Rana Plaza: A look back, and forward

April, 24 2014 Share

On the Anniversary of the Rana Plaza Tragedy...
It Did Not Have to Be Like This


It took the U.S. and European garment industry just 25 years of relentless outsourcing in search of the lowest wage and least regulation to arrive at the deadliest disaster in its history, when the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, killing 1,137 people, with some 200 to 300 still missing and over 1,000 seriously injured.

It was not always like this.  In fact, for some 50 years —— from 1938 to 1988 —— there were no sweatshops in the United States, because workers had legal rights and strong unions.

On August 1, 1938, Life Magazine declared: 

Thirty years ago the industry stank of the sweatshop and the cruelest kind of exploitation… Still numerous in 1933, the sweatshop is virtually gone today.”

For the next 50 years, from 1938 to 1988, there were strong unions:

  • Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU)
  • International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU)

In its heyday in the U.S., almost 900,000 union workers in the garment industry had won a living wage, healthcare, benefits, vacations, health and safety protections…their rights.

Today, can we imagine this?:  In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was speaking at a Republican Party event.  He said:

Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice.

“…Workers have the right to organize into unions and to bargain collectively with their employers, and a strong and free labor movement is an invigorating and necessary part of our industrial society.”

By the late 1980s —— with rampant job flight and factory closures —— the garment industry in the United States was decimated.  Today, just 2 to 2 ½ percent of our garments are still made in the U.S.  Everything has been outsourced.  For the last 25 years, garments have been sewn across the developing world, by workers—many of them children and teenagers —— who are forced to work long hours for starvation wages, with no rights or justice, and when they return home, it is usually to a miserable hovel.  Yet, the U.S. garment industry is a powerful $350 billion operation!

Buried in the rubbles are clothes produced for Wal-Mart, Benetton, Cato Fashions and many more, made by young workers who perished.

More than 2,500 workers were injured in the building collapse.

Hiding Behind Voluntary Codes of Conduct That Have Never Worked

For the last 25 years, the garment industry has knowingly hidden behind their so-called “Corporate Codes of Conduct” and voluntary monitoring schemes, which have had zero power to assure the rule of law.

Harvard professor John Ruggie served as Special Representative to the UN Secretary General for human rights and transnational corporations.  Professor Ruggie learned first-hand:

“Just about everybody, at least off the record, will tell you that monitoring doesn’t work and auditing of supplier factories doesn’t work because people cheat.”               


Congress Got a Backbone, Once.  Could It Happen Again?

Do you know that the United States Congress has a backbone?  We discovered this in the year 2000.  We had gone into a Burlington Coat Factory store in New York City and found racks of nice leather jackets with fine fur collars.  When we looked at the label it stated that the collars were made of dog and cat fur —— from dogs and cats that had been slaughtered in China.

Within a matter of days, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the “Dog and Cat Protection Act of 2000,” which made it “unlawful for any person to (A) import into, or export from, the United States any dog or cat fur product.”

If we can protect dogs and cats, why can’t we also protect the rights of human beings—such as the millions of young women seamstresses across Bangladesh, who toil long and grueling hours, under dangerous conditions, for less than 30 or 40 cents an hour?


A Law to Protect Workers in the Global Economy

In 2007, 175 member of the House and 26 members of the Senate —— including then-Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden —— signed onto the “Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act,” which would “prohibit the import, export or sale of goods made in factories or workshops that violate core labor standards.”

These core labor standards are meant to empower and legally protect men and women workers in the global economy, through:

1.) The right to association;

2.) The right to organize and bargain collectively;

3.) Prohibition of the use of any form of forced or compulsory labor;

4.) Minimum age for employment of children;

5.) Acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.


In a Harris Poll in 2006:

- 76 percent of Americans believe that workers should be protected, just as corporate trademarks and products are in the global economy!

- 75 percent of Americans want their members of Congress to support legislation to protect human rights in the global economy by prohibiting the import or sale of sweatshop goods.


Unfortunately, once the powerful and deep-pocketed multinational companies found out that workers might possibly win their legal rights, they shut down any further movement in the House and Senate.

But a law like the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act would go far toward helping protect workers in the global economy —— so that tragedies like Rana Plaza don’t happen again.

Rana Plaza, April 24, 2013.  A Day of Death

On Wednesday morning, April 24, 2013 at 8:00 a.m., 3,639 workers refused to enter the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building because there were large and dangerous cracks in the factory walls.  The owner, Sohel Rana, brought paid gang members to beat the women and men workers, hitting them with sticks to force them to go into the factory.  Managers of the five factories housed in Rana Plaza also told the frightened workers that if they did not return to work, there would be no money to pay them for the month of April, which meant that there would be no food for them and their children.  They were forced to go in to work at 8:00 a.m.

At 8:45 a.m. the electricity went out and the factories’ five generators kicked on.  Almost immeditately the workers felt the eight-story building begin to move, and heard a loud explosion as the building collapsed, pancaking downward, killing 1,137 workers.

Eighty percent of the workers were young women, 18, 19, 20 years of age.  Their standard shift was 13 to 14 ½ hours, from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 or 10:30 p.m., toiling 90 to 100 hours a week with just two days off a month.

Young “helpers” earned 12 cents an hour, while “junior operators” took home 22 cents an hour, $10.56 a week, and senior sewers received 24 cents an hour and $12.48 a week.


Update on Rana Plaza, April 2014

32 U.S., Canadian and European labels and retailers outsourced garments to the five Rana Plaza factories.

1,137 confirmed dead at Rana Plaza.

