“The fire in the garment factory began on the fourth floor, where polo shirts, neatly folded in boxes, made a fine feast for the hungry flames,” wrote the New York Times. Fifty-two people died in the November 25, 2000, disaster at Chowdhury Knitwears, thirty-five miles from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
In the ensuing years, I learned that this fire was a typical incident. Month after month, year after year, industrial disasters like fires plagued the garment industry in Bangladesh. I started feeling inured to the impact of articles like that of the Times, because I knew they would keep coming like clockwork yet nothing would change.
Then, ten years ago this week, the potential for everything to change arose. The garment industry saw its biggest disaster in its history: Rana Plaza, an eight-story building in Bangladesh’s capital, collapsed, killing over 1,130 people and leaving more than 2,500 others injured or permanently disabled.
Management in the factories had known that the building was coming apart on April 23. A television crew had even filmed it. Workers were forced to go to work anyway on April 24.
According to worker testimony, one garment company in the building, Ether Tex, threatened to withhold a month’s pay from workers who didn’t come in that day. Who knows how many other threats and abuses workers were subjected to as they considered whether their work or their life was more important.
It must have been a considerable number. The garment manufacturers’ association conceded that there were more than three thousand workers in the building at the time. When the heavy diesel generators started up at about 9 a. m., they set off the final collapse of the building.
Rana Plaza was far more gruesome than even the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, in which 146 garment workers died as a result of a fire at a Manhattan factory. All of a sudden, the whole world was watching the garment industry, again. People in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere in the Global North actually noticed that the garment sector in Bangladesh and elsewhere was rife with health and safety problems. And Bangladeshis immediately understood that Sohel Rana, the building owner, should be held accountable.
Rana had secured a permit to build on top of the site of a filled-in pond. He illegally built three stories above the permit and allowed industrial activities in a building constructed for commercial uses. To top it off, he had reassured the public, garment factory managers, and workers that the building was safe on April 23, the day before the collapse, when there were already cracks showing in the building.
Relatives of the injured and deceased, workers, and politicians in Bangladesh also immediately called for accountability against the powerful garment manufacturers’ cartel in the country. But most of the money made on a piece of clothing goes neither to the workers who make it nor to the factory owner in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, or Turkey, let alone the owner of the building that houses the factories.
Rather, it is overwhelmingly left in the hands of manufacturing and retail brands in the Global North like Walmart and Zara. For example, Walmart’s revenues in 2021 were almost 40 percent higher than the entire GDP of Bangladesh that year. This gives Walmart the bulk of the power in the industry by allowing them to put price pressure on their contractors, with the implicit threat of their ability to move production elsewhere always looming. In turn, contractors are able to force their mostly women workers to accept low wages, long hours, and harassment and assault.
Since the 1990s, the anti-sweatshop movement in the United States has attempted to force brands to be held accountable for the conditions in which workers make their clothes. For years, some very slow changes notwithstanding, the manufacturers and retailers refused to budge.
After Rana Plaza, this changed to a significant degree. It had to — there was simply too much public attention to a disaster on an enormous scale. In essence, the world said, “No more Rana Plazas.” Years of campaigning to link the brands and retailers at the top of the contracting pyramid that makes up the garment industry finally started to pay off. When people started looking for responsible parties, names like Benetton, Zara, the Children’s Place, Primark, and Walmart came up as some of the many brands that were sourcing from the numerous garment factories in the building. No longer were they able to simply elide guilt by avoiding formal legal ownership of the factories or the production process.
What happened next is part of the tragedy in this story. Within two weeks of Rana Plaza, international NGOs, representatives of Global North brands, and Bangladeshi unions sat down to hammer out the Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh. Building off an existing model developed in preceding years, it brought almost two hundred brands into a legally binding framework to ensure safer factory conditions. Many brands could now be sued for factory disasters like Rana Plaza.
The accord did ensure safer conditions during its five-year initial run. The body provided independent inspections, a mechanism for remediation for factories that were willing to cooperate, a blacklist for those that would not, and a legally binding compact that international brands were liable for. By May 2021, it had informed over 1.8 million workers about workplace safety and inspected over 1,600 factories.
Even its harshest good-faith critics acknowledge that it has saved many lives by averting fires and other building safety problems.
Those in charge of the accord slowly, and in a limited way, began to incorporate responses to criticisms, like the accord’s lack of focus on issues like wages and union organizing. And regardless of the accord’s focus, the fact that many eyes from around the world were now on Bangladesh’s garment industry helped foster more openness toward independent trade unionism, sorely lacking prior to 2013.
In 2012, there was one unionized factory in Bangladesh; shortly after Rana Plaza, there were ninety-six. Today, there are around 1,200, with one trade union leader estimating that about one hundred of them have good unions.
But all of that attention did not hit on the key to a sustainable solution that could outlive the new post–Rana Plaza political leverage and transform the industry. By 2018, Bangladesh’s politically powerful garment manufacturers brought a court case to end the accord. Slowly, the accord was unwound.
This despite the fact that the accord had not created a sufficient space for organized and empowered workers to advocate continuously for themselves in a condition of extreme global and workplace inequality. The accord was a temporary governance solution for narrow ends, not a permanent mechanism for the kind of change that can only come from workers themselves organizing through institutions like unions. Unions have expanded in Bangladesh, but nowhere near the point needed to act as a substantive check on the garment industry bosses.
As a result, there appears to have been little thought — and less commitment — to what would happen after the leverage of the accord was gone. With Rana Plaza receding into the past, garment manufacturers and international brands and retailers now faced little pressure to improve working conditions.
The proof is in the pudding. With the accord’s power receding in Bangladesh over the past five years, Bangladeshi garment worker deaths on the job have already begun ticking up. By 2020, the number of workplace deaths had been reduced to one, but the following year, after the accord’s implementation was handed off to a local body, they jumped back up to thirteen. Workplace accidents also increased. And as the pandemic began, brands cut garment orders immediately, leaving entire countries like Bangladesh at the mercy of the whims of the global economy. Trade unionism in Bangladesh’s garment sector is headed back to the repressed state it was in before 2013, according to garment union leaders I’ve spoke with. It was, as scholar and filmmaker Chaumtoli Huq told me, a “lost opportunity” to significantly boost worker and union power in Bangladesh.
In a sad sense, we are right back where we started. For now, the Bangladeshi factories are safer. But it’s almost as hard as ever to unionize in those factories. Bangladesh has grown wealthier since the tragedy, but the country remains 129th out of 191 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. This situation will persist absent a garment workers’ revolt. In the meantime, as Rana Plaza fades from public memory, those 1,130-plus deaths appear to have been all but forgotten by the world beyond Bangladesh.