On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. 1,134 garment workers died, more than 2,500 were injured. IndustriALL – the global trade union federation that represents garment workers – has described Rana Plaza as an incident of ‘mass industrial manslaughter’.
What has changed in the 4 years since the collapse? Are workers any safer? The short answer is yes, but there is still a lot to do to make sure their working conditions are truly safe and to ensure workers’ rights are respected.
What improvements have been made?
After the Rana Plaza collapse, a number of initiatives were formed in order to deliver an effective solution to poor building and health and safety standards in the garment industry. Then IndustriALL Global Union and over 200 garment retailers, brands and importers formed with an advisory committee of civil society organizations the Accord on Bangladesh Fire and Building Security. Also, an alternative group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was formed by a group of 29 American garment brands – but without union involvement. Finally, the Bangladesh government has worked with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on a National Action Plan to inspect factories not covered by either the Accord or the Alliance.
Together, these initiatives have inspected over 3,000 factories for building safety and have provided specialist support to factory owners to ensure improvements are made. Over 150 factories were closed or made to relocate to safer buildings. 77% of health and safety issues identified by the Accord and 72% by the Alliance have been fixed. With the support of the initiatives, more than 440 elected health and safety committees have been created in factories. The easing of labour law restrictions resulted in a significant growth in the number of registered trade unions that can promote the rights and safety of workers.
What still needs to be done?
Still, there is a lot of work left to do. Both the Accord and the Alliance expire in June 2018 and the future remains unclear. The ILO has been supporting the Bangladeshi government to improve the effectiveness of its labour inspectorate, but it is not clear yet whether the government has the capacity to enforce compliance across the country.
CARE’s research has highlighted that most female garment workers have little knowledge of the role of trade unions or the benefits of collective action, only 150,000 (approximately 3%) of workers are unionised, and many garment worker trade unions remain dominated by men despite the workforce being 80% female; demonstrating the many challenges facing trade unions in Bangladesh.
Based on CARE’s work with the Bangladesh garment industry, we believe that there need to be long-term sustainable improvements that are industry-wide and based on dialogue between employers, the government and organised labour and civil society. The freedom of association and collective bargaining need to be respected so that workers can organise without repression. Furthermore, the working conditions in the often hidden parts of the industry (like subcontracting factories and people’s homes) have to be improved.