Dhaka, Bangladesh – 10 years have passed, but the trauma of gasping under the rubble for more than 10 hours still haunts Rehnuma Akter.
On the fateful day of April 24, 2013, Akter came to work at a garment factory in Savar city, on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, producing ready-to-wear clothes for a British fashion brand.
An hour after her shift began, Rana Plaza, the nine-story building where her garment factory was located along with four other people, collapsed into a pile of bricks, machinery and factory latches.
Akter was lucky. She survived one of the deadliest industrial disasters. However, by the time the week-long rescue operation ended, a total of 1,134 people had died under the rubble.
Akter, now 34, never worked in a garment factory again. After working as a domestic worker, she now works as a cleaner at a private hospital in Dhaka.
“I can never go back to any factory. The memory of Rana Plaza still gives me nightmares,” she told Al Jazeera.
Like her, more than 63% of Rana Plaza survivors no longer work in a garment factory, a report by the NGO ActionAid released this year said.
The Rana Plaza disaster had a profound and lasting negative effect on the lives of survivors. But for Bangladesh’s ready-to-wear (RMG) industry – the mainstay of the $460 billion economy – it has brought big changes.
From shabby factories with little regard for workers’ working conditions, more than 80% of Bangladesh’s 3,200 RMG factories now comply with international safety and security standards, according to data published by Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). The country’s apex trade agency for garment manufacturers.
Currently, the South Asian country is home to half of the world’s top 100 certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green industries, according to a report in Business. Standard in February. In fact, a company called Green Textile Limited top LEED 2023 list prepared by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).
McKinsey consulting firm’s 2021 report named Bangladesh’s RMG industry leads in transparency regarding plant safety and accountability across the value chain. Other report by QIMA, a global supply chain compliance solutions provider, ranked the country second on the ethical manufacturing index in the same year.
Bangladesh has also revised its labor laws twice – in 2013 and 2018 – to protect workers’ rights and ensure workplace safety.
How does the transformation take place?
So what caused the dramatic change in the safety standards of garment factories in Bangladesh?
Following the Rana Plaza incident, leading global retail brands signed up to two international efforts to improve factory standards.
The Agreement on Fire and Construction Safety in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Workers’ Safety Alliance are two agencies that have helped the country’s factories improve and standardize electrical and structural safety measures. and their fires.
The union, which left the country in 2018, claims a 93% remediation rate on the 700 plants it inspected, while the Agreement, which runs until 2020, has helped standardize fire safety and build built at more than 2,000 RMG factories.
After they left, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) – an organization made up of RMG manufacturers, global brands and retailers, global unions and their affiliates in Bangladesh – was established in 2020 and assigned similar tasks.
“RSC is a very unique organization as it brings together three stakeholders with wildly different mindsets under one umbrella to improve safety standards in industrial units. This is probably the first of its kind worldwide,” Rubana Haq, RSC board member, told Al Jazeera.
Since the RSC is licensed by the Bangladesh government, national ownership and accountability are also included, she added.
Haq, also former president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said: “The collective national tragedy of Rana Plaza taught us a lesson and as a result all of them. We worked together to completely overhaul the entire RMG industry.” ), the country’s highest trade body for garment manufacturers.
According to a report by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Bangladesh’s clothing industry has grown by 79% from $19 billion in 2015 to $34 billion in 2022, making the country a major exporter. second largest garment in the world while holding more than 80% market share. its export earnings.
“The RMG sector has seen tremendous growth as we revolutionized safe and ethical manufacturing over the past few years. Unfortunately, it came at the cost of a great tragedy,” said Faruque Hassan, president of BGMEA. “But we have learned our lesson and acted accordingly.”
Areas of focus
Workers in Bangladesh say they now feel safer in a garment factory.
“The building where I work has everything I like, spacious floors with proper ventilation. It also has an emergency exit and we do regular fire safety drills,” Mansura Begum, an employee of Fatullah Apparels, told Al Jazeera.
Begum’s knitwear factory, located on a 2.7-acre (1.1 ha) site in Narayanganj, about 30 km (19 mi) from Dhaka, is a certified industrial unit. LEED Platinum. Its owner, Fazlee Shamim Ehsan, says he has invested millions of dollars to make the factory as worker-friendly as possible.
“We are operating on tight margins in response to international brands’ desire to reduce costs. But beyond my responsibility and concern for my workers, I have ensured the best possible working environment for them,” Ehsan told Al Jazeera.
According to BGMEA data, Bangladesh currently has a total of 187 LEED certified garment factories and another 500 factories are in the process of obtaining certification.
Before the Rana Plaza incident, there were only 2 factories in the country that achieved LEED certification.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Federation of Garment Workers, said working conditions for RMG workers had “clearly improved” over the past decade.
“But that doesn’t mean the industry is completely safe and there are no areas for improvement,” he told Al Jazeera.
A 2016 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) said at least 35 textile factory accidents have occurred in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza disaster.
That year, a total of 24 people died in a boiler explosion at Tampaco Foils Ltd, a packaging plant in Tongi, on the outskirts of Dhaka. A year later, 13 people died after a boiler exploded at Multifabs Ltd, a textile factory in Gazipur district.
“Those 37 workers died in just two accidents and both occurred in the boiler rooms of the plants,” Amin said.
Incidentally, boiler inspection is not within the scope of the Agreement or the Union which is only responsible for the inspection of fire, electrical and structural safety. However, RSC has incorporated a boiler safety program since its inception in 2020.
Amin, who is also a labor union representative at the RSC, told Al Jazeera that the problem with periodic boiler inspections is that for the more than 5,000 industrial boilers in operation in Bangladesh, there are only six inspectors. designated by the government.
“With such manpower, it is almost impossible to test such a large number of boilers. The government should take immediate action on this,” he said.