On 23 April 2013, huge cracks appeared in the building known as Rana Plaza, located in Savar, an industrial city near Dhaka. People evacuated, and the ground-floor bank and shop remained closed the next day. But workers in the garment factory were ordered to continue working. Rana Plaza then collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people — most of them women. More than 2,500 people were injured, many still struggling with their life-changing injuries today. Just months earlier, at least 117 people died and over 200 were injured in the Tazreen Fashion factory fire, when building exits were locked. Both outlets made clothes for major international fashion brands.
The garment industry is central to the Bangladeshi economy. More than 80% of export earnings come from supplying cheap ready-made garments to be sold in rich countries around the world. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of apparel, after China. Massive profits go to the competing corporate outfits running more than 4,500 factories, the global brands who subcontract to these factories and the big retail chains that sell the merchandise.
All of this wealth is made from the toil of 4.1 million garment workers — two-thirds of them women — who work long hours for minuscule wages. Bangladesh has some of the cheapest labour in the world with wages well below other countries in the region, including Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Cambodia, Indonesia and China.
Shaming the brands. The sheer scale of lives lost, the media exposure and the determination of solidarity activists who kept the issue in the public eye threw these image-conscious fashion marketeers into damage control. More than 200 companies signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, initiated by global labour organisations and Bangladeshi trade unions. Inspections led to the closures of at least 16 unsafe factories until safety measures were implemented.
The Accord obligates brand-name companies to disclose their suppliers and take responsibility for following safety codes and compensating for breaches. The Clean Clothes Campaign, one of four monitoring bodies, focuses on mobilising consumers to put pressure on the fashion companies to sign the agreement and adhere to it.
While useful, this approach is limited. First, it does not address the low wages. Second, responsibility for the sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh does not lie with working class consumers in Australia or elsewhere. The problem is the cut-throat capitalist market economy in which factory owners have to drive down costs in order to secure contracts by undercutting their competitors, both local and in other countries.
Workers strike and protest. More powerful is the grassroots organising by Bangladeshi workers. In the months following the collapse of Rana Plaza, a strike wave unfolded, which brought 20% of garment factories to a halt. Regular strikes and protests, with pay increases the central demand, have been large and sustained over the decade. These won an increase in the minimum wage. But the capitalists, with their endless drive to reduce costs, used the COVID pandemic as a pretext for a wage cut.
Bangladesh is also a country harshly impacted by climate change. This creates a steady supply of new labour for the factories as the devastation of rising waters and persistent flooding drives villagers from their lands.
Today the country faces a worsening economic crisis. It’s a cracking dam ready to burst. The unrest amongst garment workers is intensifying over inadequate wages that sometimes go unpaid. Inflation reached 9.25% last year and continues to rise. Fuel prices were jacked up by 40% last August. Workers face daily power outages. The Awami League-led government, in power for four consecutive terms since 2009, is getting increasingly nervous about the rising mass opposition. Its response is repression, with police violence at protests and the use of water cannons and tear gas becoming more common.
In contrast, the wealthy in Bangladesh are doing well — the gap between the rich and the majority is ever-widening. According to the 2022 World Inequality Report, the richest 1% of the population get 16.3% of the national income, while the poorest half get just 17.1%.
The name, Rana Plaza, is often followed by the word “tragedy.” Those who survived say events should be characterised as murder, rather than a random tragic event. On the 10th anniversary, the question is: could this happen again? Yes, it could, despite the campaigns for safer garment production. Industry bosses still have to play by the rules of capitalist competition or go broke. Strengthening workers’ collective power to down tools, demand more pay, shorter hours and insist on workplace safety will have the greatest impact. And the best support that worker-consumers can give is international solidarity by flexing our union power.