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The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh - one year on

 

On 20 November 2013, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre held the 4th event in its Mary Robinson Speaker Series, at Ford Foundation headquarters in New York City.  The subject was "The Rana Plaza Disaster in Bangladesh: Taking Stock Half a Year On".  Following a keynote speech by Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, there was a lively panel discussion with Kalpona, Lauren Compere of Boston Common Asset Management; Judy Gearhart of International Labor Rights Forum; Harpreet Kaur ofBusiness & Human Rights Resource Centre, Sarah Labowitz of NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, Chloë Poynton of BSR, moderated by Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times.

Videos from the event are here.

"The shirt on your back - How did the clothes you're wearing get to you? We trace the human cost of the Bangladeshi garment industry in video, words and pictures"

Also: "Did the Rana Plaza factory disaster change your fashion buying habits? More than 1,134 people died making clothes sold in western high street stores last April. Did the Rana Plaza disaster change your shopping habits? If not, why not? And what can we do?"


An update from FIDH
provides answers to these five questions:

1- Have those responsible for this catastrophe been identified? Have they been held accountable?
2- Have victims received compensation?
3- Have the Bangladesh authorities taken the necessary steps to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again?
4- Are foreign companies more accountable?
5- What countries, other than Bangladesh, have a problem with workers’ safety?

Harpreet Kaur, South Asia Researcher & Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

When I visited Dhaka in 2011, I met with labour rights advocates who described their fight for better conditions for workers in the garment industry.  I saw fragile factory buildings – and it wasn’t difficult to picture serious accidents occurring.  But I didn’t imagine a disaster on the scale of Rana Plaza.

One year ago, on 24 April 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory building in Savar, near Dhaka, collapsed.  More than 1300 garment workers were killed, mostly women.  In addition to deaths, the illegal architecture and sub-standard construction left over 2000 additional workers injured.  The question is…will actions in the aftermath prevent a similar collapse in future?  So far, not enough has been done.

The incident generated an international outcry about workers’ safety, workplace conditions and labour rights overall, resulting in extensive coverage in both regional and international media.  In response to labour rights organizations’ call for action - over 150 apparel corporations from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia have now signed the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh, in addition to two global trade unions, IndustriALL and UNI and numerous Bangladeshi unions.  The Accord is an independent legally binding agreement that includes independent safety inspections at factories and public reporting of the results.

At the same time, some North American apparel companies & retailers founded the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – which describes itself as “a binding, five-year undertaking with transparent, results-oriented, measurable and verifiable indicators to improve safety in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) factories”. 

Differences between the Accord and the Alliance have been debated.  Both are important steps in the right direction.  However, as a new report by the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern Business School points out: it is "inefficient and confusing for the Accord and the Alliance to run separate programs with separate funding schemes“.  Also: "[T]he universe of factories encompassed by their [the Accord and Alliance] programs is less than 2,000, while the total base of factories and facilities producing for the export garment sector is likely between 5,000 and 6,000. The worst conditions are largely in the factories and facilities that fall outside the scope of these agreements.”  The report, “Business as Usual is Not an Option – Supply Chains and Sourcing after Rana Plaza” describes the way that indirect sourcing works in Bangladesh, and proposes ways to reduce its risks.

Meanwhile, protests by both national and international communities and pressure by the foreign governments, including the suspension of certain US trade privileges to Bangladesh pushed the Bangladesh government to amended its labour laws, including by making it easier for workers to unionise.  However, the improvements still fall far short of protecting workers' rights and meeting international standards.  Minimum wages were revised to $66.25 a month – which is a 77 percent increase (but still the lowest minimum wage in the world) for the garment workers.  The government also launched the Ready-Made Garment Sector Programme in partnership with the ILO, with funding from Canada, Kingdom of the Netherlands and the UK Government.

And what about compensation for the workers of Rana Plaza and their families?  The ILO has backed the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund to facilitate compensation for the survivors and families of the deceased.  But so far, the fund is barely one third towards meeting its goal, having raised only $15 million of the $40 million target.  16 of the 28 apparel companies connected to the Rana Plaza building have not yet paid anything into the Fund.

The big question is did we really need a tragedy of this scale to ensure workers enjoy their rights?  Did we really need 1100 workers to die in a single accident before we take actions to make safe work places?  The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York in 1911 was a “wake up” call that lead to improvements in textile workers’ safety – but only in the US.  “Sweatshops” supplying Nike, Kathie Lee Gifford and others attracted the world’s attention in the mid-1990s – and since then corporations have been taking steps to improve their supply chains.  But the results have not stopped the accidents.  Just six months before the Rana Plaza building collapse, a factory fire at Tazreen fashions in Bangladesh killed 117 & injured 200 workers.  Less than a month after Rana Plaza, another factory caught fire in Ashulia, injuring five.  Soon after that, a factory fire at a poultry plant in northeast China killed at least 119 workers trapped in building.  In 2012, two factory fires in Pakistan had killed more than 300 people with workers trapped behind locked doors in both cases; and 40 people were killed and more than 70 injured in a factory explosion in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  So the list goes on.

