Since Bangladeshi garment complex's 2013 collapse, little has changed, group says

People rescue garment workers trapped under rubble at the Rana Plaza building after it collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, April 24, 2013. The tragedy, which claimed the lives of more than a thousand clothing workers, makes one wonder about the connections between cheap clothing in U.S. stores and the exploitation of workers who make them under perilous conditions. (OSV News photo/Andrew Bira, Reuters)

NEW YORK (OSV News) – Ten years after the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh's history, a group of interfaith investors is calling on more companies to join a legally binding agreement to reform the garment-making industry, create safe factories and protect human rights.

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza garment complex collapsed, leaving 1,134 workers dead and injuring more than 2,500 others. Less than a month later, trade unions and some international companies published the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement to work toward a safe and healthy garment and textile industry in Bangladesh. This was followed in 2021 by the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which at least 195 countries have signed.

In January 2023, the International Accord was expanded into Pakistan, where a 2022 report found that almost half the garment workers surveyed do not have access to basic facilities such as clean toilets, safe drinking water and regularly scheduled rest breaks. About 45 international companies have signed onto the Pakistan agreement.

On April 19, a coalition of 192 global institutional investors representing more than $1.3 trillion in assets asked companies in their portfolios to commit to safeguarding the health and safety of workers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and throughout global supply chains, including by signing onto the International Accord if they had not already done so. More than two dozen Catholic religious orders as well as the United Church of Canada and the missionary society and corporate body of the Episcopal Church were among those signing the Rana Plaza anniversary statement.

Coalition members also asked companies to strengthen the implementation of human rights due diligence as defined by the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and to join a pilot program for injuries in the ready-made garment industry.

In 2018, the Asian church news agency reported that families of those who died and were injured in the Rana Plaza collapse received between $588 and $58,800 in compensation from a fund created with donations from home and abroad, foreign governments and international brands. But very few received high amounts, reported.

Babul Akhter, then-president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, told "It was inadequate given that many workers lost limbs, got paralyzed and became psychologically traumatized. They deserved much more as they can never work again."

In October 2022, the University of Notre Dame (Indiana) and Notre Dame University Bangladesh, both run by the Holy Cross Fathers, sponsored a three-day conference for about 30 scholars, garment workers, union activists and lawyers in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Kevin Hargaden, a theologian and director of the Irish Jesuit Center for Faith and Justice, was among those in attendance.

"The garment workers that I was talking with – they're looking for pay raises of 6 cents per garment. It's literally pennies, and yet we're not able to achieve that," he said in a SoundCloud interview published by the Irish Jesuits.

He told a story of one activist who was invited by a trade union to visit New York; the Bangladeshi ducked into a popular U.S. clothing store when it started to rain. The activist saw some jeans that she used to make and was shocked to find that while the workers got paid less than a euro (about $1.10 US) to make the jeans, the clothing was selling for close to 100 euros. "So the sheer scale of exploitation at play there was scandalizing" to the woman who had begun working in the factories at age 14, Hargaden said.

"One garment worker was asked, 'What would you want us to go back and tell our students in Ireland, in Austria, in America?' and she said, "I want you to tell them that 'Your clothes are stained with our blood.' ... She was not seeking attention, she was just trying to communicate the truth, that their lives are squashed and stretched thin beyond the point of breaking, and we go to buy a $3.99 pair of slacks."

"The people that are putting our clothes together have extraordinary skills that they have refined over years," Hargaden said. "They're not getting paid enough money to put food on their table, to pay for their electricity and to put their kids in school. They're working incredibly long hours under absolute passive harassment – if they step out of line at all, there's a million ways for them to be kicked out, and there's a thousand people who'll take the job."

The theologian said buying more expensive clothes does not mean those who made them have better working conditions, and he said not all Western companies are evil. But he said corporate inspections can be manipulated. For example, when an international inspector is due on site, a factory might open its day care center, and everyone must take their children to work that day, so it looks like a better situation than it really is. When the inspectors leave, the day care closes, he said. He also noted that sexual harassment is rife, and people with little education are tricked into signing documents that say something different than they are told.

Change will not happen overnight; the entire economic system is geared toward more and more growth, Hargaden said. He suggested people slow – not stop – consumption, being mindful of how many clothes they actually need. Garment workers "are honestly fighting for subsistence wage, not even minimum wage, not even living wage," let alone a just wage, he said.

"Brutal capitalism left unregulated and unrestrained produces a situation like Bangladesh, where even to talk about justice appears to be a fantasy," he said.


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