Rana Plaza, seven years on: let’s call it what it was – corporate murder.

Today marks the 7 year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse.

photography: Rahul Talukder

As the years go on, my biggest fear is that the memory of those we lost will fade into normality, as we succumb to a capitalist-compelled acceptance that Black and Brown bodies are a necessary sacrifice to ensure the functioning of society.

My biggest fear is that an event that destroyed the lives of thousands will become the next depoliticised marketing opportunity, as we emblazen our social media feeds with quotes on empowerment and recycled designer socks, stripping the disaster of its political roots, while dehumanizing the mothers, fathers, daughters, sons we lost that day down to a shout out of your favourite ethical brands, and dismissing the crimes of the murderous, capitalist regime that is the fashion industry.

Through this piece I want to remind you of the sheer devastation that took place and the humans behind the massacre, as I address whether anything has changed and why, and what we can do to show solidarity with workers on the ground.

All pictures were taken during the collapse and the aftermath by photographer Rahul Talukder.

We must never forget those we lost on the 24th April 2013.

Rana Plaza

Rana Plaza was an eight-story building in Dhaka, which consisted of several shops, a bank and garment factories. This was a factory with numerous illegal floors built on a very weak structure, with no government regulation.

On 23 April 2013, large cracks were discovered in the building and reported in Bangladeshi media. The shops and the bank on the lower floors immediately closed in response. However, garment factory owners ignored warnings to avoid the building, and continued business as usual.

The following morning garment workers protested, fearing the consequences of entering the fragile building. They were met with violence, as they were beaten and threatened to go to work, or else they risked losing their wages or being dismissed completely.

The supervisor of my factory forced me to join in work. I knew if I did not go to work on that day, I will not be paid the monthly salary. I was supposed to receive the salary of the running month just after 10 days. Ensuring the salary at the end of the month was more important than thinking about the probable outcome of joining in work on the day of the collapse.” C, Sewing Operator

An hour after workers entered the building, it collapsed. It took just 90 seconds. Including rescue workers, 1,134 workers were killed. Nearly 2600 injured.

photography: Rahul Talukder

The evacuation systems in the building made it very difficult for workers to escape, as there were few emergency exits, and those that existed were blocked. Narrow stairs and locked doors added to the struggle to evacuate. As a result, many were trapped inside the rubble. Some trapped for hours, and some for days, before being rescued.

… at the time of working, suddenly, I noticed that many of the workers were crying and running aimlessly. Then I could notice that the building was collapsing over me. I ran and stayed beside a pillar. The whole building collapsed within two minutes. My leg was trapped in between two walls. I lost one of my legs. I also got hurt in my head by the fallen roof. My head, hands, back were badly injured. I was rescued after 5-7 hours of the collapse…After 27 days of treatment, I was released. I can feel pain in my body till now. I cannot move without the help of others. To be free from these kinds of sufferings, I tried to commit suicide twice” Sefali Begum, aged 23

In many cases, workers were required to amputate their limbs while under the rubble, in an attempt to escape. This is an account of just one woman’s experience:

““Please cut off my legs, but don’t delay anymore,” she said. “You are pulling out dead bodies, but I am still alive. Rescue me. I beg you, brothers.” One of the doctors produced a syringe of anesthetic before pausing to ask if she had any legal guardians. Paki named her husband, Jahangir, but could not remember his cell- phone number. “If your legs are cut off, you will get crippled,” the doctor warned. “Your husband and family will no longer want you.” “I don’t care!” Paki shot back at him. “I have two children— I want to see them again.” The doctor, a large man, took the hacksaw and set to work, but he couldn’t get enough leverage in the cramped space to drive through the bone. The newcomer, Hira, took his place, bearing down as Paki screamed, until finally she passed out. Sometime later, the wail of an ambulance stirred her awake.”

Masses of onlookers and ordinary citizens threw themselves into the rescue mission, regardless of the dangers. Rafiqul Islam, a bricklayer who helped people escape, explained:

““I was only thinking that I have a great responsibility to pull out bodies, even if it kills me…I had no choice.”

photography: Rahul Talukder

The aftermath

Several events took place in response to the collapse:

The Accord

After years of labour rights organisations and Bangladeshi trade unions attempting to initiate a programme with brands to address health and safety in the garment industry, it was not until 24 April that action began to be taken, leading to the creation of The Accord.

