A Year After Rana Plaza: What Hasn’t Changed Since the Bangladesh Factory Collapse
When I met Rajina Aktar in February of last year, her eyes were still red and her memory still fuzzy from the toxic smoke that had knocked her unconscious three weeks earlier. The 15-year-old had been sewing pockets onto winter jackets when a fire broke out at Smart Export Garments, an illegal factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Walking through the ruins, I saw what appeared to be handprints and scratch marks on the walls of the stairwell where eight workers were crushed to death as 350 people tried to push through a single locked exit.
Someone had managed to carry Aktar to safety. In the dank basement room where she lived, she told me that with four relatives to support and no education, she expected to return to the assembly line as soon as she recovered. “There is nothing else,” she said.
Fires in the factories of Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment export industry were occurring an average of two to three times a week then. I wrote for The Washington Post that dangerous conditions weren’t likely to improve as long as major Western companies continued to send high-volume orders and consumers continued to demand the lowest possible prices.
Then came Rana Plaza. When the eight-story building collapsed on April 24, the scale of suffering — more than 1,134 killed, 2,515 injured — seemed too great for even the most apathetic companies and governments to ignore. Haunting imagery fueled protests around the world. Parallels were drawn to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, when the deaths of 146 garment workers in a New York City factory locked by its owners led to lasting safety reforms.
Indeed, a year later, Bangladesh’s garment industry has improved. More than 150 mostly European companies have signed the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh , while 26 predominantly American companies, including Wal-Mart, Sears and Gap, have joined a separatealliance that commits them to invest in safety upgrades (and limits their liability when things go wrong). The factories they source from are gradually being upgraded, and monitoring is getting better. Meanwhile, foreign government pressure, including the suspension of U.S. trade privileges for Bangladesh, helped lead to new labor laws that, at face value, protect workers by making it easier for them to organize. Emboldened workers are now speaking out against bad conditions, walking out if necessary. And their collective efforts have secured a minimum-wage increase that will provide some financial security.
But we’d be foolish to believe that the industry has thoroughly cleaned up its act or that it will continue to try to as Western concern flags.
Reports from independent factory inspections conducted late last year painted a worrisome picture. Dangerously heavy storage loads sent cracks down walls and stressed sagging support beams. In some cases, basic fire equipment was missing, and exit routes didn’t lead outside. One of the best factories in the country — a client of Hugo Boss, Marks & Spencer and PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger — received multiple citations.
And those are the front-line factories. The open secret in Bangladesh is that there’s a vast underworld of off-the-books operations that backstop the export industry. Sandwiched inside apartment buildings, in basements and on rooftops, underpaid and overworked employees finish orders from larger companies under fierce pressure to stay apace with fast fashion. Hidden from view, bosses are free to abuse workers and cut corners on safety.
One afternoon last September, I snuck inside a signless Dhaka factory to see for myself. On a packed floor without windows, workers ironed T-shirts beneath droning fans and florescent lighting. In the corner, a man affixed tags to pink children’s jumpsuits priced at 5 pounds sterling. Though I had chosen the factory at random, the fire code violations were plenty: Evacuation maps were covered with flyers, hoses were missing from their hinges, stacks of boxes and piles of synthetic fabric blocked exits. It was not hard to imagine the worst.
A top garment producer admitted to me that unauthorized subcontracting remains standard practice across the industry. With so many variables threatening to disrupt production — political violence, strikes, electrical breakdowns — he still farms out some work to meet deadlines. “There will be subcontracting every day — you cannot stop it,” he told me in his posh headquarters, flanked by a wall of framed audit certificates commending his company. “Officially, the brands will say ‘No more,’ that they are controlling it. But unofficially, it will always happen, and they know it.”
Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza Collapse. Read the rest of Pulitzer Center grantee Jason Motlagh’s reporting about the collapse and what has been done in the year since here.
Jason Motlagh is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. Reporting for this essay and for “The Ghosts of Rana Plaza,” featured in the spring issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
To learn more about the Rana Plaza collapse, you can look at Pulitzer Center grantee Fred de Sam Lazaro’s project: Promises, Promises: One Year After Rana Plaza