Remembering The Rana Plaza Collapse: Heart-Wrenching Photos From The Aftermath

Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
This Sunday marks the third anniversary of the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment factory building in Bangladesh; 1,134 lives were lost and approximately 2,500 additional workers were injured in the tragedy. Despite the building's structural instability, including visible cracks, the factory's primarily female workforce risked (and, in some cases, lost) their lives by coming to work on April 23, 2013, forced to prioritize paltry wages over safety.

Photographer Nicola Bailey was in Bangladesh on assignment with ActionAid (an NGO working against poverty, particularly among women and children) when the most devastating catastrophe in the garment industry's history took place. "We needed the world to see the human impact of the collapse so we could provide support to survivors and victims’ families, and ideally prevent such tragedies from happening again in the future," Bailey tells Refinery29.

Ahead, Bailey shares her experiences on the front lines of the calamity. As for what has (and, perhaps most importantly, hasn't) changed in the years since the collapse? Well, it's complicated.

Some organizations' efforts are worth noting. For starters, Bailey highlights the work of Clean Clothes Campaign, a major labor conditions and rights non-profit that predates the Rana Plaza collapse by 24 years. "Oxfam has successfully been campaigning the fashion brands," she says. Also, ActionAid (the org that Bailey was on assignment for when tragedy struck) "has done excellent work with female garment workers, educating them on their rights and empowering them to speak up against workplace abuses," she says.

Perhaps the most discussed initiative to crop up after the tragedy is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (usually referred to simply as Accord). The independent agreement spans Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia (more than 20 countries in total), and requires independent factory safety inspections; if issues are found during these inspections, the Accord mandates that fashion brands using those facilities finance the necessary improvements. It's garnered support from approximately 200 apparel brands, retailers, and importers in the past three years. Stateside, 17 of the biggest North American brands signed onto a less stringent initiative, the Alliance, which is non-binding for brands involved (unlike the Accord) and has been criticized for not being too soft.

But the progress made by many retailers has been seriously underwhelming; Bailey says fast-fashion companies have "failed to deliver on all of their commitments to improving workplace safety." And she adds that names like Walmart, Carrefour, and Mango haven't funded worker safety improvements in a post-Rana Plaza world to the very best of their abilities. But some brands deserve a nod for their efforts to fix long-running problems: Adidas, Marks & Spencer, and Abercrombie & Fitch have worked to "implement workplace monitoring and fire safety at 1,800 of their supplier factories," Bailey points out.

Research by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights last year revealed a large number of sub-factories being contracted to produce garments, which means there are way more factories and, thus, garment workers potentially impacted by subpar working conditions. (The study found 7,000 factories in Bangladesh when subcontracted, not just "first-tier," facilities are counted — that's 65% more than previous estimates, which were in the ballpark of 4,500 factories.)

The solution isn't about icing out the geographic region's robust garment industry. "I don’t agree with boycotting clothes from Bangladesh," Bailey says. "It’s the country's greatest export and, for women in particular, it has provided an otherwise inaccessible source of income."

But there is a way for the customer, a.k.a., you, to take part in necessary reforms. "I would like to see consumers take a more ethical approach to their shopping, and to be aware of, and shop with, the brands who made greater workplace safety commitments after Rana Plaza and have actually kept to them," she says. (We've got a few suggestions for how to be a conscientious shopper.)

Click through to see Bailey's series of powerful photos and hear her recount the harrowing aftermath of the fashion industry's most jarring disaster.
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
Rescue workers at the site of the Rana Plaza collapse work to retrieve a body from below the rubble.

"When Rana Plaza collapsed, it was like a wake-up call: a visible and deeply saddening message that things in the global clothing supply chain had to change."

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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
"I walked into an adjoining building [to Rana Plaza] which had huge holes in the walls that made the different layers of rubble visible. I came across a man, Balayet. Like everyone else at Rana Plaza, he was wearing a mask over his nose and mouth to keep out the smell of rotting flesh. It was one week into the rescue effort, and bodies were still being retrieved daily.

"We started to talk, and he took me to one opening and pointed out the legs of a woman who was otherwise pinned under the rubble. From the shape of her legs and the fabric of her pants, he could tell that it was his wife, Monea... He wanted to be there when she was retrieved so that he could give her a proper burial. His sadness and the sight of her body is something that really impacted me that day and continues to return to me still."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
Rescue workers at Rana Plaza retrieve a body from the rubble and carry it away covered in a sheet.

"Change really needs to happen at so many levels to prevent future tragedies like this happening."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
"To really be successful, there needs to be cooperation between Western companies, foreign donor agencies, the Bangladesh government, factory owners, trade unions, and civil society groups. Consumers also have a role to play and need to make it clear that the revenue and reputation of the fashion labels will be impacted if they don’t pull their weight in workplace-safety reform."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
A young girl, a survivor from the collapse, is comforted by her husband's hand on her face, as she lies in hospital.

"Since Rana Plaza, there has been a lot of focus on what the fashion industry or the Bangladesh government can do to improve the safety of the workers in the garment industry within the factories. However, less focus has been on talking with consumers about our role in driving all of this from our home countries.

