Three years after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed on the outskirts of Dhaka, the lives that were shattered have still not been allowed to heal. Since the day more than 1,100 people were buried in the wreckage of the shoddily constructed manufacturing complex, we are just starting to discover among the ruins what global worker justice should look like.
For victims, there has been halting progress, according to International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). A $30 million donor trust fund has issued several thousand payments to survivors and households of the deceased, ranging from about $1,340 for an injured survivor to 10 times that amount for families of the deceased. Other aid funds, such as one established by the multinational Primark, have been established independently to provide long-term medical aid. Overall, however, advocates report that, while global media attention has waned, the suffering has not, as survivors and their communities remain impoverished and wracked with emotional trauma.
Bangladesh’s massive garment-export industry, however, is still going strong, fueled by a $1.3 trillion global market capitalizing on “fast fashion” trends, and a constantly churning workforce of young rural migrant women.
But a few survivors are resisting business as usual. A lawsuit against Canadian multinational retailer Loblaws and its auditing firm, Bureau Veritas, is moving forward in the coming months, seeking some $2 billion in damages to compensate as many as 3,850 victims of the collapse—a group of plaintiffs gathered through the firm’s field research in Bangladesh. The suit, now awaiting class certification in an Ontario court, marks one of the first legal actions against a multinational retailer accused of contributing to tragedy at the far end of its supply chain.
The suit holds Loblaws partially responsible for “wrongful death and injury arising from the negligence” of safety conditions, charges the retailer with “breach of fiduciary duty,” and attributes to Loblaws indirect liability for workers employed by its subcontractor New Wave, which produced clothes under the Joe Fresh brand.
The danger began years before Rana Plaza started crumbling: Around 2005, Loblaws sought to shift manufacturing labor from China, where wages were gradually rising, to “cheaper” southern neighbors like Bangladesh, which could produce about as much for a fraction of China’s labor costs. Since Bangladesh’s labor environment was notoriously dangerous and exploitative, the suit contends, “Loblaws was a leader in the ‘race to the bottom,’” deliberately driving its operations into a “regulatory and legal vacuum.”