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26 Apr 2023

Bangladesh: Labour rights orgs, trade unions & workers mark 10th anniversary of Rana Plaza collapse

In April 2023, labour organisers, workers' rights groups & workers around the world marked the tenth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the deadliest disaster in garment industry history, which killed 1,138 people and injured thousands.

Coverage of the anniversary has highlighted both inadequate progress made in the garment industry on human rights, as well as significant improvements, in Bangladesh and globally, since the collapse. For example, a report from NYU STERN Center for Business and Human Rights, based on interviews with suppliers and workers in Bangladesh, found that while factory safety in Bangladesh has improved, ‘harmful’ brand purchasing practices remain, which often results in exploitative working practices, such as low wages and benefits. The buyer practices highlighted include: unreasonable price reductions; delays on delivery and withholding payments; cancelling books; relying on sourcing intermediaries who exacerbate exploitative practices. This in turn, is reported to put unfair economic pressure on factory owners, who often respond with exploitative working practices in factories, such as low wages and benefits.

Similarly, Bangladesh Transparency International reported 'exploitative practices' by some brands and buyers, alongside the failure of relevant authorities to ensure 'workers' rights-sensitive governance', as the biggest challenge to sustainability in the Bangladesh garment industry, and called on international buyers to conduct business 'with integrity'.

Furthermore, at a seminar in Bangladesh on ’10 years of achievement on Occupational Health and Safety in Bangladesh’ including labour leaders acknowledged that there has been significant progress in terms of improving workplace safety. However, concerns were raised that union rights were often ignored in the industry. For example, trade union leaders reported that recommendations made by trade unions in tripartite committees were often ignored, and that none of the top ten green and environmentally friendly garment factories in the industry had a union.

At a roundtable organised by Bangladeshi trade unions, speakers called on the government to take necessary steps to implement the labour laws properly, including strengthening safety measures in factories, a new minimum wage for workers, workers to be brought under a social safety net, the removal of all barriers to unions, and emphasis on rehabilitation for workers. The chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on Labour and Employment Ministry Mujibul Haque Chunnu, called for buyers to increase the prices of Bangladeshi products to ensure safety in factories.

At a discussion on ‘Workplace Safety and Workers’ Protection', trade union, leaders, survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse, rights activists and jurists raised concerns over 18 pending legal cases related to the Rana Plaza collapse, including four cases seeking compensation for families of deceased workers and the survivors, which have been pending with the High Court for ten years. Nine civil cases related to workers’ rights and noncompliance of worker safety have been pending with labour tribunals in Dhaka for ten years. There are also three criminal cases, two of which relate to the killing and harm caused to Rana Plaza workers, which have been pending since December 2016. Another case related to violation of the building code by the owners of Rana Plaza is pending with the chief judicial magistrate court of Dhaka.

Following the collapse, the Bangladesh Accord on Health & Safety, a legally binding agreement between unions, brands, and workers’ rights organisations was formed to improve health and safety in Bangladesh’s garment factories. It has since been expanded to the International Accord, with the recent creation of a Pakistan Accord, to extend the agreement beyond Bangladesh. For the Rana Plaza anniversary, labour rights organisers and human rights organisations have called for brands to sign the Bangladesh and Pakistan Accord. For example, Human Rights Watch have called for brands that had not yet signed the Accord, mostly US brands, to join the agreement, and also called on private social auditing and certification companies used by brands, such as Sedex and amfori, to disclose the limitations of their services and provide an accurate comparison with the Accord’s features, ensuring that the use of their products and services are not knowingly or unknowingly misrepresented.

In terms of the wellbeing of those impacted by the collapse, findings from an ActionAid study found that nearly 55% of Rana Plaza survivors were currently unemployed, with 89% having been without work for the past 5 to 8 years. The key reason for their unemployment was their physical health condition. Furthermore, when surveying current garment workers, 52% said they felt the the frequency of initiatives taken by factory management on health and safety in their factories was inadequate, with nearly 24% reporting that emergency exits were not available.

The anniversary was commemorated with protests and demonstrations around the world. In Bangladesh, families of the deceased, survivors and labour leaders paid their respects at a memorial. Eight Rana Plaza survivors who suffer with injuries from the collapse went on hunger strike with four point demands in front of Rana Plaza, calling for: compensation and rehabilitation equal to a lifetime income; justice brought to those responsible for the collapse; labour law reform; free treatment and government allowances to injured workers in all industrial sectors.