Friday 23 April 2021

8 Years After Rana Plaza and Fashion Brands Still Aren’t Keeping Their Workers Safe

The Rana Plaza factory collapse on 24th April 2013 was a landmark event in the fashion industry – and is an event that still haunts many people. Killing 1,133 people, injuring over 2,000 more, and leaving 800 children orphaned, it is the worst factory disaster in the fashion industry's history. Workers were well aware that the building they were working in was not safe – there had been complaints made to supervisors about large cracks visible in the walls, and, although other staff (such as bankers and shop workers) working in there were evacuated days before it eventually collapsed, garment workers were told to go inside and keep working or have their wages for the month docked.

The Rana Plaza factory complex held five garment factories spread across several floors, at least two of which were built illegally, each churning out clothes for many well-known brands, including Primark, Walmart (ASDA), Gap, Bonmarché and Matalan. While we now know many of the brands who sourced their stock from Rana Plaza, the brands themselves weren’t aware their clothes were made in factories like Rana Plaza, only finding out when their labels were found in the wreckage. Even now, the entire list of brands implicated in the disaster is not entirely known. To me, that is terrifying. Brands should be able to answer such a basic question as ‘who made my clothes?’. 

Rana Plaza was supposed to be a point of change, a moment of realisation, an event that would never be repeated. But eight years later, the fashion industry is still very much the same as it was that day. 


While there have been wins and small improvements here and there, along with a heightened general awareness of the issue, the systems which caused the Rana Plaza factory collapse are still in place and are still thriving today. The violence at the heart of the industry has not gone away, and will take a lot of time and collective effort to remove and overhaul.


The Bangladesh Accord was created in response to the Rana Plaza disaster, and does incredible work aiming to make garment factories in Bangladesh safer working environments by particularly focusing on fire and building safety. Many brands based all over the world signed this, including H&M, Primark, Edinburgh Woollen Mill (who own Peacocks and Bonmarché), Next, New Look, and M&S. The Accord monitors factories’ progress and marks ones not effectively implementing safety measures as ‘ineligible for business’. The current agreement will run out in May this year, and will need to be renewed and protected, as well as built upon for further protections, to ensure garment workers are kept safe. 


As with many other injustices, the Covid-19 pandemic was a tipping point that pushed the horrors and intense inequality further out into the open – with the pandemic, there is even less opportunity for brands to hide and even more difficult for every citizen to ignore or push aside. In March 2021 fashion brands refused an estimated $40 billion worth of payments to their suppliers, with the global lockdowns given as the reason, despite many of these cancelled orders being either entirely or partially completed. Brands withholding the payments owed to their suppliers, and therefore the wages of their garment workers, had and is still having disastrous effects. Despite signing the Bangladesh Accord, supposedly legally committing to keeping their workers safe, brands such as Peacocks have still not paid for orders cancelled over a year later. With no pay, there is no opportunity for safety. Pay is a fundamental aspect of basic safety, and seeing as only 2% of garment workers were paid a living wage pre-pandemic, the removal of these starvation wages put workers in immediate danger. While the Pay Up campaign (and ongoing petition) has made significant differences in this specific crisis, paying for these orders is the minimum brands should be doing, and yet many still have yet to do just that.  


Rana Plaza is just one example of the type of violence garment workers face every day. Sexual and gender-based violence is a common occurrence within many supply chains. This is particularly prominent in the fashion industry, where 80% of garment workers are women aged 18-35, and managers and supervisors are more likely to be men. Threats of physical violence, verbal abuse and emotional abuse is also common as a means of pressuring workers to work faster and increase product output to fit the demands of brands. The system of fast fashion encourages this kind of abuse and must be entirely overhauled for it to be changed. 


One harrowing example of this is the case of Jeyasre Kathiravel. Jeyasre was a woman in her early twenties, working at Natchi Apparel garment factory which supplies H&M. On 1st January 2021, Jeyasre went missing, and four days later her body was found. After being repeatedly sexually harassed by her supervisor, she had been raped and murdered by him. Since her murder, over 25 workers at Natchi Apparel have come forward to the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) with allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and verbal abuse by male managers and supervisors. At Natchi Apparel, 90% of the workers are women while 90% of the supervisors and managers are men. This is not a pattern of events isolated to this one factory, or even to the fashion industry. We know that at least 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment of some form in their lives. Sexual violence must end in every aspect of life across the globe. As part of those efforts to ensure women and other marginalised genders are safe, fashion brands must act to ensure that gender-based violence is eradicated within their supply chains. They cannot sell so-called feminist t-shirts and share an inspirational quote on International Women’s Day or a black square last summer while the black and brown women who make their clothes are regularly attacked, assaulted and even murdered while just trying to do their job. 

Image source


On 1st April, H&M agreed to pay Jeyasre’s family compensation for her death. However, this is not justice. Their daughter and loved one is still dead and no amount of money will return them to her. H&M have still not committed to the other demands that are being put to them, including not outlining a strategy to eradicate sexual and gender-based violence in their supply chains. They must do more than throw money at the problem and hope it goes away. As they were so boastful of being placed at the top of Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index in 2020, surely H&M should be more than capable of discussing these issues with their suppliers as they have the knowledge of their supply chain to effectively do so. Anything less than effective action is not good enough.


Nowhere near enough has been done by brands and global legislators to ensure that garment workers are kept safe and that another Rana Plaza does not happen again. Until workers are not sexually harassed and abused, are not fearful for their lives at work, are in healthy working environments, are paid a living wage, and are mentally as well as physically well, the fight doesn’t stop. The legacy of Rana Plaza has to be one of continuing resistance. 

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