The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two years ago, 1,129 people died in a Bangladesh factory collapse. The problems still haven’t been fixed.

While major clothing companies have made progress on upgrading the factories where they source their products, governance is still weak and infrastructure lacking.

Members of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation demonstrated on the site of the former Rana Plaza garment complex in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka on Tuesday. (Munir uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)
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Reba Sikder is still waiting.

In the past two years since being dragged, unconscious, from the rubble of a giant factory outside Dhaka called Rana Plaza that killed 1,129 people when it collapsed on top of them, she’s been to the United States twice to appeal for restitution for the thousands of survivors and families of the dead.

“That’s my questions to the brands: What are they going to do?” says Sikder, who started working in garment factories when she was 13, and is now 18. Still a birdlike girl, she shifts uncomfortably in her chair; with both her legs and spine broken in the collapse, it's hard to Sikder sit for very long. "So many that are disabled, they cannot work anymore, so they don’t have much hope in life."

Of course, Sikder was one of the lucky ones. She’s now in training to be a tailor at a rehabilitation center and would like to open her own shop, if she could find the capital. So far, she’s received only $519 from a government fund, which her family quickly exhausted; an internationally-administered fund is still $6 million short of the $30 million it says is necessary to fully compensate all the victims.

Two years after the full-scale industrial disaster, that’s only one piece of unfinished business. Much has changed in Bangladesh’s garment sector — but there’s a long way to go. Here’s a rough breakdown of how things have progressed.

Victims still haven’t been fully compensated

Rana Plaza wasn’t the first tragedy to hit Bangladesh’s garment sector. Five months earlier, another factory, Tazreen Fashions, had also collapsed, killing 112 people. Bangladesh has no form of workers compensation, so the combined death toll prompted the International Labor Organization to set up a body to take donations and administer claims.

Based on the claims that poured in, and taking into account contributions from the Bangladeshi government, it was estimated that $30 million would be needed to make victims whole. Many companies and individuals have donated. Canada’s Loblaw’s grocery chain kicked in $3.37 million, for example, and Primark of the U.K. contributed $7.3 million. Payments have been made in installments, with victims receiving $22.7 million to date. But as of today, the fund is still $6 million short.

Activist groups say that donations from brands like the Children’s Place and Benetton are inadequate, relative to the business they did in the two factories before the collapse. So on Friday, they’re launching protests in dozens of cities across Europe and the United States urging the companies to pay up.

“The apparel brands that were buyers at Rana Plaza were unwilling to adopt a formula requiring themselves to pay in particular amounts, and so it has required public campaigning to urge companies to pay in,” says Liana Foxvog, head of organizing at the International Labor Rights Forum. “What’s important is that the victims receive the full amount that they are owed by the second anniversary.”

More inspections in factories, but only those where Western brands do business

In the tumultuous months following the collapse at Rana Plaza, the brands that had been manufacturing there were under tremendous public pressure to take action. Very quickly, they settled into two camps: the Alliance, composed of 27 mostly American companies like Wal-Mart and the Gap; and the Accord, with more than 190 mostly European brands like Adidas and Inditex.

There are a lot of politics between the two groups -- labor rights advocates back the Accord, saying it requires greater commitments from its members and has more formal worker participation -- but they do essentially the same thing. They inspect factories, determine what needs to be fixed to bring them up to code and commit to withdrawing their business if they don’t. The two entities have inspected about 2,100 factory buildings, leading to more than 30 being shut down. Crews of engineers are now overseeing the addition of safety features like fire doors, sprinklers and emergency exits.

Even Workers Rights Consortium executive director Scott Nova, a critic of the Alliance who pressed brands to take action years before Rana Plaza, says that the corporate collaboration has been unprecedented.

“After Rana, clearly the brands couldn’t say that our programs are adequate,” Nova says. “Prior to that, they rejected the entire idea that they should be expected to provide financial help to factories to improve conditions.”

So far, however, the factories are financing most of the renovations themselves, sometimes with the help of the brands that source clothes from them. The Alliance is about to roll out a credit program that will guarantee construction loans even for the smaller, riskier factories that might otherwise have trouble qualifying. Other companies, like VF Corp., have set up similar arrangements on their own. Overall, says Alliance adviser Ian Spaulding, they’ve tried to make the fixes cheaper to carry out, but he thinks there’s value in insisting that the factory owner take on the actual expense.

"When a factory owner believes that someone is going to rescue them, it encourages them to wait until things are really bad and wait for the money to pour in,” Spaulding says. “The burden of remediation is on the factory, but the Alliance can do things to make it easier.” Thus far, the Alliance probably hasn’t extracted enough money from its members to pay for all the upgrades anyway; an 18-month period yielded $13.579 million in dues, which are based on the member companies’ volume of exports. The Accord says it will spend $50 million in total.

At the moment, the Accord’s executive director, Rob Wayss, says that upgrades are underway at nearly half the 1,600 factories under their purview. He’ll soon have 60 engineers on the job in two cities. And there’s a deadline: Both the Accord and the Alliance expire after five years in operation. The brands could decide to renew their commitment, but there’s no guarantee.“We’re still not satisfied with the pace of the remediation,” Wayss says. “We are working unbelievably hard to make sure that it happens before the five years.”

