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.