect basic occupational and safety conditions...

The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated this crisis, where garment workers working under inhuman and poverty-level conditions have no room for adjustments and are immediately plunged into desperate illnesses, starvation and homelessness... In these dire circumstances, it is imperative that the brands that appropriate billions in profits are made accountable for safe working conditions as well as the well-being of workers... The advances made by the Accord must be pushed further in ensuring better working conditions throughout supply chains, payment of living wages and fostering unionization...

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