On the sixth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, Alessandra Mezzadri, a Senior Lecturer at SOAS, London, and author of The Sweatshop Regime: Garment, Exploitation and Labouring Bodies ‘Made in India’, discusses the progress – or lack of – when it comes to garment workers’ rights and how we can help support workers.
Six years have now passed since the Rana Plaza building collapse; the tragic industrial disaster that claimed the lives of 1,134 Bangladeshi garment workers and severely injured many more. Remembering Rana Plaza is hard. We have hardly seen images of industrial violence of that scale and magnitude across the history of world capitalism. Sadly, this sixth anniversary seems to be marked by great uncertainty over the future of global labour standards in Bangladesh. In fact, one could argue that debates on labour standards are moving in a risky direction for the whole global garment sector.
Remembering Rana Plaza is hard. We have hardly seen images of industrial violence of that scale and magnitude across the history of world capitalism.
In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, many buyers, particularly across Europe, signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh – an international agreement that many welcomed as the end of voluntary, corporate-led social regulations.
Arguably, the Accord has hardly signified the end of voluntarism. It still needed to be signed by buyers to become legally binding, and lack of enforcement or monitoring has not really led to legal consequences for them. Moreover, progress has been admittedly slow and primarily targeted at larger suppliers connected to export markets. Compensation payments to victims and their families also took an abysmally long time, and were based on voluntary donations.
Despite these limitations, in an industry characterised by extremely poor working conditions, high levels of work vulnerability, and employing a predominantly female labour force – particularly in Bangladesh – exposed to varied forms of injustice, agreements like the Accord still provide a platform to continue monitoring and hopefully contrast labour abuse. However, the future of the Accord is now under threat. Renegotiated in 2018, the agreement has yet to be further extended by the Government of Bangladesh, which would like to get rid of it and substitute it with a national body, to boost international competitiveness. On the ground, both local and global unions are pressing for its renewal. At the time of writing this article, the government of Bangladesh has still to respond to these pressures. The Accord’s future is hanging from a thread, depending on a court decision, while around 50% of Accord-inspected factories (one-third of the industry) are yet to fully install fire safety instruments.
Many of those signing the Accord in Bangladesh now have new operations in Ethiopia, without anyone really knowing the working conditions that local industrial areas and new export processing zones provide to their workers.
One could argue that the Accord risks dying of its own very compartmentalised and narrow focus and remit. Rather than merely focusing on Bangladesh, its reach should have been extended to include other countries where garment workers also experience great hardship and high health and safety risk. After all, buyers operate cross-country. Many of those signing the Accord in Bangladesh now have new operations in Ethiopia, without anyone really knowing the working conditions that local industrial areas and new export processing zones provide to their workers. How can a highly localised, country-based agreement work in a highly globalised, footloose industry? And why only focusing on health and safety?
In many ways, the targeted focus on health and safety, and on Bangladesh specifically, the country maimed by such great violence, was seen as fully justified. However, it has led to a cul de sac. First, by only targeting Bangladesh, and not scaling up to include other garment producing countries, the agreement can be now portrayed by Bangladeshi government officials as a form of non-tariff barriers only affecting their country – some sort of protectionism with a human face. Secondly, a mere health and safety remit is showing to be far too limited in tackling the many issues of garment workers face worldwide, including in Bangladesh. H&M, a signatory of the Accord, is currently being heavily criticised for not paying living wages despite setting up in 2013 their own living wage programme. On the other hand, that was not the deal they signed up for; it was just about avoiding factories collapsing onto workers’ bodies.
Today the labour agenda in the sector seems to be content to simply keeping workers alive and outside the worst forms of coercion into work. However, this is hardly enough for a progressive labour agenda.
In fact, one could say that the six years since the Rana Plaza tragedy have been characterised by a narrowing down of the labour agenda across the global garment industry, rather than its expansion and deepening. Debates on standards have shrunk to primarily target infrastructural issues to avoid new disasters, as well as fighting the so-called ‘business of forced labour’ and what many define as ‘modern slavery’. In short, today the labour agenda in the sector seems to be content to simply keeping workers alive and outside the worst forms of coercion into work. However, this is hardly enough for a progressive labour agenda.
Moreover, emphasis on modern slavery fails to take into consideration the rather terrible features that characterise the ‘normalcy of exploitation’ in the sector, as well as all the many different forms in which labour unfreedom manifests in the sector. Also, despite the sensationalist language, new regulations targeting modern slavery seem to simply be leading to an institutionalisation of voluntary corporate-based labour regulation by the state. Indeed, this seems to be the case for the UK 2015 Modern Slavery Act, which contains a very weak clause (the TISC clause) to ‘clean’ global supply chains like garment. The ILO has recently underlined the uselessness of the modern slavery agenda in tackling labour freedom concerns in global supply chains.
The recent Beyonce and Spice Girls T-Shirt/Comic Relief debacles have even shown the limited understanding of sweatshop mechanisms by celebrities and NGOs and confirmed the on-going casual offshoring practices of many retailers and buying houses.
In the context of this tricky policy scenario, sweatshop scandals continue to unfold. Buyers and retailers continue misbehaving and minor industrial accidents – mainly unreported – continue to occur; business as usual. In fact, the recent Beyonce and Spice Girls T-Shirt/Comic Relief debacles have even shown the limited understanding of sweatshop mechanisms by celebrities and NGOs and confirmed the on-going casual offshoring practices of many retailers and buying houses. In Bangladesh, as we discuss the fate of the Accord, factory fires and other ‘minor’ tragedies have been reported. Hasan Ashraf, a Bangladeshi anthropologist and an attentive observer of the garment industry, has posted on social media graphic evidence of a fire erupted in a garment subcontracting factory in Ibrahimpur Poolper in Dhaka on April 14th. In fact, it seems all buildings in Dhaka suffer from severe infrastructural issues, exposing the Bangladeshi population to high risk from fires and collapses.
So, what can we do to help workers on the sixth anniversary of Rana Plaza? Indeed, we can support Bangladeshi garment workers by supporting the renegotiation of the Accord, the widening of its scope to labour issues beyond health and safety and the widening of its reach beyond Bangladesh. More broadly, we can and should support garment workers’ struggles worldwide; their rights to safety, but also their right to work and live with dignity. To do this, we need to continue the process of politicisation of our consumption. There cannot be buyers’ accountability where workers are not supported in their campaigns, organising, and struggles. Let’s familiarise ourselves with what workers’ demands worldwide are, by following their voices and learning about the many challenges they and their unions face, both at the international and national level. And let’s make sure we make buyers – and suppliers – know that we will not shop where we cannot struggle.
*Alessandra Mezzadri is Senior Lecturer at SOAS, London, and the author of The Sweatshop Regime: Garment, Exploitation and Labouring Bodies “Made in India’ (CUP, 2017). Special thanks to Hasan Ashraf for his comments and suggestions.
Watch the film of Livia Firth in Bangladesh as she visited the site of Rana Plaza.
Read more about the Bangladesh Accord.