Note: This post has some disturbing images and words about the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse. It’s a difficult one to read, but if you can, please do. This is part of the real price we all pay for fast fashion – horror, brutal injury, and loss of life.
It often takes a crisis or disaster to bring things to our attention. 2013 was perhaps the height of my mindless fashion binges. I never thought about what I wore. I didn’t know a thing about where it came from, or in what conditions it was produced. I thought sweatshops were just things that Adidas and Nike did in the 90s and that we were all good now, yeah? If common sense or a smidgen of critical thought somewhere in my brain happened to gently suggest that perhaps those practices haven’t really gone anywhere, given how little I liked to pay for tops…well, I would just silence the pesky little dissenter. I had carried on like this for years, I wasn’t going to stop because of something silly like, I don’t know…facts. I remained comfortably cushioned in my ignorance until images like this one seemed to leap out from my TV and laptop, grab me by the shoulders, and shake me into facing what I had been supporting.
This was Rana Plaza, a commercial building in Dhaka. Inside it were the factories of five garment manufacturers where at least 2,500 mostly female local workers made apparel for brands like Primark, Mango, Bennetton, Accessorize and Walmart. The building was dodgy to begin with. It had been planned to accommodate the banks and shops on the lower levels; the four levels of the garment factories did not have proper planning permission and were not built in line with safety regulations.
On Tuesday, 23 April 2013, visible cracks appeared in the building. Workers in the lower level banks and shops were ordered to go home due to the safety concerns. The factory workers, however, were assured by their bosses that the building was safe. There were also reports that managers threatened to dock the employees a months’ pay if they didn’t come in the next day. Garment workers are already notoriously underpaid, and many were already owed what little money they earned in arrears.
Faced with little choice, employees arrived for work at 8am on Wednesday, 24th of April. Their shift would ordinarily last until around 9 or 10 o’clock at night. But at around 9am, the building collapses, trapping, killing and injuring thousands of the workers inside.
One survivor shared his recollection:
Mahmudur suddenly felt a jolt. Within a moment, he noticed his colleagues running back and forth, screaming. It took Mahmudur little time to understand that something ominous was going to happen. As soon as he along with others moved 20 feet towards the staircases, the building began collapsing, giving him the feeling of a lift going down. “Darkness engulfed the entire place with thick clouds of debris. I heard screams around me. My heart started pounding,” said Mahmudur, a quality inspector of Ethar Tex Ltd on the fifth floor.
“I lay down near a pillar, thinking that perhaps I was going to die. We were being roasted inside,” he said. The roof curved and fell on him, leaving a space of three feet above him.
(extract from http://www.thedailystar.net/news/inside-the-hell)
The final death toll was 1,134. Around 2,500 more were seriously injured.
Rana Plaza certainly wasn’t the first garment factory collapse – fires and structural problems have plagued factories in Bangladesh (and other developing countries where manufacturing is based) for years. The demand for cheap clothes, and plenty of them, for the big brands, means factories are generally hastily constructed, not fit for purpose, unsafe, crowded, or unsanitary. And that’s just the buildings themselves. Workers are drastically underpaid – many only receiving a shockingly low ‘minimum wage’ (far lower than the recommended living wage of the country), forced to work long hours (the 14 hour days of the Rana Plaza workers were not at all uncommon) without leave or days off, and discouraged or even forbidden from unionising to improve their conditions.
The Rana Plaza collapse prompted the implementation of the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, which has been signed by retailers who commit to improving safety conditions in garment factories. Three years on, progress has been slow. At least 35 factories have been shut down following the reviews that the Accord mandated, but many more that had identified necessary improvements are still yet to be made.
Meanwhile, the minimal compensation for the victims (Benneton, for example, were very slow to donate to the compensation fund but, prompted by a petition with over one million signatures on it, donated $1 million – a drop in their billion dollar pond) was only recently finalised.
The pattern of unsafe conditions and lack of workers’ rights continues across the many developing countries that rely on the West’s voracious appetite for fashion – the faster and cheaper the better. It’s a relentless and horrifying picture, but one I only opened my eyes to in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse. It’s always Rana Plaza I come back to when I get a shopping pang – always images like these that I bring to mind.
Want to read more by an actual expert, not some hack blogger? I recommend starting with Lucy Siegle’s excellent book To Die For: Is Fast Fashion Wearing Out the World. For up-to-date analysis on the issues around the garment industry, cleanclothes.org and labourbehindthelabel.org are great resources too.