On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factories in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people, most of them women, and injuring 2,500 others. The pictures of the collapse and the attempts to rescue those trapped in the rubble quickly spread round the world. Consumers started asking questions about the working conditions of the people who were making their clothes.
The disaster was the catalyst for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement on health and safety in the garment industry. It has since been superseded by the International Accord on Health and Safety. Over 190 companies, from H&M to Calvin Klein, have signed the accord. However, others, like Levi’s, Amazon, and IKEA, are refusing, claiming that their own checks and audits are better. Now, a petition by Ekō is pressuring Levi’s and other companies to sign the Accord and demonstrate that they carea about workers’ safety more than their profits.
While the Accord is an important achievement, trade unionists emphasise that ensuring building safety is not enough. Idris Ali, President of The Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre points out that “Garment factories are now safer than before but there is no improvement in the quality of life of the workers. The government has added some clauses that change the labour law, thereby increasing the risk of job loss”.
What can we as consumers do? Kalpona Akter from the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGWIF) and the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) warns that “Boycotting is not the solution. Rather than feeling guilty, change it into anger – go beyond the size, colour, style and price, ask questions of the brands. Are they paying poverty wages? Are they treating workers well?”
To this end, Fashion Revolution has compiled a list of actions that citizens, policymakers, and brands can take. EU citizens can sign a European Citizens’ Initiative to call on the European Commission to introduce specific legislation. It would require that brands and retailers in the garment sector conduct due diligence in their supply chain to ensure workers are paid living wages. Non-EU citizens can sign petitions and help spread the word on their social media profiles.
At the same time, as Niaz Alam points out in a Dhaka Tribune op-ed, Bangladesh “needs to invest to improve education standards to fulfil its economic potential and go beyond the low-wage paradigm which made human life so cheap in the first place”.