Rana Plaza, 2013
Rana Plaza was an eight-story building in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, that hosted shops and banks on the lower two floors, and ready-made garment factories on the upper floors. The building lacked compliance with any regulations which some argue was due to the corrupt practices of the owner. It was built on wetland, it was not designed to be eight stories tall, and it was definitely not built to serve as a factory with heavy machinery. The day before the collapse, it was shown on local television that the building was structurally compromised with cracks wide enough to poke limbs through. After evacuating the building, the owner decided the building was safe and the RMG workers were ordered to go back with the threat of a month’s pay being taken away from them. The following day, the building collapsed, causing 1134 fatalities and over 2500 injuries – the worst industrial incident of modern times. It is often described as entirely preventable – factory owners could simply close the factories until the cracks were fixed. However, the dangerous working conditions would have been exposed in an event of a similar scale sooner or later.
Aftermath – (In)justice
International efforts to compensate victims were set up through the Rana Plaza Arrangement (chaired by the International Labour Organisation) through voluntary donations from corporations, NGOs and Bangladesh trade unions. Accord and Alliance for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh were created and signed by corporations as 5-year action plans to improve working conditions. They pledged to conduct factory inspections and corrective action plans for all factories in Bangladesh to ensure people do not work in hazardous conditions. Some corporations, such as Primark, have put their hands up, admitted and apologised for sourcing their clothing from Rana Plaza, meanwhile others denied their involvement. Consumers in the West were encouraged not to purchase fast fashion by activists and movements to stop perpetuating these harms. The factory owner along with another 37 individuals were indicted and charged with murder and manslaughter for which they could receive the death penalty. Minimum wage for workers was increased. Workers were now allowed to unionise. Corporate sustainability initiatives have been brought by companies and global organizations and fashion brands introduced new sustainable ranges into their lines. Everything is better, the industry is safer, cleaner, kinder and workers are being looked after.
The responses have been widely criticised, behind every good decision there is a dubious one, so the looming sense of injustice remains. Accord and Alliance were based on doing factory inspections and creating remediation plans to eliminate safety hazards, but it was not specified who was supposed to bear the cost for the repairs, creating tensions between the suppliers and the buyers. Workers also reported conditions of the factory have been altered for the inspections (such as unlocking doors and unblocking fire exists) and the next day returned to the previous dangerous conditions. Unionising remains complicated as applications are being rejected for trivial reasons. The Alliance has now expired and has not been renewed nor replaced. The criminal trials still hang in the balance due to covid delays and limited resources.
The trust fund donations have been insufficient and the conditions for receiving compensation horrendously difficult (corporate compensation required a DNA proof for deceased family members which is expensive and unrealistic in a structural collapse). The minimum wage for workers was increased, however, so were their living expenses as factory owners are oftentimes also landlords. They also still remain three-times as low as other popular fashion outsourcing countries, such as China or Vietnam. Moreover, it was also reported during the pandemic that Bangladeshi factories were forcing workers to work during lockdowns and that fast fashion brands were refusing to pay the factories for already fulfilled orders.
There is also a common misconception that slowing down fast fashion is in the hands of the consumers – we have the moral responsibility to check and adjust our consumer behaviour to stop perpetrating harm in the global supply chains. What it fails to account for is that not everyone has the same purchasing power, some people rely on cheap fast fashion as it is the only fashion they can afford. In doing so, it shifts the responsibility from the powerful corporations towards the consumers who have very limited ways of impacting wider structural inequalities.
Yes, there have been many campaigns, such as #whomakesmyclothes to humanise RMG workers, and #payup to hold companies who were not paying garment workers their wages during the COVID-19 pandemic that consumers have participated in, so Rana Plaza can be seen as an eye-opening event. But frankly, this is not enough as it neglects structural injustices seen in our society.
The ‘so called’ sustainable ranges introduced by fast fashion brands resulted in lawsuits for making false claims about recycled materials. And most importantly: there were no discernible consequences for corporations that had their clothes made in Rana Plaza – a much different outcome than corporate fines in the West.
What are the Harms of Fast Fashion?
Many of the harms of fast fashion are systemic and endemic of the economic systems we live under, a point well recognised in the study of social harms or Zemiology. So, the aftermath and the global efforts of corporations and NGOs alike are unlikely to affect the fundamental harms associated with fast fashion. They may have marginally helped RMG workers by empowering them, but many of these harms are systemic and trying to respond individually to systemic issues could as well fulfil the definition of insanity. Since Rana Plaza, there have been 109 more incidents with 27 fatalities and almost 500 injuries at the hands of fast fashion.
Conditions for RMG workers remain difficult, the living wage in Dhaka is estimated at around $255 but factory workers only receive a minimum wage of $95 which may also include overtime. Bangladeshi workers are the cheapest workforce compared to other RMG-reliant countries, such as China and Vietnam. The RMG industry continues to be one of the highest polluters and environmental harm offenders in the world. Many products are made with synthetic materials with production creating huge carbon footprints, owing to the use of non-recyclable and non-reusable materials and the long-distance transport from suppliers to buyers.
There is no way to end on a positive note here: ten years after Rana Plaza, no legal protections have been introduced to police corporations and to essentially prevent another such incident from happening. Fast fashion remains one of the worst polluters and biggest contributors to climate change and the only bit of compliance is fulfilled through self-regulation and reliance on corporate social responsibility. The vast amount of harms described in this article (which only covers one very specific event in the context of one very specific industry) almost makes it seem like the legacy of Rana Plaza is limited at best. This will persist unless we start addressing the fast fashion harms stemming from capitalism and globalisation – the very fundamental systems that run the world which prioritise wealth and growth over human rights, welfare, and the environment.
About the author
Jana Macfarlane Horn is currently working on her Ph.D. examining corporate crime discourses in podcasts at The Open University with an ESRC scholarship. The key research focus throughout her Criminology-focussed studies has always been corporate crime and its marginal position in and out of academia, which she hopes to challenge with her future contributions. You can catch Jana at the BSC conference in June 2023 at UCLan where she will present a more in-depth analysis of this case.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the British Society of Criminology or the institution they work for.
This article was originally published on the BSC blog: https://thebscblog.wordpress.com/2023/03/23/rana-plaza-10-years-on-fast-fashion-lesson-forgotten/