Two years after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Dhaka, authorities in Bangladesh are charging 41 people with murder, including the building’s owner, Sohel Rana. Carrying a maximum sentence of death, the charges are unusually harsh for a low-wage, export-driven industry that benefits from its considerable economic and political heft in one of the world’s poorest countries. But they also highlight the uneven track record of efforts to bring accountability and reforms to the industry.
More than 1,110 people died and 2,500 were injured in the April 2013 disaster, in what is considered the deadliest garment industry accident in history. Today some 4 million workers, mostly women, continue to work at thousands of garment factories, many of them supplying name-brand clothing retailers like Walmart, Fruit of the Loom and H&M.
What’s clear: Oversight is on the rise. Since the tragedy, safety inspectors have visited nearly three-quarters of nation’s roughly 3,500 major garment factories, examining them for structural integrity, electrical wiring and fire emergency plans. Two groups have led those efforts -- the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a coalition of trade unions and mostly European clothing companies that have a legally binding agreement, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, an American-dominated industry group with no representation from labor. Yet another group, led by the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations-affiliated International Labor Organization (ILO), oversees remaining inspections.
Observers tend to applaud the enhanced oversight, but some contend inspections from the alliance -- the ones covering suppliers of U.S. companies like Target and the Gap -- aren’t as rigorous as advertised. When a March report from the group commended the rate of progress in Bangladesh, critics expressed concerns about the group’s lack of data. “This is a public relations exercise,” Brian Finnegan, global worker rights coordinator at the AFL-CIO, told International Business Times at the time. “Who’s verifying the contents of these reports other than the companies?”
All in all, inspections have triggered remediation plans at several hundred factories. They’ve also led to the closure of 35 factories, according to the ILO.
But as inspections translate to improved safety conditions, worker advocates point to the gloomier state of labor relations. Garment workers still need stronger labor protections, they say, so they can form unions that bargain for wages and working conditions and raise safety concerns.
“Employers now seem to care more about workers’ rights,” labor leader Abdul Mukit Khan said in a recent report. “However, union registration remains very low and there are still barriers to the formation of new unions.”
While the number of trade unions in Bangladesh’s garment sector has doubled since 2012 -- about 5 percent of workers now belong to unions -- workers still face retaliation for trying to organize and speak out about safety conditions, observers say. In spite of recent reforms, national regulations still fall short of globally recognized labor standards that encourage workers’ freedom of association, the ILO has said.
One telling sign of the state of reforms came in January, when the United States declined to restore trade benefits with Bangladesh. The U.S. originally revoked those privileges in 2013 over labor concerns stemming from the Rana Plaza tragedy.
“Further progress is needed, including to address serious worker rights issues, before reinstatement of Bangladesh’s trade benefits,” an interagency review led by the U.S. trade representative found.
Bangaldesh is the world's fourth-largest garment exporter. In 1980, it ranked 76th in that category.