Four Years Later, Rana Plaza Collapse Still Resonates for Brands

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Rana Plaza

It’s been four years since the April 24th, 2013 horrific collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka that killed 1,130 people and injured more than 2500 others. They were all working in a building complex known as Rana Plaza, sewing and producing garments under sweatshop-like conditions for brands including the Children’s Place, J.C. Penney, Joe Fresh and Walmart.

In the disaster’s wake, companies, trade unions, human rights and workers rights groups pledged to improve conditions and make buildings safer, launching The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, giving factories a 2018 deadline for improvements.

The country’s garment industry accounts for roughly $28 billion in business each year. As the deadline approaches, many factories are far from instituting prescribed safety measures.

A 2015 study by New York University’s Stern School of Business found that “of the 3,425 inspections that took place in Bangladesh in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, only eight factories have fixed enough of their violations to pass a final inspection, despite the fact that brands, nonprofits, and other organizations have poured more than $280 million into safety-improvement efforts.”

In 2016, 38 people were charged with murder in the building collapse, and the government is backing some labor reforms pertaining to workers’ rights and pay and factory compliance in place. Emphasis on “some.”

But “in terms of effectiveness, there remains a gap,” said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director with the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka.

Those companies, 17 to date, signing to the transparency pledge include Nike, Patagonia and H&M Group, while Columbia Sportswear and the Walt Disney Co., committing to publishing names and addresses of supplier factories, are acknowledged as moving “in the right direction.”

Companies listed in the “No Commitment to Publish Supplier Factory Information” category include Hugo Boss, Mango and Walmart, which remains committed to its own transparency mechanisms and told NPR, “Walmart is working to improve transparency around our supply chain through a number of initiatives.”

With support from the International Labour Organization, ILO, the government of Bangladesh is providing support to survivors and setting up training initiatives to boost employment. New measures are being implemented to ensure safety of workers in the garment industry.

Major US and European retail companies including Children’s Place, Mango and Premier Clothing, have put recent orders in at factories in Rana Plaza. Still, the lawsuits—and the education and need for worker protections— continue.

In 2015 a $2 billion class action lawsuit was brought by Joel Rochon, owner of a Toronto law firm, against Joe Fresh owner Loblaws, seeking greater compensation from the grocer for the survivors and families of the factory collapse who did not receive any monetary compensation for their losses. It also claimed that Loblaws knew the dangerous working conditions for sub-contracrs involved with manufacturing its private-label brand prior to the collapse.

According to a CBC report, Loblaws says the lawsuit is “without merit” and plans to defend itself vigorously. Rochon and a team of lawyers flew to Bangladesh, set up a site at the Rana Plaza disaster and convinced 3,850 victims (and victim family members) to sign forms that they want to be part of a class action in Canada.

Loblaws countered, “We do not operate factories, and therefore do not determine the wages of the workers there.”

“It was known to [the defendants] prior to April 24, 2013, that Bangladesh factories had an extremely poor record of workplace safety standards and industrial building standards including garment factories, that there had been a recent history of very serious accidents and collapses at garment factories in Bangladesh in the period immediately preceding the collapse at Rana Plaza,” said the statement of claim filed in Ontario Superior Court by plaintiff law firm Rochon Genova LLP.

Filed two days before the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza debacle, a similar action was filed in the District of Columbia court against retailers including Walmart, The Children’s Place and J.C. Penney.

Nearly halfway through 2017, a new report from the Fashion Transparency Index ranks 100 of the biggest global fashion and apparel brands based on information disclosed about suppliers, supply chain policies, and social and environmental consequences.

Adidas and Reebok scored the highest, each getting 121.5 out of the 250 points, or 49%. Other high scorers in the 41%–50% range were Marks & Spencer, H&M, Puma and Gap Inc. brands Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy.

On the opposite end, Dior, L.L. Bean and Forever 21 were among the lowest. Dior, Heilan Home and S.Oliver scored zero points, and those with a few more points range from Chanel to Forever 21 and Claire’s Accessories to L.L. Bean.

A gap between intention and impact on living wages leaves just four brands reporting progress: H&M, Marks & Spencer, New Look and Puma. As for those publishing lists of suppliers, only 10 out of the 100 brands disclose suppliers beyond tier-1, including H&M, Target and Gap.

The report concludes, “H&M may still do more social and environmental harm than good, but it is becoming the standout among its fast fashion peers.”

At the time of the collapse in 2013 we noted, “Now it’s up to consumers to ponder if the retailers and clothing brands they favor have substandard supply chain practices, too—and what they’re going to do about it.”

Clearly, not enough has changed in four years. The minimum wage in Bangladesh remains 32 cents an hour. And as The Atlantic notes, “Sadly, the interest in making improvements after Rana Plaza in many ways can be traced back to the fact that wealthier consumers in other countries were in some way implicated by the collapse.”

And just as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire will stand as the tragedy that spurred unions and worker rights in America, Rana Plaza will remain a tragic reminder of how the race to fast fashion—and an aloof regard for the contract workers racing to produce those garments—ran roughshod over human rights and brands’ missions statements.

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