One Year Since Bangladesh's Rana Plaza Collapse — Has Anything Changed?

One year ago today, the Rana Plaza garment-factory building in Bangladesh collapsed into a pile of twisted metal and concrete, killing 1,100, and injuring around 2,500. By far the worst apparel accident in the world’s history, the gruesome collapse was shocking but not surprising to those familiar with how the fashion industry — especially for mass labels — works. When cracks appeared in the structure, the predominantly female garment workers were told to show up or risk losing their jobs, and with it, the meager wages they received for working grueling hours churning out fast-fashion apparel for consumers.
It was a horrifying wake-up call for many consumers, who until that point had no idea what conditions their clothing was being manufactured under. And, it provoked an outcry for reform.
But, what really has changed? On the anniversary of an accident that could have been prevented, we decided to find out what — if anything — has been done to prevent something like this from happening again. And, to ask the next question: What is our responsibility as fashion lovers?
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Photo: STRINGER/Corbis.
Problem #1: Infrastructure and Demand

“When you’re there, it’s so obvious that the only reason anyone would do business there is because it’s cheap,” says Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “It just slaps you in the face.”

Cline visited China and Bangladesh masquerading as a buyer while researching her 2012 book, and saw the conditions in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, that led to the collapse firsthand. While China has high-tech infrastructure and skilled workers, the big problem in Bangladesh is that the garment industry is rapidly expanding in a city that's ill-equipped for it.

“The infrastructure is failing. The power goes out six times a day. It’s just a very poor developing country,” Cline says. “What I was hearing from factories is that they couldn’t keep up with demand, there was so many orders coming in all over the world. All these companies had decided China was too expensive.”

One result was that Rana Plaza had heavy generators on each floor so that they could keep churning out T-shirts, hoodies, and jeans when the power flickered out. And, when terrified workers tried to sound the alarm about cracks? Factories owners were more terrified of not meeting the deadlines of Western retailers, who paid such low prices that corners were cut as a matter of course.

The bad news is that it will take more than a year to improve the infrastructure of Bangladesh enough to keep the lights on consistently. Small improvements are being made to some factories, but many more workers still work by blocked exits.

Sara Ziff, model, founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, and producer of Tangled Thread, a forthcoming documentary about Bangladesh's garment industry, visited Bangladesh this March and saw the site of the collapse, which hasn’t been cleaned up a whole year later. “To this day, there are still clothes strewn across the rubble,” she said in an email. “I saw a lot of bright red Joe Fresh jeans strewn about and covered with dust. I walked across the debris just wearing sandals, which in hindsight probably wasn’t so smart, and I actually stumbled over human remains. Our guide ordered me and the crew not to film the bones.”

At first, orders for clothing made in Bangladesh incomprehensibly continued to rise in 2013: clothing exported between July and December of 2013 were 20% higher than the year before. But, export growth has slowed to its lowest rate in 15 years, as spooked companies have moved orders to other countries like Vietnam and Cambodia.

“I think slowing it down is a good thing,” says Cline. “The speed at which it was developing was costing people their lives.”
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Photo: Shariful Islam/Corbis.
Problem #2: Intentionally Ignorant Retailers

There’s no way that brands didn’t know what was going on. After all, a deadly fire just a few months before killed 112 in a factory responsible for manufacturing Sears and Walmart clothing. But, when Rana Plaza collapsed, many companies like Benetton and Children’s Place threw up their hands and said, “Not us!” despite strong evidence to the contrary.

There has been progress on this front. “The most impressive or promising point of change has been the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh,” Cline says. Over 150 apparel companies have signed the legally binding agreement, which requires independent safety inspections of factories and that retailers pay for factory improvements when safety issues are identified.

But, this accord is dominated by European companies. Most American companies, including Gap, Walmart, and Nordstrom, opted out and came up with their own, non-binding alliance that many have decried as toothless and intentionally misleading to consumers.

And, the fund for compensating victim’s and survivors is woefully underfunded. To say Ziff is disappointed would be an understatement. “The Children’s Place, which had an ongoing relationship with the largest factory at Rana Plaza and whose clothing was found in the rubble, has given just $450,000, less than 6% of the $8 million they owe. The $8 million sounds like a lot, but it’s less than half of CEO Jane Elfers’ $17 million salary and next to nothing for a company whose 2013 profits exceeded $655 million,” she said. “Walmart has paid in just $1 million, and labor rights groups are calling on them to pay $16 million more. Benetton made $203 million in 2011 before the company went private, yet they still haven't paid anything to the Rana Plaza victims.”
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Photo: Indrajit Ghosh/Corbis.
Problem #3: Low Wages

Before the factory collapse, the reason why companies poured orders into Bangladesh was that the garment workers were the lowest paid in the world, at about $38 per month. “When I first arrived in Dhaka in July 2012, I was unprepared for the extreme poverty I saw,” Ziff says. “The living conditions in the slums were particularly shocking. Pollution is terrible. It smelled toxic and I even had trouble breathing. The river by a slum I visited ran red.”

And, she points out that this is a women’s issue. “Of the four million garment workers in Bangladesh, 80% are female,” Ziff said. “These women earn poverty wages and, by all accounts, they felt exploited, not empowered. The main thing I heard, over and over, was that they wanted higher wages, just to get by.”

One improvement is that, “The government has been way more supportive of collective bargaining and allowing unions to organize,” Cline says. “That’s the thing about the accord, it can’t work unless factory workers feel empowered to come forward and say, ‘Something is wrong with my factory.’ There are several hundred unionized factories now. That’s a good start, but the country has between 3,500 and 4,000 factories. So we need to get that number up as well.”

After protestors forced the closure of thousands of factories in September, worker’s succeeded in winning a wage increase to $68 a month. That’s 77% higher, which is encouraging — until you realize it’s still the lowest garment wage in the world. And now, factory owners in Bangladesh are reporting that Western companies refuse to increase their prices by more than five cents to 10 cents, and instead, offload the wage increase onto the already squeezed factory owners.

“This is going to be an ongoing issue,” Cline says.
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Photo: ANDREW BIRAJ/Corbis.
Problem #4: Unaware Consumers

If there’s one bright spot to come out of the disaster, it’s that it got the attention of consumers. “I think that the support for ethical fashion and transparent and responsible sourcing is at an all-time high,” Cline says. A global June 2013 poll found that 70% of consumers would be willing to pay a few extra dollars to improve worker conditions.

And, companies are starting to fill that demand. Online ethical retailer Zady, H&M’s Conscious Collection, and the Yooxygen section on Yoox feature ethically and sustainably made fashion.

As a consumer, there are a few things you can do to effect change. Cline points out that the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund is open to anyone who wants to contribute (though it doesn’t take credit cards, just direct bank transfers). Ziff suggests taking part in one of the awareness-raising events today, asking questions about where your clothes were made, learning more through The Clean Clothes Campaign, Fashion Revolution, and The International Labor Rights Forum, and urging brands to sign into the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Cline and Ziff both agree that boycotting Bangladesh-made clothing altogether isn’t the right move. “The garment industry is the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy and the factory owners and workers rely on European and American brands sourcing from there,” Ziff says. 
“The goal isn’t to shut down the industry there, it’s too improve it,” Cline says. “Have we gotten to the level where we can say you should feel good about buying things there? Probably not. But that’s the nature of being a global consumer. There’s no perfect product.”