18 Months After the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, a Silver Lining Has Emerged

CC BY 2.0. rijans

There have been major shifts in the way the clothing industry operates in Bangladesh. This is good news from an industry fraught with controversy, though it's unfortunate that such a tragedy is the catalyst for change.

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza textile factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,100 people and injuring 2,500 more. These were people who made many of the clothes that we, as North American consumers, buy from popular brands and wear on a regular basis. When such a tragedy occurs, it cannot help but affect everyone, from the workers and factory owners to buyers, retailers, and customers.

The past eighteen months have been a confusing time for many people in the textiles industry, but Ian Spaulding, a senior advisor for the North American-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, believes that a silver lining has emerged from the tragedy. The old model of conducting business is no longer sufficient or satisfactory, and a new performance model has emerged.

“Rana Plaza changed everything. It’s Ground Zero for ethical sourcing now.”

Spaulding, who lives in Hong Kong but has been spending half his time in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza accident, spoke in Toronto earlier this week at the first-ever World Ethical Apparel Roundtable (#WEAR2014).

The old model, he explained, was all about policing and auditing. Based on a comply-or-die mentality, it failed to address the complicated root causes beneath every issue, such as why a garment worker has to work extra hours; instead, it would simply fire a worker for being non-compliant with work-hour regulations.

Audits are an important part of the textiles industry, especially in overseas factories where consistent oversight is an ongoing challenge, and they do a good job at raising awareness about health and safety and child labour; but when it comes to other crucial issues such as worker representation, fair wages, and working hours, audits often fail to accomplish anything.

The new business performance model that Spaulding described is one that challenges assumptions about the way things are done; it engages stakeholders, mobilizes resources (money is being donated like never before, he says); shifts power dynamics; and has improved the emergency fire training given to workers.

Tariffs have been waived by the Bangladesh government on items such as sprinklers and fire doors, which are not manufactured within the country and must be imported from China. This is a critical step in an industry whose leading cause of death for garment workers is a deadly combination of fire and locked doors – locked to prevent theft, according to Jeff Hermanson, director of Global Strategies for Workers United, which raises a host of other concerns about workers’ ability to self-organize and defend themselves.

The new model continues to face many challenges, such as the outstanding victim compensation packages owed by certain brands to Rana Plaza workers; the fact that inspections don’t necessarily lead to remediation; and the need for more trade unions (although that number has risen from less than 20 to 300 since the collapse – a big improvement, though still insufficient for a country with 4,000 garment factories.)

While it’s great to hear about these changes on an industry level, some people are surprised at what little lasting effect Rana Plaza has had on consumers. Sean McSweeney, manager of MEC’s Toronto store, said that the reaction to products made in Bangladesh was been nothing compared to discoveries about the problems with BPA. “With BPA, the tap just turned off and no one bought it anymore."

The clothing industry hasn’t forgotten Rana Plaza, and neither should consumers. It’s important to continue asking questions and to seek out those brands and companies that are actively trying to improve worker conditions. Spaulding tells consumers, NGOs, media, and investors to be a voice of conscience for the industry, but “don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.”