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Rana Plaza Collapse and the Bangladeshi Garment Industry


On Wednesday, April 24, Rana Plaza, a multi-story building hosting several garment factories, collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  As of April 27, over 350 people were reported dead, with over 900 estimated to be missing.  Most of the victims are young women employed in the thriving Bangladeshi low-cost garment industry that delivers for major global fashion brands.


One day before the collapse, workers noticed large cracks in the building, and subsequently refused to enter the factory in the morning.  The police concurred, ordering the building to be immediately vacated.  However, the employees were effectively forced report to work by the management, who explained that no wages would be paid if the orders are late.  One hour later, the building fell apart.  The rescue operation is still ongoing, however, and the chances of finding and getting to survivors are diminishing with every hour. 


Two managers and two building engineers who ignored the danger have already been arrested by the authorities, and the owner of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, was captured while trying to flee the country and arrested on Sunday.


The tragedy in Dhaka is not the first one to claim the lives of Bangladeshi garment industry employees, who are often underpaid and work in extremely poor conditions.     The garment industry in Bangladesh produces 80% of its export goods and provides jobs to millions of people – mostly unskilled women – who have few alternatives to provide for their families.   While the economy of Bangladesh is dependent upon these garment workers, little outside of meager pay is given them by either their employers or the government, not even basic provisions for their safety, health, or education. 


However, there are forces trying to change the situation.  Many nonprofits, both international and local, are seeking to improve the working conditions of Bangladeshi garment workers and change the policies of their clients – global fashion corporations.  Much progress has been made of the last year, but the Wednesday tragedy shows that much remains to be done. 


The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights is a nonprofit dedicated to the protection and promotion of worker rights in the developing world.  With a regional office in Dhaka, they provide updates on the situation in the city.  IGLHR also conducts various research and campaigns aimed at protecting the rights of the poor and underemployed.


Oxfam International is working with the authorities in Bangladesh and other countries on improving and enforcing existing building codes which are one of the main causes of building collapses. 


SERVV, a nonprofit organization that supports local artisans and farmers worldwide, aims to reverse the dependency relationship between the underpaid garment factory workers and their employers.  SERVV runs several self-sufficiency programs in Bangladesh.


The ECOTA Fair Trade Forum groups thousands of Bangladeshi artisans and companies (mostly exporters) with the goal of improving the quality of life of artisans and promoting fair trade.  ECOTA works to reduce the number of middlemen between the factory and the store, which results in lower costs and higher rates paid to manufacturers.


On the international level, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is currently at the stage of developing the Higg Index – a universal indicator of of apparel products' sustainability.  No similar rating or certification exists today that would help consumers distinguish between sustainable products and those that do not meet social, economic, and environmental standards.  In SAC is hoping to create a more sustainable international apparel industry.  A similar mission is driving Textile Exchange and the Canadian Fashion Takes Action, which both aim at restoring the environment and enhancing the lives of those who work in the textile industry around the world.


SOURCE – an initiative of the Ethical Fashion Forum – is a great resource for industry professionals that helps them make their businesses more sustainable.


But perhaps in this case it is the consumer who has the final say.  Fashion brands are businesses, and like all businesses, their actions are chiefly motivated by profit.  By voting with our dollars – rewarding the socially and environmentally conscious labels and punishing the underperformers – we, the consumers, could well be the ones who could change the dark side of today’s international apparel market.


The Deputy Director-General of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Gilbert Houngbo discusses the purpose of the ILO's high-level mission to Bangladesh following the Rana Plaza collapse:


The NGO Muslim Aid created this emergency appeal for donations as they provide emergency items, including first aid and hygiene kits, food and water for thousands of injured people.  They are asking for support to continue providing further assistance, such as wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs, as well as income generation projects to support the affected families.