10 years on from Rana Plaza

Ten years on, the spectre of Rana Plaza still haunts our industries

Around 2,000 injured workers survived the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24, 2013. They live with its aftermath every day alongside families of the 1,135 people killed in the global garment industry's deadliest ever factory accident.

Even for a sector inured to association with low wages and poor safety standards, the tragedy was shocking in the extreme.

The government, BGMEA, unions, and some of the global brands sourcing garments from Bangladesh moved quickly to back the Rana Plaza Arrangement to support an ILO-chaired trust fund to facilitate payments to victims -- and key buyers and trade unions established the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to identify safety issues and commit funds to remediate risks (since 2020, the Accord's national operations have been undertaken by the RMG Sustainability Council).

As time passes, the world at large tends to focus on looking ahead, not remembering the victims.

Ten years on, a pitifully small plaque erected by a group of workers is all that marks the site of the tragedy. Those charged with murder for forcing workers back inside the building whose safety problems had been sufficiently serious to have received a notice of closure and drawn TV camera crews -- the day before the collapse -- remain untried.

Timely trials and hopes for convictions might have offered some form of catharsis, but this turned out to be too much to expect. The best on offer seems to be that the industry has made some improvements -- but is that enough? Despite the swift creation and various achievements of the Accord and compensation agreements, the business model of the industry is fundamentally the same. The vast bulk of Its finances, lucrative jobs, and bargaining power resides with the big brands and retailers of the Global North.

The garment industry is tailor-made for a global race to the bottom. Just this month, a survey, carried out by the campaign group Transform Trade, of 1,000 Bangladeshi factories supplying clothes to UK retailers reported widespread instances of payment delays and suppliers being forced to bear the brunt of rising raw material costs around the world.

Buyers inevitably use the threat of moving or cancelling orders to bargain hard with suppliers to keep prices down for consumers and the cost of this is, invariably, mainly paid by those making the clothes.

None of this has prevented Bangladesh's RMG sector from making significant progress in the decade since the disaster, with exports and market share continuing to grow. Big suppliers have made major investments in more modern factories and Bangladesh is a leader in achieving LEED Green Factory certifications.

Some local factory owners might feel aggrieved then that “Made in Bangladesh” is still a global byword for cheap. In Glass Onion, the new Daniel Craig film, the country's name is used three times as a synonym for “dangerous sweatshop.” Artistically, this is disappointing, as the title holds out the prospect of lots of Beatles references so a nod to George Harrison would have been smarter than the script's actual laboured pun about one of its characters thinking “sweatshop” means a “factory which makes sweatpants.”

Economically, however, it is perfectly fair. The country's garment sector relies on its political clout to hold down increases to the industry's minimum wage for years at a time. Low labour costs have long been its key selling point and value-for-money remains its biggest attraction for global brands and consumers.

A reflection of just how cheap the country's labour costs are can be seen by contrasting the hundreds of millions of dollars big clothing brands spend each year on advertising, with the total amount of compensation -- under $40 million -- received by Rana Plaza's thousands of victims over the last ten years.

For Bangladesh, it should be a cause for concern as much as celebration that its export growth relies so much on just this one industry. Vietnam's RMG sector is similar in export value to Bangladesh but a much smaller fraction of its exports, which total over $300 billion a year, or over $3,000 for each of its 97 million people.

There are plenty of successful Bangladeshi manufacturing companies in different sectors such as pharmaceuticals and consumer goods, but their share of total exports is tiny. It is a strategic risk, as well as a missed opportunity, for the nation to put all its eggs in one basket.

Improving the quality of education and skills training is imperative to help diversify and grow exports. While the government recognizes this, it will be hard to achieve while Bangladesh spends less than 1.5% of GDP on public education, compared to the over 4% by the likes of Malaysia and Vietnam.

As the 10th anniversary of Rana Plaza approaches, we can expect its victims to receive more of the attention they deserve, and hopefully more fundraising.  To truly ensure “never again,” however, the country needs to invest to improve education standards to fulfil its economic potential and go beyond the low-wage paradigm which made human life so cheap in the first place.

Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.