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13 May 2021

Neva Nahtigal, Clean Clothes Campaign

What if mandatory human rights due diligence had existed before Rana Plaza?

The eighth anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse was a stark reminder of what can happen if workers’ rights are a matter of voluntary corporate commitments. Whereas many people remember at least 1,134 people died in the rubble of the Rana Plaza building, many other preventable tragedies in the garment industry — such as recent fatal safety incidents in Egypt and Morocco — do not even make it to their daily news digest.

While civil society efforts to ensure the continuation of the life-saving, legally enforceable Bangladesh Accord are in full swing, ASOS is the only brand that has so far publicly supported this. Others are seemingly willing to bet workers’ lives on yet another toothless voluntary mechanism. Hopefully brands will come around and sign a new binding and enforceable agreement to succeed the Bangladesh Accord when it expires at the end of May.

Thanks to its binding nature and legal enforceability, transparency, meaningful involvement of worker representatives, independent inspections and a functioning grievance mechanism, the Accord has repeatedly proven to be an outstanding positive example. It embodies human rights due diligence – done right.

The Accord offers itself as a model for policy makers to promote as they profess a commitment to introducing mandatory human rights due diligence; and the current threat to the Accord’s existence begs their attention – and action.

In the context of policy developments in the European Union and at the United Nations level, Clean Clothes Campaign issued a call for mandatory and comprehensive human rights due diligence earlier this year. Fashioning justice lays out our expectations toward policy makers in all jurisdictions, with an added focus on the EU due to the announcement of a legislative proposal in this area.

Rana Plaza survivor Khaleda Begum, 2014

In light of these developments we have been discussing how the kind of mandatory due diligence that we are advocating would have made a difference in the case of Rana Plaza. One quite plausible scenario goes like this:

Production would not have been taking place in a structurally unsound building in the first place. The Bangladesh Accord has clearly shown it is perfectly possible to detect and remedy safety issues and avoid preventable injuries and deaths.

If brands had – despite binding rules to the contrary – ignored their duty to ensure their value chains are free of preventable safety risks and that workers’ other rights are respected, effective enforcement mechanisms would have put an end to such practices.

If, somehow, a factory that had previously been demonstrably safe nevertheless developed safety hazards such as the large cracks that appeared in the walls of Rana Plaza, then brands’ purchasing practices would have stimulated and enabled factory owners to prioritise workers’ safety over fulfilling orders.

The prices brands paid for garments would have made it possible for workers to be paid living wages. These, in turn, would have enabled workers to cover their families’ basic needs and regularly put a bit of money aside, giving them the option to refuse returning to work the day after large structural cracks appeared.

In fact, in a value chain that actively fostered the right to organise, workers would probably have had a factory-level union or worker-led safety committee that could give workers a collective voice against the factory owner. There would also have been a responsive grievance mechanism for the workers and their representatives to raise safety and other concerns.

If, somehow, the factory still collapsed, then nobody would have had to risk their lives to identify the factories’ buyers by digging through rubble for labels. Instead, finding out which brands produced at Rana Plaza would have required a few clicks, as brands’ production sites (as well as other tiers in their value chains) would have been publicly available.

Instead of having to rely on global campaigning and mobilisation, grieving families and injured and traumatised survivors would have had a clear and timely pathway to justice. This would have included access to courts – with brands held liable for their due diligence failures – and effective remedy.

With meaningful human rights due diligence in place before 24 April 2013, mothers would not be mourning their children today, nor would children be growing up without their mothers because the ruthless pursuit of profits in a deathtrap factory went unchecked.

Sadly, this can never be more than a thought experiment, and we will continue to mark the tragic Rana Plaza anniversary year after year. There are good reasons to believe, however, that binding and meaningful due diligence – such as that ensured by the Bangladesh Accord and the kind of legislation we want to see – would have made a decisive difference.

With meaningful human rights due diligence in place before 24 April 2013, mothers would not be mourning their children today, nor would children be growing up without their mothers because the ruthless pursuit of profits in a deathtrap factory went unchecked.

Mere weeks before the Bangladesh Accord expires, it is past high time for the brands to sign a new binding agreement on fire and building safety. With voluntary initiatives having clearly failed to prevent serial and grave violations across companies’ value chains, it is high time for policy makers to protect people by firmly placing human rights at the heart of every business decision.

Neva Nahtigal, Clean Clothes Campaign

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