"Globally we consume more than 80 billion items of clothing a year, pieces that are produced at breakneck speed, at increasingly low prices. The media leads us to believe that we need to stay constantly on top of rapidly evolving fashion cycles and so as a result, we demand new fashion at cheap prices that allow us to do this."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
Clothes and broken sewing machines are scattered across one of the floors of Rana Plaza.

"I don’t think enough people give thought, though, to the implications of this down the supply chain. There needs to be an understanding from the general public that if you only want to pay $5 for a pair of jeans, then people further down the [supply chain] are going to get pressured to deliver that — from the brands who are competing for your business, to the factory managers who want to win the contracts, to the people making the clothes who are forced, out of poverty, to do so for 20 cents an hour in dangerous conditions."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
A survivor from the collapse lies, accompanied by her son, in a hospital bed.

"Even in the case of those who survived Rana Plaza, many have endured crippling injuries that require ongoing medical care. Many will never be able to work again. On top of having experienced such a horrifying situation, [an injured worker] becomes a financial burden on their already-struggling family. In these instances, children are often forced to leave school and start working to help support their families. This makes the collapse an even greater tragedy: The loss extends so much further than the loss of life."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
Photos of missing people line the walls of one the hospitals in Bangladesh where survivors were brought following the collapse.

"In Western countries, where many of us live relatively privileged lives, when we think of the death of a loved one, it’s often the emotional loss that comes to mind. However, what I realized in Bangladesh — which is the case in all developing countries — is that there are much greater things at stake when there is a death in the family. Emotional loss is one thing but in developing countries, this death often also means the death of the main bread winner in the family which can in turn push an impoverished family further into poverty."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
The posters are put up in the hope that the people are found alive at the hospital and can be identified.

"As a photographer, it’s natural to slip into work mode, and when something like this happens, it feels critical to do that work well so that the story is told accurately and in a way that makes people act. There were moments when I was surrounded by family members looking for their loved ones that I felt overwhelmed by the tragedy, but then I’d refocus on what I was there to do.

"It was really at night when I got back to my hotel and was alone again that it hit me, and I felt weakened by the weight of the tragedy. I felt so alone at those times because while I really felt like I needed to talk to someone about what I’d seen and experienced, I simultaneously felt there was nobody I could speak to. I didn’t feel I had the words to describe my experience; I was conscious that there was nobody I was close to who had ever experienced anything similar."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
In a building adjoining Rana Plaza, clothes from the collapsed building have been discarded.

"While several big brands and retailers have helped pay for factories to be upgraded, there are thousands of smaller ones without funding, that will inevitably stay dangerous. Thanks to the Accord, union membership has improved. However, this ultimately only extends to a very small percentage of the workforce, and union leaders are still frequently targeted with intimidation, threats, dismissal, and physical attacks by factory managers. Very few unions have been able to reach collective bargaining agreements with employers."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
A woman walks up a stairway marked as an exit, which is an important safety measure in a country with a poor workplace safety record.

"Rana Plaza isn’t the only garment factory disaster to have happened in Bangladesh, however it is the deadliest, and I think that since [the collapse], the media has made us aware of some of the safety problems that exist in the industry. But people are less aware of the actual conditions in the factories themselves, for the largely female workforce and the social and economic underpinnings that allow these conditions to persist.

"Even after the minimum wage for garment workers was nearly doubledthough many factories fail to meet the new minimum it remains at just $68 per month, which is the lowest in the world. Even in developing countries, where the cost of living is less, this is still far from a living wage — that is a wage that allows someone to eat, pay rent, healthcare, clothing, transport, and education.

"Women are forced out of desperation to work long hours, and it is all too common for a range of violations to happen on the factory floor, from physical, verbal and sexual abuse...[to the establishment's] failure to pay wages and bonuses (on time or in full), denial of paid maternity leave, provision of dirty drinking water, and pressure [for the workers] to not use the toilet during shifts.

"While it’s easy for us to claim they need to stand up for themselves, attempts at forming unions have lead to harassment, beatings and loss of jobs. Workers are aware that they are dispensable and when living in poverty, feel they can’t risk rocking the boat.
In addition to this, it’s important to recognize that women in Bangladesh come from a culture that for the most part, does not encourage, respect or train women to speak up and make demands. So women working in factories quite simply often don’t have the skills and confidence to go to the negotiating table and ask for changes to the status quo."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
A young boy is held up by another relative, grasping a photo of his mother, missing in the collapse.

"Owing to global pressure from consumers and other advocacy groups, big fashion brands were forced to come together and develop strategies for improving the lives of those at the end of the line, while also compensating the families of those who had lost their lives and the survivors living with physical injuries and psychological trauma."
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Photo: Nicola Bailey - ActionAid.
Family members hold up photos of their loved ones who worked at Rana Plaza. Their hope is that, dead or alive, their loved ones will be found and identified.

"One incident like this is too much. We don’t want to see a repeat of Rana Plaza again in Bangladesh, or anywhere else for that matter."

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