All over the world, people will be commemorating through memorial events and protests. Together with the Bangladeshi unions in the Clean Clothes Campaign network, Clean Clothes Campaign enables people around the world to share their memorial messages on ranaplazaneveragain.org.
On 23 April 2013, large cracks were discovered in the Rana Plaza building. The shops and the bank on the lower floors immediately closed. However, warnings to avoid using the building after the cracks appeared were ignored by the garment factory owners on the upper floors. Garment workers were ordered to return to work the following day and forced to enter under threat of losing their wages. Many lost their lives in circumstances that echo countless factory safety incidents in the years before.
The struggle to compensate the families affected by the collapse of the Rana Plaza building took over two years, despite the scale of the disaster and the mass outrage it provoked, even though brands gave public assurances that this tragedy had opened their eyes. Through the Rana Plaza Arrangement, which included all relevant trade unions, civil society organisations, brands, employers and the government, the affected families were compensated for loss of income and medical costs. This paved the way for a permanent employment injury mechanism for which a pilot has recently started, and set a precedent that was applied also for affected families of the Tazreen fire of 2012, in which at least 112 workers died. The amounts received by the Rana Plaza survivors and dependents were substantially higher than the money disbursed by employers and/or brands in the many factory incidents in the years before 2013, but in real terms the amount still remained very low. ILO Convention 121, which the compensation was based on, prescribed compensation for the loss of income, which in the case of these workers was a poverty wage. Compensation for pain and suffering, which could have increased the amount, would have required suing brands for their complicity. In the absence of supply chain legislation, this was practically impossible. The result is that many survivors of the collapse still face considerable financial hardships, despite the huge profits earned by the at least 29 global brands that sourced from Rana Plaza.
Going forward it is paramount that the right to compensation for pain and suffering is enshrined in national and international legislation, to enable direct access without workers having to go through the courts. Brands must work with suppliers on concrete measures to increase wages in the garment industry, and the current pilot project on an employment injury scheme in Bangladesh should be passed into permanent national law.
The causes of this tragedy run deeper than a badly maintained building with illegally added floors. They include: the woefully inadequate social auditing system used by brands, which failed to detect the structural building issues; the refusal by brands to sign the fire and building safety agreement that unions and Clean Clothes Campaign had been calling for prior to the collapse; the rampant harassment and even violence suffered by workers on the factory floor at the hands of management; the lack of freedom of association and repression of union rights that prevented workers from collectively refusing to enter the factory; and the poverty pay that left workers with no choice but to enter an unsafe building rather than lose wages. While many factories are now safer, progress is lacking on most other issues.
Our collective pressure continues to be needed to push for workers’ rights. Together, we need to push brands to assure their suppliers and the newly-convened Bangladeshi wage board that they will support a tripling of the minimum wage by increasing the prices they pay per product. We need to stand in solidarity with Bangladeshi workers and fight alongside them against the ongoing repression of freedom of association. United, we must ensure that the Accord continues beyond October 2023, with the same defining features that have made progress possible, and that those brands that have so far refused finally sign on.
On this day we pledge to remember the lives lost and to continue to fight together for workers’ rights.