Five years ago, the fashion world witnessed the worst garment-factory disaster in modern history. When Rana Plaza in Bangladesh’s Dhaka district collapsed, it caused the deaths of 1,134 garment workers and injured another 2,500. The factors inside the building produced clothes for mainstream brands such as Primark, Monsoon, Matalan, Mango, Benetton, Walmart and many more. It brought to light numerous questions about the ethics of fast fashion culture and the clear lack of workers’ rights in this industry.
The day before the collapse, cracks appeared in the structure and the building was evacuated. However, it was declared safe by management and workers were ordered to return to work the next day, despite fearful concern. If they refused, the managers threatened to dock a month’s wages (around £54) as punishment.
Later, it was revealed that the owner, Sohel Rana, had illegally added four floors using low-quality construction materials. Furthermore, the building was originally intended to be used for shops and offices. It could not withstand either the weight or the vibrations of the heavy machinery required for clothing manufacture. Rana was accused of murder, amongst other charges, which he is currently appealing.
Much of the blame has also been attributed to brands’ demand for quick turnover times for production, putting factories under extreme pressure to meet deadlines.
Five years later, what is the legacy of the Rana Plaza disaster? Has the fashion industry listened to its workers’ complaints – and have we, as consumers, learnt more about the culture we are fuelling?
In the aftermath of the collapse, immense public pressure forced brands to collect compensation for the victims, creating a fund totally $30 million. It was finally paid to victims a lengthy two years after the incident.
A major consequence of the disaster was an increase in worldwide support for tighter regulations on factories to improve worker safety and for brands to have more transparency in their supply chains. This lead to more than 150 companies signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding five-year contract committed to improving the safety of factory workers.
Most of the American companies involved in the collapse signed their own agreement, Alliance, which has been criticised for being altogether less stringent than the Accord. The Accord states that companies must require factories to complete necessary renovations, help them financially in order for them to do these renovations, and cease buying from factories that do not carry out the necessary renovations.
This June, the Accord was extended for a further three years, but only around two-thirds of the original signatories have re-committed themselves. The Accord has certainly worked, albeit at a slow pace. In September 2018, Accord reported that 89 per cent of the safety issues found in initial inspections had been rectified.
Although working conditions may have slowly improved, exploitation in this industry remains rife. Workers are still paid far below the estimated living wage. For example, a study by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance found that “workers producing for H&M did receive minimum wages. These wages do not, however, constitute living wages despite meeting industry standards.” To this day, Walmart will not disclose details about their supply chain.
Ultimately, big clothing brands are still not living up to the ethical standards that are to be hoped for after a wake-up call such as Rana Plaza. Consumers have great power in this matter, notably in the choice we make when it comes to our spending decisions. This includes paying attention to which brands source their clothing humanely and ethically, and which ones do not.
In addition, consumerism’s relentless desire to shop and the insatiable demand for constant and ever-changing options of cheap clothing is funding an industry that knowingly and consistently abuses its workers.
Since the Rana Plaza tragedy, it is up to all of us to ensure that no one in this world dies for fashion.
An earlier version of this article published November 5th, 2018, claimed that Primark agreed only to pay survivors if they could show that a family member had died in the incident with DNA evidence, however, this information has since been updated because it was incorrect.
Illustration: Manvir Dobb