The Accord is a 5-year agreement signed by multinational corporations, global trade union federations and Bangladeshi unions, to address health and safety in the Bangladeshi garment industry. It is largely perceived as a ‘breakthrough’, as it was a rare instance where brands were legally bound to complying with the agreement, trade unions were involved in the governance structure, and workers were involved in its implementation. It was extended for 3 more years, however the Bangladeshi government refused for it to be further extended, and there will soon be a new programme run by the government.

Research shows health and safety under the Accord improved following its creation. For example, from 2014-2018, the number of multi-purpose buildings dropped from 2014 to 2018 by 49%.

However, criticism has arisen. In particular, regarding the extent to which The Accord addresses the ongoing exploitative practices of brands. This was highlighted in interviews by Alamgir and Banerjee, with labour leaders and workers, who expressed their doubt regarding the impact the Accord has had. For example, one labour leader commented:

“Till now the major problem is excessive work pressure. That has not been addressed…”

Alamgir and Banerjee therefore argue that the Accord operates in a way that caters to the needs of brands, as they continue to exert power over the supply chain, while avoiding any criticism of their exploitative practices.

photography: Rahul Talukder

Compensation

As prominent Western companies were being identified as having their clothes produced in the factory, a campaign to ensure adequate compensation was provided to families of the deceased and injured survivors.

However, many brands were reluctant to pay, or paid very little, resulting in a global campaign focused on pressuring brands to donate. For example, one million signatures were gathered demanding Benetton pay its share, and after two years of campaigning, it donated just $1.1m in April 2015. It took two years for the campaign to meet the $30 million target.

We believe it could have been sorted out by these companies in a few minutes with a few phone calls,” she says. “They have money, but they don’t want to take responsibility. Ultimately they are the responsible people, who made these children orphans and put these families in a very bad shape emotionally and financially.” Kalpona Akter

Ongoing health struggles

Compensation was found to be insufficient, as most of it was used to cover medical bills and daily expenses, resulting in  workers unable to save or invest any of the money. In fact, according to one study, 57.3% of victims reported receiving a quarter or less of what they were promised.

Many workers are also too scared to return to the garment industry, or are not capable of working full-time jobs. Moreover, workers are still suffering from the physical and mental impact of the disaster. For example, a report from Action Aid last year found that 1 in 5 survivors’ health is deteriorating, with 51% remaining unemployed due to physical injuries and poor mental health, and 10.5% still suffering from trauma.

“…The compensation I got after the crash was mostly spent on my treatment. Now I can’t work like I used to, have no regular income and there are days I wish I had not survived Rana Plaza.” Rubina Begum

Rescue workers also live with the trauma of what happened. We recently lost Nowshad Hasan Himu, a volunteer who helped on the ground, and suffered from depression. Sadly, he set himself on fire last year, on the anniversary of the collapse.

photography: Rahul Talukder

photography: Rahul Talukder

Have things improved, 7 years on?

Considering the devastation of the collapse, as well as increasing awareness of exploitation in the industry, the rise of ethical fashion, sustainability etc, we would assume that maybe brands would have got the message and improved?

The reality however, is far from this. In fact, horrifyingly, exploitation is intensifying, and there are two particular topics that demonstrate this clearly.

Purchasing practices

This basically refers to the way brands do business with factories.

Research by Mark Anner consistently shows how brands’ purchasing practices are continually ‘squeezing’ as much profit as possible from suppliers, therefore making it difficult for wages to be paid, health and safety to be attended to, and incentivises abusive behaviour by suppliers to get orders completed.

For example, a study looking at conditions in garment factories post Rana Plaza found that the price paid by brands to supplier factories to make their clothes has declined by 13%.

Meanwhile, lead times (the time given to suppliers to complete orders) have reduced by 8.14%, in order to meet the needs of fast fashion and trends. This has increased a pattern of forced overtime and work intensity.

Finally, real wages have dropped by 6.47%.

Muliple research papers released in the last couple of years have also highlighted the alarming extent to which brands are intensifying exploitation of workers, paying less, shortening lead times, expecting suppliers to meet their unpredictable demands, and imposing unfair penalities by reducing prices if suppliers fail to meet their demands.

