Each and every one of us who didn’t have a loved one killed or injured at Rana Plaza, or isn’t actually working every day in the garment sector, whether in Bangladesh or around the world, needs to do more.
It is not good enough to wait till April 24 dawns to remember the dead.
Families of the 1,135 people killed in the Rana Plaza tragedy on April 24, 2013, the thousands injured and their dependants, do not get to wait for the anniversary to be reminded of the day their lives were changed forever.
The bereaved and the bereft do not get the luxury of choice. Why should we?
We need to do more
As citizens and consumers, people all round the world can and should do more than simply wait passively for April 24, because millions of RMG workers around the world, not just in Bangladesh, are still in need of solidarity to ensure their rights are upheld and their working conditions sustainably improved.
Relying on annual words of remembrance is not enough. We need to remember Rana Plaza all year round to make sure the phrase “never again” is no longer just a slogan.
Brands, buyers, factory owners, governments, auditors, unions, NGOs, BGMEA, BKMEA, and so on, all of them need to be kept on their toes.
And the best way for this to happen is for more people to follow the issues for themselves and to take more action to support garment workers worldwide.
Very little has changed
Despite the appallingly large scale of the Rana Plaza tragedy -- and the correspondingly large scale of efforts to respond to the problems it highlighted -- the factors that created the conditions for it have not gone away.
These factors have essentially created a paradigm in which globally profitable industries are unable or unwilling to ensure basic human rights and safety standards in their supply chains, and that paradigm has not changed.
Not yet. At least for some time to come.
In the meantime, five years after the appalling loss of life at Rana Plaza, the big questions for the RMG industry, both in Bangladesh and globally, remain much the same as this time last year.
Do not let the dead and injured be victims in vain
What has been learned? What is being done? And where are we going?
As might be expected, the answers, too, have changed little from one year ago:
• Safety is no longer an issue that can be ignored (but inspections alone are not enough to raise standards without finance to invest in improvements).
• Compensation has been provided by some brands on a voluntary basis (but the amount of compensation to victims’ families is still pitiably small).
• Criminal investigations are progressing. Slowly (but justice seems far away).
• Stakeholder safety initiatives like Accord and Alliance have shown the value of cooperation (but without more long-term partnerships between buyers and factories, finance for improvements is still hard to come by).
• Support from the Bangladesh government and those of other nations for RMG sector initiatives are improving (but on some issues, such as the tariffs imposed on Bangladeshi RMG exports by the US government, the playing field of the global marketplace remains far from fair).
• Growing recognition of the value of improving workers’ rights by some factory owners and officials (but much continuing instinctive, legal, institutional, and industry association hostility to trade unions).
• Bangladesh’s overall RMG exports are continuing to grow, and a growing number of more successful producers are investing in design, greening factories, and climbing the value chain (but will this be fast enough to make up for jobs lost elsewhere from competition and consolidation?).
Do not let the dead and injured of Rana Plaza be victims in vain
Let’s do our bit
This is where we the people come in.
Promoting the vision of a safe, sustainable, well-paid, and more productive garment industry in Bangladesh is an apt way to honour the memory of victims and show that we have learned the lessons from Rana Plaza.
And plenty of industry insiders agree -- in principle.
But if more customers and voters, in Bangladesh and around the world, do not demand this be so, it will not happen in practice.
We must do more to keep the pressure up, not only on anniversaries, but all year round.
And we can do that actively whenever we go shopping, invest in a business, speak to a politician, or write to the press.
Do not let the dead and injured of Rana Plaza be victims in vain.
Niaz Alam is a member of the Editorial Board of Dhaka Tribune. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.