Ten Years After the World’s Deadliest Garment Factory Disaster

Imagine you’re sent home from work because there are cracks in the building. You’re told to come back the next day, and you do, dutifully, because you don’t have a choice; you don’t want to get fired. The owner of the building says it’s just a problem with the plaster.
But when you show up, it’s clear that the problem runs deeper. You don’t want to go back in, but your manager tells you that you’ll lose a month’s pay and your bonus if you don’t. You see another manager hit a coworker who doesn’t want to go into work.

Ten years ago, that was the choice facing garment workers and other staff at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. As we now know, the building collapsed at about 9 a.m. on April 24, killing more than 1,130 people, most of whom were garment workers.

It was the worst disaster in the history of the industry, with a death toll almost eight times higher than the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Thousands of survivors from Rana Plaza were injured or left disabled, and the memory of watching their co-workers gasp for breath while trapped under debris still haunts even those who escaped relatively unharmed.

Today, garment manufacturers acclaim the progress that they’ve made in terms of safety since the disaster, even as they fought and ultimately eroded the primary means by which those improvements happened: the Accord on Building and Fire Safety, which was signed in Bangladesh just weeks after the Rana Plaza disaster.

Liana Foxvog of the Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that backs the Accord, says the agreement was transformative for the garment industry in Bangladesh: “It has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives in Bangladesh, through ensuring repairs and renovations of safety hazards at more than 1,600 factories that employ two and a half million garment workers.”

The Accord set up a legally binding compact between international brands and retailers that source products in Bangladesh, international labor federations, and several Bangladeshi garment worker unions. The participation of popular brands—including PVH (the owners of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and H&M—was key and a long-sought goal of the Global North’s “anti-sweatshop” movement.

Most profits in the industry go to these international brands, with relatively little left for the supplying factories, much less the workers.

Brands like Walmart contract out the production of the clothing that bears their logos. Their suppliers are factories in low-wage countries, like the ones that were housed in Rana Plaza. Most profits in the industry go to these international brands, with relatively little left for the supplying factories, much less the workers.

As a result, the brands can push down prices and even swap suppliers or supplying countries with relative ease, leading to constant pressure on worker wages. This system also lays the groundwork for the harassment, abuse, and assault of the mostly female workforce. Meanwhile, consumers in the Global North are left in the dark about how much an article of clothing actually costs or who’s making the money from start to finish.

While not every brand signed on to the Accord—Walmart created a competing voluntary association, for example—those that did can be sued for not paying their suppliers in Bangladesh enough to remedy safety violations. Proponents of the Accord, like Foxvog, say this led to a measure of accountability that has long been lacking.

The Accord provided for rigorous inspections and safety training for workers. And it was the tragedy at Rana Plaza that led them to join. Predecessor agreements had only two signatories; in the months and years afterwards, almost 200 signed on to the Accord.

But pro-worker critics of the Accord point out that despite its positive effects, some central issues that workers wanted to see addressed were not sufficiently taken into account. Chaumtoli Huq, a lawyer and filmmaker who spent a year talking to garment workers in Bangladesh for her 2017 documentary Sramik Awaaz (“Workers Voices”), says the workers she talked to wanted a union in every factory and more skills exchange with labor activists in other parts of the world.

“Because we continuously fail to build the organizational capacity of workers, whether it’s a workers center or a union, we are not really building power,” Huq tells The Progressive.

In 2018, the garment manufacturers’ lobby and the Bangladeshi government exerted more and more influence until they were ultimately able to oust the Accord. The Accord was replaced in 2020 by the RMG Sustainability Council, or RSC, a body made up of retailers, Bangladeshi garment manufacturers, and trade unions. In essence, this replaced the power of international union federations and non-profits with the local garment manufacturers’ lobby.

“RSC is not doing a good job compared to the Accord,” says Chandon Kumar Dey, the president of Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF). Dey tells The Progressive that the body nominally follows the same procedures as the Accord, but it does so only on a surface level that won’t ensure true safety.

“Bangladeshi owners don’t fear the government, but if there’s an outcry from buyers or internationally, then they listen carefully,” says Babul Akther, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Worker Federation (BGIWF). “If the Accord didn’t operate in Bangladesh, the improvements that have happened in safety wouldn’t have happened.”

Both Akther and Dey bemoan the lack of real trade unionism in Bangladesh’s garment sector today. There are “1,200 trade unions in factories,” Akther tells The Progressive, “but these unions are just quantity, not quality.”

Huq calls for introspection among labor advocates in the Global North: “Why are we continuing to push policies that don’t yield worker power, ten years later? The most radical demand we seem to be able to come up with is ‘Sign this Accord’ that was already seen to not really be effective with regard to wages [and organizing].”