• Monday, Nov 29, 2021
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Seven years after Rana Plaza

  • Published at 05:38 pm April 23rd, 2020
RMG factory
File Photo: A group of women working at a garment factory in Bangladesh Claudio Montesano Casillas

Brands still do not value human lives

“I see the Western world stocking up on food while garment workers are going hungry. Where are the brands who claimed to be sustainable now? I will never forget how they’ve treated us during Covid-19. It is like Rana Plaza all over again,” said Kalpona Akter, a labour activist in Bangladesh who is the founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity.

“Unlike Rana Plaza, we don’t have two years to wait for a compensation fund. Primark turned their backs on us during Rana Plaza, and now again during this pandemic. I am dealing with women, many who are single mothers who haven’t been paid and are going hungry. If we don’t have urgent relief I am afraid some will commit suicide,” said Nazma Akter, founder and executive director of Awaj Foundation.

As Covid-19 has swept across the world, we have heard from Remake’s network of labour organizers and activists partners that fashion brands are en masse cancelling orders already produced or in-production, without considering the devastating impact of unpaid wages to the women on the factory floor. These same women who have kept them profitable for years.

In Bangladesh, this week marks the seven-year anniversary of Rana Plaza, the deadliest industry disaster of our time. On April 24, 2013, a building structure collapsed, killing 1,132 people in Bangladesh who were sewing clothes for brands including Primark, Benetton, and Walmart

A sea of women leaving a garment factory after their shift ends at a denim factory | Claudio Montesano CasillasIn the context of Covid-19, the parallel has been eerie, with BGMEA President Dr Rubana Huq’s appeal to international buyers, saying that, with $3 billion dollars worth of orders cancelled or paused by brands, garment makers will literally be on the streets, resulting in massive social unrest.

Photojournalist Claudio Casillas used to live in Bangladesh and went back before the global shut-down to photograph and speak with the many garment makers who fill its streets and apparel factories, including the families of Rana Plaza victims. “Rana Plaza is not a tragedy,” he shared with us, “I see it more as murder.” 

Claudio’s sentiment is understandable -- it’s been well-documented that the Rana Plaza owners ignored warnings that the building was dangerous after cracks had appeared in the structure the day before its collapse. 

When Rana Plaza fell down, it took days to pull bodies out of the wreckage, capturing the attention of journalists, activists, and everyday shoppers alike. To this day, those images haunt me. 

I founded Remake to hold the industry accountable, to push for safety and transparency, and to educate everyday shoppers on the human cost of fast fashion.

A pile of dried flowers from the previous year’s memorial at the Rana Plaza memorial site. These were likely left by family members of the victims | Claudio Montesano Casillas At that time, the industry sprung into action and building safety improvements were made. “Never again” was promised -- from fashion brands, multi-stakeholder initiatives, and the glitzy stage of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit -- never again will human lives be lessened and lost in our quest for cheap clothes.

Yet, here we are seven years later, with garment makers once again left hungry and insecure as Walmart, Gap, Primark, and others are refusing to pay for orders already produced or in production.

I asked Claudio what the Rana Plaza site looks like today. He showed me images of an overgrown lot. The photos were taken during the monsoon season -- any other time of year, and the landscape would have been sand. “It’s completely empty,” says Casillas. “There’s nothing.” What further strikes Casillas is that there is no memorial commemorating the 1,132 victims.

A journalist for a local television channel that Claudio spoke to on his visit to Bangladesh stated how Rana Plaza could have been averted, if not for production pressures to get us our clothes cheap and fast. “One day before the collapse, I saw how the structure was shaking. I interviewed garment makers who said they were extremely afraid to work in such an unstable place.” 

The next day, just as young women were heading into the building for the morning shift, it fell and claimed the lives of 1,132 of them.Journalist who entered Rana Plaza one day before it collapsed, standing on the now barren Rana Plaza site | Claudio Montesano Casillas When I ask him why the Bangladeshis appear to pay so little mind to the site of the deadliest structural failure in history, he shared: “Brands have invested a lot to make the label an image of safety. If there is a lot of focus on Rana Plaza, it’s not good for business.”

Just like the foliage overgrown on the now forgotten Rana Plaza site, the fashion industry eagerly moved on, assuring the world that the industry from now on would be sustainable.

Yet as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the same brands that were in Rana Plaza, including Primark and Walmart, have cancelled order already produced, causing a severe liquidity crunch for factories who in turn are unable to pay the makers of our clothes. 

Women have been protesting on the streets of Dhaka, without an ability to safely distance. Many note getting reduced pay, while others have not been paid at all. These are women without savings, access to health care, and are increasingly food insecure.

In trying to get back to the Rana Plaza site, Claudio had to jump a wall to get in, as the land is private property. “If you dig through the bushes,” he said, “you can still find fashion labels.” Labels that were being made for Benetton, Bonmarché, Prada, Gucci, Versace, Moncler, the Children's Place, El Corte Inglés, Joe Fresh, Mango, Matalan, Primark, and Walmart when the building fell and claimed so many lives. 

The industry may have moved on, but down the road, victims’ families have created a makeshift memorial. They have not forgotten.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit us all hard. As we veer toward economic collapse, worry about our health, jobs, and savings, this is also a time for a reset when it comes to buying cheap and disposable clothes. 

On an average, a Bangladeshi garment maker takes home $156 per month while working “compulsory” overtime. In comparison, the global fashion industry is worth approximately $2.5 trillion, and the top eight global fashion companies all make over a billion dollars in profit a year

Railway tracks in Bangladesh | Claudio Montesano Casillas Even seven years after Rana Plaza, garment makers live in substandard conditions and make poverty wages. The coronavirus pandemic has taught us, when business constricts for brands and retailers, it becomes a question of life or death for the millions of women who make our clothes.

So what has changed in the seven years since Rana Plaza? It seems a lot and not much. Yes, factories did get safer -- but fashion’s race to the bottom continued keeping the makers of our clothes trapped in poverty without any safety nets.

As everyday shoppers, we have the power during this moment of reset to demand better labour and environmental protections. To vote in elections, but also to vote with our voices and our dollars for the brands who did not turn their backs on makers. 

It was only seven years ago that we lost 1,132 young lives, working furiously to sew clothing which was going to end up in landfills anyway. Let us not forget the world’s most vulnerable people during this crisis.

Ayesha Barenblat and Chelsey Grasso wrote this article for Remake, a non-profit organization that exists to shed light on the human rights violations and environmental injustices being caused by the fashion industry. This article has been reprinted here under special arrangement.  

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