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Rana Plaza disaster 11 years on: What has changed?

Shristi Pal
April 23, 2024

11 years since the Rana Plaza tragedy, the biggest industrial disaster in Bangladesh's history, many garment workers are still met with overwork, underpay and a lack of job security.

The collapsed Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka in April 2013
The Rana Plaza building had housed five garment factories that manufactured clothes for many international clothing brands in Europe and North AmericaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Abdullah

"The roof came crumbling down upon us. We felt as if we were free-falling towards the ground," said Afroza Begum, recalling the events of April 24, 2013, when the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building on the outskirts of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, killed 1,134 and wounded at least 2,500 people.   

At the time, Begum worked as a seamstress there, producing garments for several global fashion brands.

"Fifteen or so of us laid in a pile on top of each other. Scratching, grunting and looking for an escape. There was no electricity, so it was pitch dark," she said, describing it as the most harrowing experience of her life.

"Then I saw a beam of light enter through a massive hole in the wall. I did not die, because I landed on dead bodies," she said.

Afroza was dragged out of the rubble and taken to the nearest government hospital for treatment. Two of her relatives working in the eight-storey building at the time of its collapse died.

What changed after the tragedy?

The Rana Plaza building had housed five garment factories that manufactured clothes for many international clothing brands in Europe and North America.

Investigations would later reveal that besides shoddy construction, the building had too many floors and too much heavy equipment for the structure to withstand.

"The disaster could have been stopped because companies knew about the risks but didn't do anything to fix them," said the Clean Clothes Campaign group.

Afroza Begum, a former garment worker and victim of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013
'I live on medicines and have permanent nerve damage, anxiety and heart problems,' said Afroza BegumImage: Erfan Hyeum

Eleven years since the tragedy, the biggest industrial disaster in the South Asian nation's history, some reforms have been introduced to hold international brands accountable for worker safety, even though violations persist.

The groundbreaking Bangladesh Accord came into force in 2013, giving unions greater say while holding fashion brands legally accountable for ensuring factories remained safe.

Over 220 brands eventually signed on to the original accord, which ran until 2018 and has since been renewed as the "International Accord."

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign group, the accord has made more than 1,600 factories in Bangladesh safer for over 2.5 million workers.

Only two brands have been brought to court for violating the regulation contract since 2013.

Poor working conditions persist

Still, not all is well when it comes to safety, say rights groups.

"Occupational safety and health measures in these factories are very lax," said Diana Quiroz, a researcher who surveyed trade union leaders active in the garment sector in a few Asian countries, including Bangladesh.

Her research, she told DW, has shown that workers are forced to sit on the factory floor in the same position for hours and do repetitive tasks.

"Almost all of them develop skeletal or muscular diseases. The factories have no air circulation and they never see sunlight," she noted.

"It's important for both employers and governments to recognize their respective roles and responsibilities in addressing these challenges and improving the overall well-being of workers," Quiroz added. 

Many workers also suffer from overwork, underpay and a lack of job security.

"Even today, Bangladesh is one of the largest hubs for cheap labor for companies like H&M, Zara, and Primark," said Elizabeth Segran, who covers fashion and sustainability at Fast Company.

The workers earn on average €70 ($75) a month, much less than the about €284 needed for a decent living, according to the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies.

"Also, the working conditions are usually really bad," Segran underlined.

Taking stock of Bangladesh’s garment sector

Sanchaita Saxena, an expert on labor, business, and human rights in global supply chains, shares a similar view.

"The factories still underpay, overwork and offer no employment security to the workers," she pointed out, calling for increased focus on the rights and protection of the workers.

The textile sector, however, is crucial to Bangladesh's economy — about 3,500 garment factories account for around 85% of its $55 billion in annual exports, supplying many of the world's top brands including Levi's, Zara and H&M.

Last year, the country witnessed massive street protests by thousands of workers demanding higher wages, claiming their pay left them unable to make ends meet.

The demonstrations forced authorities to raise the minimum monthly wage for garment workers from 8,000 taka (€70, $75)  to 12,500 taka.

But some protesters said the 56% increase was too small and demanded a 23,000 taka minimum.

Are global brands doing enough?

Workers' rights bodies say global fashion brands like H&M and Zara should commit to paying living wages and absorbing the higher labor costs. 

The Clean Clothes Campaign group accuses companies that source apparel from factories in Bangladesh, of not doing enough to protect labor rights.

The organization pointed to threats issued by factory owners to thwart the workers from forming and joining unions.

"In order to scare away the union leaders, factories use fake complaints to scare thousands of workers who protested in 2023," the group said.

Economic crisis hampers Bangladesh's garment sector

Activists have long urged international companies and foreign governments to crack down on abuses of workers' rights in the textile supply chain.

On April 24, 2024, the European Parliament will decide on a new bill called the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, which would require firms to act to eliminate practices such as child labor, forced labor and inadequate safety standards in their supply chains.

The legislation offers a glimmer of hope to people like Afroza Begum, who has been living with the grim consequences of the Rana Plaza disaster over the past 11 years.

"I live on medicines and have permanent nerve damage, anxiety and heart problems," she said. She is no longer able to work due to a disability caused by the accident.

The small sums of compensation she received from the Bangladeshi government, NGOs and the companies have long since run dry. "Justice has yet to be delivered," she said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Shristi Pal Journalist and Media Presenter