These deaths would have been entirely preventable, if each stakeholder across the sphere of influence in the garment sector had played their role sincerely.  If factory owners provided safe working conditions, and respected workers' basic rights – including the right to say “no” to entering a visibly dangerous building like Rana Plaza on the morning of its collapse; if brands ensured that the factories in their supply chain adhered to safety codes, and took more genuine responsibility for workers by not overloading their suppliers with impromptu and unrealistic targets (pushing them to sub-contract); if consumers were concerned about ethical sourcing and willing to shell out a little more; if governments valued the workforces that drive their economies and protected their right to organise – if each one had played their role, no one needed to have died in the building collapse.  

But not one seemed to have performed what is expected of them.  The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights appear to have been ignored in Bangladesh.  The Principles rest on a three-pillared framework: The State Duty to Protect; The Corporate Responsibility to Respect; and Access to Remedy.  The government of Bangladesh did not do much to protect the life of workers in a business sector that generated $19 billion of revenue for the country in 2013.  The factory owners did not fulfil their responsibility towards their workers – instead forcing them to work in unsafe premises.  The brands did not fulfil theirs either – and many initially denied sourcing clothing from Rana Plaza.  While charges are being brought against the building owner and some of the factory bosses, the slow progress on compensation means that remedy for the victims is still sorely lacking.

Workers across Asia face abuse at two levels – at an infrastructural level, where they are made to work in unsafe work places where they are exposed to factory fires, building collapses and other accidents.  The second level is at a more humane level – where they are denied freedom of expression, denied a living wage to be able to live a decent standard life, denied respectful treatment and instead face harassment – mental, physical and sexual among other abuses.

Rana Plaza has triggered action, albeit slow and insufficient so far, to improve standards in Bangladesh.  But it is important to remember that health and safety issues at work places are omnipresent in other Asian factories – Myanmar, Pakistan, China, Indonesia and India – bringing death and injury to the workers on a regular basis.  In the coming months, for example, FIDH will be launching a report on human rights violations in garment factories in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana – where the “Sumangali” employment scheme, a form of forced labour, is still in place.  

Workers are dying for reasons that could very well be avoided by providing safe working conditions.  Rana Plazas are waiting to happen in other Asian countries too: do we really need more people to die to bring changes now in archaic labour laws, to make brands feel equally responsible for their sourcing from all countries?  The answer is NO!

A year ago today, over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers lost their lives when, despite prior warnings, the building in which they were working collapsed.  The B team, a not-for-profit initiative formed by a global group of leaders, warn of the further Rana Plaza’s unless companies live up to their responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations and supply chains.

Clean Clothes Campaign, April 2014: "Who has paid and who is dragging their heels?"

"The first anniversary of the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza is fast approaching and the Donor Trust Fund needs USD$40 million to make sure all the families of the dead and the survivors receive the much-needed compensation for loss of income and medical expenses.
To date just 1/3 of the funds needed have been contributed and only half of all brands associated with factories in the collapsed building have made any contribution."

Firms that as of 24 Apr 2014 have not contributed: (note, the Resource Centre is in the process of inviting these companies for a public response to the call for them to provide compensation - we will include responses that we receive here:

- Adler Modemärkte
- Ascena Retail 
- Auchan
Benetton - response
- Carrefour
- Cato Fashions
- Grabal Alok
- Gueldenpfennig
- Iconix (Lee Cooper)
- J C Penney    
- Kids for Fashion
- Manifattura Corona
Matalan - response
- NKD
PWT (Texman)  response
- Yes Zee

Human Rights Watch also wrote to 14 companies that are listed as donors to the Rana Plaza Trust Fund, asking them if they plan to take any further steps to improve the plight of injured workers or families of deceased workers. These are: Bonmarché (UK), C&A (Holland), Camaïeu (France), The Children's Place (USA), El Corte Inglés (Spain), Inditex (Spain), KIK (Germany), Loblaw (Canada), LPP S.A. (Poland), Mango (Spain), Mascot International (Denmark), N. Brown Group (UK), Premier Clothing (UK), and Walmart (USA).

Nine of those companies have responded to HRW, and the responses are available here.

Firms that have contributed: Bonmarché; BRAC USA (US $ 2,205,000), including donations from: Asda, Gap Foundation, The Children's Place, VF Foundation, Walmart, Walmart Foundation; C&A Foundation (€ 500.000); Camaïeu; El Corte Inglés; Inditex; Kik (US $ 500.000); Loblaw; LPP S.A.; Mango; Mascot; N Brown Group; Premier Clothing; Primark (US $ 1.000.000). 

"Business as Usual is Not an Option - Supply Chains and Sourcing after Rana Plaza", Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, April 2014

Report concludes with recommendations to the Business Community, the Government of Bangladesh, and the International Donor Community.

From the introduction: "Despite significant international attention over the last year on the urgent need for reform in the garment sector, relatively little has been written about how the garment business actually works in Bangladesh. Since last May, our efforts have focused on filling this research gap and developing a clearer understanding of the business practices that represent significant risks to factory safety and workers’ rights..."