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Two years after the worst factory collapse in history, pledges on worker empowerment show little sign of being fulfilled, and some brands have yet to make promised compensation contributions
The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in April 2013 was supposed to mark a turning point in workplace safety in developing countries. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which housed garment factories, killed more than 1,100 workers producing goods for western brands.
In the aftermath of the disaster, many of those brands signed up to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an agreement brokered by the IndustriAll and UNI global unions. This led to a programme of factory inspections, and financial support for workers who are forced to down their tools while their workplaces are upgraded to meet safety standards. A compensation fund for the families of workers who died was also set up, with a goal of raising $30m.
More than two years on, however, there is evidence that Rana Plaza was less of a turning point than was hoped. IndustriAll spokeswoman Petra Brännmark says factory inspections in Bangladesh under the Accord on Fire and Building Safety are “moving forward according to schedule”, but in other respects there is a risk of moving backwards.
The most concerning issues are the reticence of some companies to pay into the Rana Plaza compensation fund, and growing evidence of a backlash against unions. “A crucial part of building a sustainable production model is having organised workers who know their rights,” says Brännmark, but she adds that in the past six months in particular, Bangladesh has seen “increasing violence” against unionised workers.
IndustriAll has highlighted assaults on union activists at a factory owned by the Azim Group, which produces North Face, Timberland and Wrangler branded goods, among others. After threats from brands to suspend their orders, the Azim Group pledged to resolve the situation. But concerns remain that Bangladesh is an increasingly union-unfriendly country.
The European Parliament, in a resolution adopted on 29 April to mark the second anniversary of Rana Plaza, said the government of Bangladesh was “proactively preventing workers and employers” from establishing safety committees, and noted that unions continue to be banned in Bangladesh's special export processing zones.
Slow to pay
On compensation payments for Rana Plaza workers and their families, the European Parliament resolution “denounces that about one-third of the companies that are deemed to have links to the factory complex, such as Adler Modemarkte, Ascena Retail, Carrefour, Grabalok, JCPenney, Manifattura Corona, NKD, PWT or YesZee, have yet to pay into the Trust Fund”. Other companies have made “insufficient donations” the resolution says.
Brännmark says companies that have not donated have left victims short-changed, because compensation funds are distributed proportionally to all those affected by the disaster. The shortfall is about $2.7m, she says, adding: “I don't think it’s due to slow processes [in company decision-making] because it's been two years now.” For some companies, there is “no sense of urgency and not wanting to admit guilt”.
Daphne Avila, a spokeswoman for one of the non-paying companies, US retailer JCPenney, says the company did not order from Rana Plaza, and “only after the devastating tragedy did JCPenney learn that one of the factories had produced apparel for a national brand, a small portion of which was planned for JCPenney stores”. JCPenney requires suppliers to meet minimum employment and human rights standards, Avila adds.
For IndustriAll, however, merely meeting minimum standards misses the point. IndustriAll's general secretary, Jyrki Raina, has said the garment industry in general needs to change, providing “sustainable jobs with living wages, safe conditions and reasonable working hours”, for which “there need to be bargaining structures in place where brands pay a bit more” to their suppliers. Two years on from Rana Plaza, much remains to be done to achieve this goal.Rana Plaza Bangladesh Bangladesh factories factories cheap labour South Asia