“The buyers put a lot of pressure on us for the lowest prices with the shortest lead times. The pressure for costs is incredible. As a supplier we ned to get to 100% productivity for very short deadlines…some companies try to meet the unrealistic expectations with uncovered employment or forced labour.” – A Turkish supplier

As previously mentioned, brands’ worsening purchasing practices in turn incentivise labour rights abuses. For example, violations of workers’ rights to form unions, bargain, and strike increased by 11.96% in Bangladesh between 2012 and 2015. With a workforce that is 80% women, and typically seen as being a cheap, more docile, more easily exploitable workforce, women usually bear the brunt of systematic physical, sexual, and mental abuse.

“They call us dogs and donkeys. They ask us if we came to the factory to die. They tell us to work faster or go home. They say we are owls and rascals. They call us beasts and pigs, They ask, ‘Did you come here for cattle farming? What do you have in your stomach, mud?” They use vulgar words” – Garment worker in India

photography: Rahul Talukder

COVID-19 and the Garment Industry

Another pivotal demonstration of brands’ continued negligence of workers’ rights is their response to COVID-19, and complete abandonment of their garment workers.

The lockdown has meant many retail stores are closed, and there is a subsequent decline in demand. In order to cut costs and save money during this time, corporations globally are attempting to further squeeze their most precarious workers, unprotected by the law. In this case, their garment workers.

Brands have decided to cancel orders with suppliers, including orders for clothes that have been already completed or are in the process of being completed. The problem with this, is that garment factories cover the costs of production, incl. raw materials, labour costs etc, and are only paid by brands once the clothes are shipped. Brands therefore decided they would not get these orders shipped, so they wouldn’t have to pay for them and save money. However, this means suppliers aren’t paid, so wages in turn aren’t paid, leaving workers on poverty wages and no savings, living from pay cheque to pay cheque, with nothing, and with no help from the multimillion corporations who could easily support them if they wanted to.

Workers are now protesting outside factories, demanding they be paid. For many, its a choice between dying of COVID-19 or starvation.

“We are afraid of the coronavirus. We heard a lot of people are dying of this disease…But we don’t have any choice. We are starving. If we stay at home, we may save ourselves from the virus. But who will save us from starvation?” Sajedul Islam, aged 21

 

photography: Rahul Talukder

So why has nothing changed?

I’m going to summarise a few of the key reasons why brands are able to continue intensifying their exploitation workers, despite Rana Plaza.

Capitalism

A conversation on the garment industry cannot be had without a conversation on capitalism. The very existence of a system dependent on the extraction of surplus value from the labour of workers (value beyond that covering wages and overhead costs), where workers are dependent on wage labor to survive, promotes the ongoing intensification of exploitation.

The pursuit for profit requires capitalists to compete with each other, by lowering labour costs (i.e. wages), so that the price of goods can be cheaper -thus selling more than their competitors and increasing profits.

This system functions most effectively by extracting profit from the labour of the most vulnerable, most easily exploitable – largely being workers in the Global South or migrant workers in the Global North.

Just look at how brands have continued to squeeze as much as they can from their labour costs, and how low the price of clothes has become!

Western Imperialism

Western imperialism, working hand-in-hand with capitalism, ensures the ongoing extraction of profit from the Global South, by multinational corporations in the Global North.

Imperialism refers to ‘a policy or ideology of extending a country’s rule over foreign nations, often by military force, or by gaining political and economic control of other areas’.

Post-independence, the imperial powers in the North offered loans to struggling countries in the South, on the condition that they implement neoliberal policies, including those that endorse export-led strategies, i.e. selling manufactured goods to other countries, as a means of development. These policies also entailed those opening up their markets and reducing state power over the country (deregulation), i.e. making it easier for multi-national corporations from the North to enter their countries and do what they want.

With economies now dependent on selling goods, the South is made dependent on investment from multinational corporations in the North. This now means that corporations, including brands, can enter easily countries they wish to source from, and exploit workers without any regulation from the state, allowing them to make profit at ease. If a country refuses to allow them to exploit their workers, they can easily threaten to move business elsewhere, putting the economy at risk. Countries have no choice but to comply and meet the demands of these brands.

