Rana Plaza four years on: 'Everything has changed. We know we should not be afraid at work'

24 April 2017 - 2:45pm

While global fashion brands dictate the precise designs of clothes down to the last stitch, their claim to have little power to ensure the basic rights of workers in factories is absurd. They simply don’t care.

The mass of rubble and clothes. Stunned workers emerging on makeshift stretchers. Then the news: it wasn’t an accident. Factory workers had seen the cracks. The Rana Plaza factory had been evacuated, but garment workers were forced to return, for fear of losing their jobs.

It is now four years since the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh: the factory owner is in prison, compensation to victims and families has been paid and global garment brands continue to profit from exploitation of workers in Bangladesh.

WATCH NOW: A documentary by Rainbow Collective. Tears in the Fabric sees the aftermath of 2013's Rana Plaza factory collapse through the eyes of a bereaved grandmother and her two young grandsons.

Also, WATCHWar on Want’s Senior International Programmes Officer (Asia and the Pacific),Thulsi Narayanasamy, talks garment worker exploitation on 'Economic Divide'  (14 April 2017)

Over 1100 workers were killed and thousands more seriously injured on 24 April 2013, yet it took years for brands to pay compensation to victims.

Workers are still forced to work 14-16 hours a day, six days a week, face routine abuse in the workplace, and all for poverty wages that aren’t enough to pay rent in a slum or provide three meals a day. All over the world, fashion brands are driven by the search for lowest production prices and the highest profit.

The race to the bottom on wages and competition across garment producing countries has left local factories scrambling to offer the cheapest production prices at the expense of the rights of workers. Exploitation of workers is the norm, and relied upon to rake in profits for the brands.

But garment workers are fighting back.

Since the Rana Plaza disaster, the change in awareness of workers has been genuinely groundbreaking. Parvin, who works at a garment factory in Bangladesh said: "Everything has changed. Now we know that we should not be afraid at work, we have a right to safe work." Another worker, Leeli, says "we all talk about life before Rana Plaza and after Rana Plaza. Everything is different because we will not stand for this anymore."

Workers and unions recognise that the best tool to create decent working conditions is their right to organise and collectively bargain in factories. Garment workers united, organised and educated through their unions could and should be a force to be reckoned with.

Yet, while this is a basic human right, workers who form unions and attempt to negotiate together still face severe intimidation and violence, alongside the ever-present risk of losing their job. Their voices are all too often marginalised or dismissed.

However, despite this, garment workers, mostly women, are far from hapless victims: they continue to fight every day to improve working conditions for themselves and each other. They also have a clear analysis of the problem: international brands are responsible for their exploitation, it is they who benefit from it.

"There is a chain of responsibility, we know the factory owners can be difficult but they have too much pressure from the brands", says Sakina who works on the outskirts of Dhaka.

The success of workers’ initiatives in improving their wages, hours and factory conditions has been mirrored by a corresponding failure of the international community to implement binding, enforceable legislation to ensure that a living wage and safe working conditions are mandatory in garment factories, everywhere.

Voluntary regulation has failed; voluntary standards have enabled brands to present themselves as ethical without having to change a thing about how they operate. National regulation, alongside legally binding international mechanisms is long overdue.

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