Three years ago this week, the fashion industry experienced the deadliest accident in its history: the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers on April 24, 2013.
The enormity and visibility of the Rana Plaza catastrophe — graphic images showing bodies being pulled from the rubble were immediately beamed around the world — shocked the world and the industry into action. In the wake of the disaster more than 200 fashion companies including Adidas, Gap, H&M, Target, and Walmart quickly pledged $100 million through two efforts to increase inspections, enforce standards, and pay for safety upgrades.
But the pledge taken by those major brands affects only about a third of Bangladeshi factories — those contracted directly by the major clothing brands — leaving some 5,000 sub-contracting factories and 3 million garment workers without strict oversight or safety improvements, according to a report from a research team at New York University.
A stalemate over who will pay for safety upgrades and oversight to those factories has left many workers still in danger, according to Sarah Labowitz, lead researcher of the report, “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s Forgotten Apparel Workers.”
And a majority of those workers still risking their safety to work each day are women. According to the International Labor Organization, 80 percent of Bangladesh’s garment workers are women, while the NYU research team estimated the number was just under 60 percent. Most of the women employed in the sector work as seamstresses, while management is predominantly made up of men, according to Labowitz. And as wages have risen in China, they’ve remained low in Bangladesh, where union organizing is not a protected right.
Ideally, Labowitz said, the Bangladesh government should take responsibility for ensuring its factories are safe. She held up China, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore as examples of countries that have successfully transitioned from low-wage economies to stable, diversified economies thanks, in large part, to government leadership and a plan from the government about how to move up “the value chain.”
“Bangladesh should enforce its own labor laws and protect its own citizens and workers but I think they lack the political will and capacity to do that. The question for everybody, including brands, is what do you do in the absence of local government enforcement and regulation,” she said.
But the country’s dependence on the sector has made its government lax about enforcing safety regulations and allowing employees to organize, Labowitz said.
Bangladesh’s rank as the world’s second largest garment-producing country, smaller only than China, has been fueled by the explosion of fast fashion in recent years, with brands like Mango, Zara, H&M, and Target all contracting clothing from the country’s factories. The country’s economy is heavily dependent on the industry, accounting for nearly 20 percent of its GDP.
With a dearth of local leadership, pressure on brands and Western governments, as well as financial institutions, could help fill the void of leadership and responsibility, she said.
“I want to give credits to the brands,” Labowitz said, noting that the 200-plus fashion companies did come together “pretty quickly” after Rana Plaza to set common standards for safety and some of them are devoting significant time and, in some cases, resources to making the factories better.
“But they also push responsibility for fixing the factories down on to the factory owners, and this is where I do think you need a bigger vision for which factories get fixed and who pays to upgrade the facilities,” she said.
The Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety, one of the two groups representing the brands that pledged to increase safety after Rana Plaza, told Women in the World that while the factories are responsible for paying for safety improvements, the Alliance and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh have helped them secure loans and financing as well as lower the cost of importing fire doors and sprinkler systems.
And while the Alliance acknowledged there was still a lot of work to be done to install the upgrades, it said that significant progress had been made in the years since the collapse, including training garment workers and security guards on fire safety practices.
“Buildings are safer, workers are safer, workers are more knowledgeable, and there’s been a substantial reduction in the number of fires and fatalities,” said Ian Spaulding, senior advisor to the Alliance.
“This type of work is rebuilding a country,” he said.
The Alliance touted in its first quarterly progress report of 2016 a 90 percent reduction in garment factory fires and a 300 percent increase in its suspension of factories that fail safety progress inspections.
Labowitz says that a standoff that has developed between the brands and the factories over who is responsible for paying for improvements has left many factories in limbo, and workers in danger. And because the fast fashion industry is so globalized, there is no single regulator that oversees or enforces safety standards to protect workers in the various countries where clothing is contracted to be produced.
“The factories are not getting fixed because there is no agreement about who will pay,” she said.
Labowitz’s research team has proposed shared responsibility for workers’ safety, encouraging companies, local governments, Western governments, as well as financial institutions and brands to all come together to develop solutions. Though it’s been three years since those images of the collapsed factory shocked the world, Labowitz remains hopeful that their power may still bring transformation to Bangladesh and the global fashion industry, even if progress is slow.
“The question for me is whether Rana Plaza and Bangladesh become a turning point in how the fashion industry thinks about its supply chain, and I guess the optimist on me hopes that it is at turning point, that the industry is going to take some time to adapt to an increasingly transparent supply chain,” she said.
“I think this is a turning point and it will take awhile to see,” she said.