Rana Plaza tragedy: a turning point for a safer garment industry

24 April marks the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh. The deadly tragedy was a turning point for the textile and garment industry, as the Bangladesh Accord was born out of the rubble. Unions were able to turn a tragedy into a historic agreement to make garment factories safer.

Rana Plaza tragedy: a turning point for a safer garment industry

On this anniversary of the industrial homicide in Bangladesh, IndustriALL Global Union and industriAll Europe remember the victims and take stock of what has been achieved in the fight for decent, healthy and safe workplaces in the textile and garment industry.

What is the Accord?

The International Accord (or Bangladesh Accord) is a legally binding agreement engineered by global trade unions IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union in 2013 and signed with garment brands and retailers. It promotes worker safety through independent inspections, remediation, and training programmes, and recognises workers’ rights to organise, refuse unsafe work and raise health and safety concerns.

The original Accord was signed in May 2013, following the Rana Plaza building collapse, and expanded into the International Accord in 2021. Today, the number of participating brands and retailers has grown from 40 to 195. In December 2022, the Accord was extended to Pakistan, and to date 46 brands have signed the Pakistan Accord. The possibility of extending the Accord to other countries like Morocco, Sri Lanka and India is being explored.

Holding brands accountable

Ten years ago, Bangladesh saw one of the biggest industrial homicides in the history of garment production. Being told they would lose their jobs if they refused, 5,000 workers were forced to go to work in a building not approved to house a factory and which displayed deep structural cracks. 1,132 workers died and more than 2,500 were injured when the eight-storey Rana Plaza building collapsed, burying the workers in the rubble.

IndustriALL and UNI were able to convince the brands that they had to assume responsibility for working conditions in their global supply chains and the Bangladesh Accord was created. Ten years and thousands of factory inspections later, more than 140,000 potentially deadly traps in 1,600 factories have been fixed.

Conditions are improving, but the work must continue

The Accord has transformed factory safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry, given workers the right to refuse unsafe work, saved lives, supported freedom of association and increased collective bargaining.

It has so far inspected more than 2,400 readymade garments factories in Bangladesh and has identified more than 170,000 safety issues to date.

To date, 85 factories have been evacuated due to problems such as building damage from post-fire incidents, and cracks in the building structure.

More than 1.8 million garment workers have been trained on the most common factory safety hazards and their right to refuse unsafe work.

Functioning safety committees and an informed workforce ensure that factories covered by the Accord become and remain safe workplaces. More than 1,200 joint worker-management safety committees have been trained and equipped to address and monitor factory safety on a daily basis.

The independent complaints mechanism ensures that workers can raise concerns about health and safety risks in confidence.

Trade unions can be justifiably proud of this impressive record! They have turned tragedy into a historic agreement that has made garment factories safer and marked a turning point for the textile and garment industry.

But the fight for safe factories for garment workers must continue. More brands need to join the Accord, especially in North America, to give us the leverage we need to make this a truly global agreement.

More work is also needed in Bangladesh itself to improve the lives of workers and their families. The minimum wage in Bangladesh has not changed since 2018 and is far from a living wage. The country’s roaring inflation leaves workers struggling to make ends meet.

Furthermore, the behaviour of many international fashion brands leaves much to be desired. Too often, they continue to pressure local suppliers in Asia, pay inadequate wages and switch to suppliers who are forced to undercut prices and employ precarious workers. We are also concerned that textile companies in Southeast Europe (and in some cases also in Italy) are increasingly employing workers from Bangladesh or China without respecting European wage and social standards.

Wages in the textile sector in Southeast Europe are now lower in some areas such as North Macedonia or Albania, than in India or China. Combined with the higher cost of living, this leads to poverty for the workers, most of whom are women.

We are clear that the workers who make the clothes we wear deserve a workplace providing them with a living wage and decent working conditions!

What role for Europe?

The vast majority of major retailers and brands producing their clothes in Asia are European, with some from North America. Conscientious European consumers who wear these clothes are increasingly taking a stand against fast fashion.

European trade unions have long called for a reform of the EU’s trade and investment policy, based on universal respect for fundamental and human rights, including workers’ and trade union rights and environmental standards.

It is the common goal of global and European trade unions, to hold companies accountable throughout their value chains for their impact on people and the planet, to promote collective bargaining and to give workers a say in how companies operate.

Together, we will continue to challenge unfair purchasing practices in the textile and clothing sector and fight for real due diligence. Without the combined pressure of European and global trade unions, the proposed European Due Diligence Legislation, potentially a light on the horizon for making companies responsible for violations of human rights and environmental standards along their entire value chain, would not have been possible.

Help us extend the Accord further to ensure decent work with safe and healthy workplaces in the global textile and garment sector. A deadly tragedy like Rana Plaza must be consigned to history.

Promoted by industriAll European Trade Union

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