Now you may think this comes to the benefit largely of multinational corporations, not the actual Global North, but research has found that a significant proportion of revenue from the retail price of clothing goes to the state in which the item of clothing was consumed, who actually receive a greater proportion of profit via VAT than the corporations! Therefore, by continuously increasing profits at the expense of workers and encouraging purchasing in the North, it is these states that benefit the most from exploitation.

No legal accountability

With the pursuit for profit the essential goal of our global economic system, corporations are allowed to evade responsibility for workers. For example, it is very hard to hold brands legally accountable, as they can hire top lawyers for legal assistance, and can easily escape liability e.g with their use of subsidiaries, loopholes etc. This was made clear by the sheer fact it took two years to get compensation for Rana Plaza victims, as the whole thing was voluntary and required relentless campaigning by workers and activist groups across the world.

There is the existence of great guidelines on what brands should do to ensure human rights are protected e.g. the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. However these are non-binding, so brands cannot be held legally accountable to them, and are therefore not punished if they don’t comply.

In addition, in most cases, the programmes and initiatives that are created to supposedly improve conditions are usually made or endorsed by brands – this is referred  as corporate social responsibility. What this means, is that brands are essentially holding themselves accountable (LOL), with no repercussions if they fail to comply with these  policies.

photography: Rahul Talukder

So what do we think needs to be done?

Firstly, legal accountability.

New intiatives are taking place to centre workers in social responsibility, as opposed to corporate social responsibility. Worker social responsibility is being strongly advocated by the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network, which promotes the use of legally binding agreements to ensure brands and suppliers are held accountable to their workers, with agreements that are developed with and led by workers.

Last year, an agreement was made to address sexual harassment and gender-based violence in Lesotho-based suppliers of brands including Levi Strauss and The Children’s Place. The agreement was made on the basis of worker organising, and meant that the brands are now legally bound to working with suppliers on the condition that they address sexual harassment and abuse in their factories.

There are also calls to make the UN guiding principles legally binding (that might just be me lol), and new laws, including France’s Duty of Vigilance law, which gives hope to organisations that this could be a means to hold corporations to account in court.

Most importantly however, is the need for global solidarity with workers. Research has found that Northern activists have a tendency to overstate their role in demanding action from brands, while dismissing the power Southern activists have in ensuring their own rights. In particular, Wells’ research found that in instances where activists in the North were praised for encouraging brands to act, in fact, they had come in late, at a time when local activists had already established networks of support around the factory. There is also a danger of reproducing the very power relations we are fighting against, and creating a “boomerang pattern of influence”, as described by Keck and Sikkink, where local activists are given a second position when influencing their own state. It is essential we ensure our work compliments workers’ struggles, rather than framing our work as the most imperative, most impactful, and most important.

A relevant example would be the collaborative effort of workers in Bangladesh and across the world,demanding compensation from brands for the Rana Plaza victims, or the campaigning done to force brands, including Primark, to do a U-turn on plans to not pay suppliers during this pandemic.

It’s clear that despite the devastating massacre of Rana Plaza, despite the shiny corporate social responsibility initiatives brands endorse themselves with, despite the ‘awareness’ and ethical fashion campaigns, corporations are intensifying their extraction of profit from workers across the globe, which largely target workers in the Global South, and migrant labour in the Global North.

photography: Rahul Talukder

We cannot afford to be complacent with our criticism of brands. We cannot afford to praise them for doing the bare minimum. We must be militant with our demands and that involves outright calling them out on their crap.

Brands are dependent on the systematic exploitation of the most marginalised, vulnerable communities for profit, and will continue to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of workers across the world, all while evading any responsibility. Because they can. So lets not be afraid to call them out for what they are.

Murderers.

Beyond legal accountability, collective action is key. Whether it’s a tweet, an email, a phonecall, a protest. We’ve seen it work. We’ve seen its impact. We the people have the ability to collectively demand change from the 1%, in a way that complements the ongoing resistance on the ground. It’s the only thing we have on our side.

We will never forget the victims of Rana Plaza, their families, the rescue workers, and all workers across the world, persecuted by the pursuit for profit.

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