Last April, the Rana Plaza factory compound in Bangladesh collapsed, leaving more than 1,100 workers dead amid a massive pile of rubble. The victims and their families are still waiting for any kind of compensation, and garment workers around the world face an even longer, more uncertain wait for economic justice.
The approaching anniversary of one of the global garment industry's worst disasters coincides roughly with another somber milestone: the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the ferocious factory blaze that cast scores of charred bodies onto the streets of Manhattan in 1911. The two disasters have a grim resonance: both were the result of anemic regulatory systems and labor oppression—particularly the degradation of young women garment workers. Both spurred political momentum for major labor reforms. But the lapse of a century between the two events reveals how injustice persists in the industry, though production has migrated to the other side of the world.
Still, Rana Plaza helped shift the political ground in the Global South’s garment sector. Multinationals that had for years ignored systemic safety and labor problems in the sector have begun trying to clean up their supply chains. Since last spring, fashion-industry multinationals from Europe, Asia and North America, have signed a major new health and safety program known as the Bangladesh Accord.
The agreement, a collaboration of about 150 brands and retailers (including Adidas, Benetton, H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch), and advocacy groups like the International Labor Rights Forum and Clean Clothes Campaign, with the support of unions and the International Labour Organization, is not a comprehensive regulatory system. But it establishes a legally binding framework for independent safety monitoring, and crucially, funding for safety remediations. The plan would cover potentially more than 1,500 Bangladesh factories for five years, financed by the signatories.
The Accord departs significantly from conventional, voluntary “corporate social responsibility” schemes, which usually feature glossy public-relations campaigns and rubber-stamp inspections (factories rife with child labor, fire hazards and other violations have routinely passed corporate-commissioned safety audits). The Accord’s mandates follow the brand through the production chain. So a UK-based corporation, for example, would be liable for violations in its contracted suppliers in Dhaka. In the past, companies like Gap and Walmart have been able to deflect responsibility following factory accidents by blaming the downstream supplier for violating labor codes, supposedly without the firm’s authorization. Or a company might drop its contract with a supplier that has been linked to a violation. Labor advocates say such measures reinforce corporate impunity and do little to improve industry conditions overall, particularly because the sudden withdrawal of a firm’s business could ultimately leave workers worse off.