When the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, it spurred worldwide attention to the true human cost of labour in the garment. Rana Plaza has since come to symbolise manufacturing industries’ impact and need for sustainable reforms, and led the way for sustainable fashion companies that value their makers.

Rana Plaza was an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, housing a bank, several shops, and five garment factories making clothes for major brands across the world including the UK, USA, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Denmark. On 24 April nine years ago, the Rana Plaza building collapsed and killed at least 1,132 people and injured more than 2,500 others. This disaster became the clothing industry’s worst industrial incident and one of the worst ever industrial accidents on record.

What happened at Rana Plaza?

Rana Plaza was evacuated on April 23rd when cracks appeared in the walls, floors and pillars of the building. The next morning, while the bank and shops housed on the lower levels remained vacant, the owner insisted after an engineer inspection that the building was structurally sound. Despite workers raising their concern about the safety of the building and telling the management that they did not want to enter, the management ordered garment workers to their posts inside, threatening their jobs and pay if refused.

It was not long after they entered that the power cut off and the cracks widened. It took less than 90 seconds for the eight-story building to collapse, trapping, killing and maiming thousands of people. Many of the survivors were trapped under heavy debris and machinery for hours or days before they could be rescued, sometimes only by amputating their limbs.

Who was involved? Were reparations made?

Calculations based on International Labour Organisation Convention 121 reveals that the families of those affected by the Rana Plaza collapse were owed $30 million in compensation (target reached and distributed in 2 years after the collapse). Clean Clothes Campaign – an organisation backed by 230 unions, non-government organisations and research bodies – has identified at least 29 global brands that had recent or current orders with at least one of the five garment factories in Rana Plaza at the time of the accident, including Benetton, Mango, Primark, and Bonmarché. Other brands with confirmed previous orders at the site include C&A and Walmart. Due to their partnership with the Rana Plaza suppliers, each of these brands was a complicit participant in the creation of an environment that ultimately led to the deaths and maiming of thousands of individuals.

Effects on industry

Rana Plaza’s collapse drew worldwide attention to the garment industry’s death trap workplaces and highlighted the unsafe labour conditions in the wider manufacturing industry. For some of the lowest wages of the world, millions of workers, most of which are girls and women for the garment sector, are subjected to unsafe work environments every day with a high incidence of work-related accidents, diseases, and deaths. The media attention and public interest has put more pressure than ever before on corporations and governments to enact change with new approaches to prevention and remedy, and led to calls for companies to take more responsibility in their supply chains.

Experts have determined that the Rana Plaza disaster was entirely preventable, but unfortunately, factories’ interest in filling orders came before the safety of those doing the work. With the right social and governance measures, we can avoid such tragedies and work together for a safer, more equitable future. Proper due diligence by client brands can help them avoid suppliers allowing for accidents waiting to happen. Suppliers can prioritise risk management and follow Occupational Health and Safety standards to protect the wellbeing of their workforce as their most important asset, as well as their reputation and business continuity.

What can be done?

Act today. Identify risks to your people, product demand, operations, and reputation. Do your due diligence and safety checks. Seek to understand the current sustainability of your organisation through effective measurement, and then construct a roadmap to carry you through to a new, brighter sustainable future.

Article by Dilara ÇANKAYA ( Sustainability Consultant)

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