Rana Plaza’s owner, Sohel Rana remains in prison. 

So far, just 18 apparel companies linked to Rana Plaza have pledged $15.3 million in donations for the Rana Plaza Trust Fund ─ out of an estimated $40 million which is considered necessary.  Some of the labels sewn at Rana Plaza have responded with desperately-needed financial contributions, while others have done nothing.

Primark (UK):  The Anglo-Irish retailer has pledged more than $9 million to help the Rana Plaza victims.

Loblaw (Canada):   “...Loblaw will be providing short-term financial support to all New Wave Style [factory] workers or dependents.  This immediate relief, a payment of three months wages, will assist in financial needs until long-term funds begin to flow.  Loblaw has already contributed $1 million to Save the Children Bangladesh and the Center for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed...”  Loblaw owns the label “Joe Fresh.”

Wal-Mart donated $1 million Wal-Mart jeans were made in the Ether Tex factory on the 5th floor of the Rana Plaza building.  This appears to be the first time Wal-Mart has contributed to any compensation fund.  (Wal-Mart contracts with 200 garment factories and buys more than $1.2 billion-worth of garments from Bangladesh.)

The Children’s Place donated $450,000.  (Rana Plaza’s New Wave Style factory produced 120,000 pounds of clothing for The Children’s Place.)

Gap has donated $500,000 —— despite the fact that the company did not have production in Rana Plaza.

Other labels that have made or pledged serious donations:

- Asda (UK)
- Bonmarché (UK)
- C&A (Dutch/German) ($690,838)
- El Corte Ingles (Spain)
- Inditex (Spain)
- LPP S.A. (Poland)
- Kik (German) ($500,000)
- Mango (Spain)
- Mascot (Denmark)
- VF Corporation (U.S.)
- Camaïeu (France)
- N Brown Group (UK)
- Premier Clothing (UK)

Many U.S. and European labels sewn at Rana Plaza have not to date made significantcontributions to the Rana Plaza Trust Fund.  What are they waiting for?

- United Colors of Benetton (Italy)
- Cato Fashions (U.S.)
- Ascena Retail Group (U.S.)
- Auchan (France)
- Matalan (UK)
- Adler Modemärkte (Germany)
- Grabalok /Store Twenty One (UK)
- Güldenpfennig (Germany)
- Kids for Fashion (Germany)
- Manifattura Corona (Italy)
- NKD Deutschland GmbH (Germany)
- PWT (Texman) (Denmark)
- Yes Zee Essenza (Italy)
- JCPenney (U.S.)
- Carrefour (France)



Bangladesh Garment Exports to the United States

Bangladesh is the third largest exporter of apparel to the United States (by square meter equivalents) —— just behind China and Vietnam.  (Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA))

In U.S. dollars, Bangladesh is the 3rd largest exporter of apparel to the U.S., sending $4,947,540,000 in clothing to the U.S. in 2013 —— an increase of 10 percent over the previous year.  (Source: OTEXA)


The State of Unions in Bangladesh

Workers have a long way to go.

There are 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh with some 4 million workers.  But according to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labor, there are just 215 factories —— 4.3 percent of the total —— that have some union presence.  It would be amazing if there were more than 20 or 30 factories that had collective bargaining rights.  Even where there are factory unions, management systematically harasses, intimidates and abuses the workers.  In a factory called Basic Apparels in Uttara, where there is a union, workers still suffered a recent mass termination of 72 workers and union leaders, including three members of the union’s executive board.  Moreover, management has hired criminals and gang members to force union workers to quit.

As of February 8, 2014, the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka noted increased harassment and forced resignation of workers trying to form trade unions.

Human Rights Watch observed that, “Factory owners sometimes use local gangsters to threaten or attack workers outside the workplace, including at their homes.”

At the Weltex Garments factory, workers were threatened not to set up a trade union and were forced to sign blank pieces of paper.  Management refused to reinstate even one of the labor leaders.

The vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Shahidullah Azim, noted:  “We can’t allow such labour leaders and unions to destroy the industry.”

Clearly there is a very long way to go.  Workers in Bangladesh, and in the U.S. for that matter, need enforceable laws to protect their inalienable rights.


Human remains are still being found in the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building. Children looking for scraps of fabric and metal unearthed these bones in December 2013.



Institute news and updates about Rana Plaza

Gap and Old Navy in Bangladesh: cheating the poorest workers in the world.” Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. October 2013

Wall Street Journal. October 3, 2013. “Bangladesh Garment Factories Often Evade Monitoring” by Shelly Banjo


Important New York Times articles following Rana Plaza

New York Times. May 23, 2013. “Report on Deadly Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Finds Widespread Blame” by Jim Yardley

New York Times. June 30, 2013. “Justice Still Elusive in Factory Disasters in Bangladesh” by Jim Yardley

New York Times. July 2, 2013. “After Disaster, Bangladesh Lags in Policing Its Maze of Factories” by Jim Yardley

New York Times. July 25, 2013. “Garment Trade Wields Power in Bangladesh” by Jim Yardley

New York Times. December 19, 2013. “After Bangladesh Factory Collapse, Bleak Struggle for Survivors” by Jim Yardley

New York Times. February 24, 2014. “First Companies Give to Fund for Victims of Bangladeshi Clothing Factory Collapse” by Jim Yardley

New York Times. March 11, 2014. “Bangladesh Inspections Find Gaps in Safety” by Steven Greenhouse

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