“We’re still not satisfied with the pace of the remediation. We are working unbelievably hard to make sure that it happens before the five years.”
— Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

Even if they do fix the factories where they have contracts, however, they may not reach the whole industry. Although the government has registered only about 3,400 factories, Sarah Labowitz, director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, has estimated that there are closer to 6,000 -- many of them smaller buildings that subcontract with the larger companies when big orders come in.

"It’s really about the invisible factories,” Labowitz says. "There’s a network of thousands of factories that don’t maintain direct relationships with buyers. Nobody knows how many there are.”

If you don’t know how many buildings there are, it’s hard to monitor them. On the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, Labowitz issued a report on how existing initiatives weren’t enough to solve some of the biggest problems, like a lack of infrastructure and access to land for new factories to replace those that can’t be fixed. A year later, she says, those problems remain.

Government isn’t following through on commitments  

Like the brands, the Bangladeshi government acted quickly after Tazreen and Rana Plaza to overhaul laws and set up procedures to administer the massive upgrading needed in the country’s overgrown garment industry. It established a review panel to adjudicate cases of egregious building violations. It mandated safety committees and health centers for factories, raised the minimum wage and beefed up the inspector workforce.

The tragedies had attracted white-hot international attention, and consequences: The U.S. government suspended trade preferences for Bangladesh in June 2013, slapping tariffs on a range of imports until Bangladesh improved.

All of that has had some effect, with the government helping to oversee inspections and lowering the import duty on materials needed to complete repairs. But follow-through has been lackluster. The government hasn’t finalized the rules for the labor law changes it approved back in 2013, making implementation difficult. The U.S. Trade Representative reviewed the country’s progress on labor rights in January and found it had a lot further to go; the U.S. Congress still hasn’t seen fit to lift trade sanctions.

Of particular concern to the trade representative is widespread retaliation against trade unionists. Labor law reforms made registering a union easier, and about 300 have been formed, but only a handful of those have collective bargaining rights. According to a new report out from Human Rights Watch, unions exist in 10 percent of factories, and those who try to organize or advocate often face violence or simply lose their jobs. Enforcement of labor rights has been close to nonexistent: There’s substantial overlap between factory ownership and government officials, who have been slow to crack down on the industry.

“We sat in meetings with the Labor minister who’s said, ‘haven’t you had enough union action, you can stop for now.’”
— Aleya Akter, secretary general of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation

“We sat in meetings with the Labor minister who’s said, ‘Haven’t you had enough union action, you can stop for now,’” says Aleya Akter, secretary general of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.

The clothing companies have been a little more helpful. In one recent instance, labor groups documented horrible beatings of trade unionists by the Azim Group, a company with 27,000 employees. After being presented with the evidence, a collection of American and European brands pulled their orders from Azim’s factories.

But for more run-of-the-mill intimidation, outside their safety and health mission, the companies emphasize that they can’t take the place of the authorities.

“We’ve had some cases where we’ve had to deal with reprisals, but our scope is finite,” says the Accord’s Rob Wayss.

How Rana Plaza reverberates

Although pressure has been greatest for those companies that did business in Tazreen and Rana Plaza, observers say that there’s been a fundamental change in the broader industry’s mind-set.

“From what I’ve seen, Tazreen and Rana were wake-up calls,” says Kurt Cavano, vice chairman of GTNexus, a supply-chain logistics company that provides a cloud-based platform for companies to fill orders around the world. “Chasing that last nickel of cost has to be done in a way that doesn’t put your business at risk."

Cavano says his clients are asking for services that help them know more about the places where their products are manufactured, like a geotagging function that tells them if an order has been illegally subcontracted, which could help with pinpointing the “invisible contractors” that have been so hard for safety advocates to reach. He’s also working on a pilot project with Levi’s and the International Finance Corporation to offer cheaper short-term credit to companies that pass inspections of their safety practices.

“People are realizing we can’t just bludgeon the suppliers,” Cavano says. “We need to make sure they have positive reinforcement.” (Of course, that program has the advantage of not costing apparel brands anything, either.)

The cooperative efforts of the Accord and the Alliance could also be replicated in other places, says Nate Herman, vice president for international trade at the American Apparel and Footwear Association.

“What we’ve seen in Bangladesh is that working together can make a difference,” Herman says. “We’re looking to see where else that makes sense. Lessons learned are being carried over by the industry into other factories that they’re sourcing in around the world.”

Of course, many in Bangladesh’s garment industry fear that holding international brands accountable could prompt them to pull business from the country, and take it someplace where the government is more accommodating, or the safety issues aren’t as dire -- Cambodia and Vietnam aren’t that far away, after all. As much as workers blame the brands for letting things get so bad in the first place, the last thing they want is for the industry to disappear.

“There are about 4 million garment workers. It’s impossible for them to get work anywhere else, because this is what they’re skilled to do,” says Aleya Akter, the union leader. “Not only are we asking for compensation for the brands, we are also asking them: Do not walk away from us. Do not walk away from Bangladesh."