Ten years ago this month 1,134 people died in the Rana Plaza disaster. Images talks to trade union leaders to find out what has changed for workers in the past decade

On the morning of 24 April 2013, workers arrived to make garments at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. By 9am, the building had collapsed, killing more than a thousand people and seriously injuring at least 2,500 others.

The previous day, large structural cracks had been spotted in the eight-storey building, which housed several garment factories. “While other businesses within the building stopped their workers from entering, garment factory workers were forced back to work by their employers, threatened with dismissal and non-payment of wages,” recounts Mayisha Begum, an activist for campaign group No Sweat.

At least 1,134 people – mainly women – died. It took weeks to recover all the bodies. Of the 2,500 that were seriously injured, some had limbs that were trapped under rubble and machinery amputated so they could be freed.

The Accord

The pictures of the collapse and the attempts to rescue those trapped between the concertinaed floors spread rapidly round the world. Questions started to be asked by consumers about the working conditions for those people who were making their garments.

Ultimately, the disaster was the catalyst for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement on health and safety in the garment industry, since superseded by the International Accord on Health and Safety.

But this wasn’t the first incident like this to occur, explains Kalpona Akter from the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGWIF) and the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), who was heavily involved in the Accord programme – just the first to gain widespread international attention.

Questions started to be asked by consumers about the working conditions for those people who were making their garments

“In 2005, a factory collapsed – as it was during the night there were only 150 workers in there; 82 people died. There were a number of factory fires that happened. The deaths were completely preventable, but the doors that were supposed to be open were closed and not just closed – they were padlocked. There was no way they could go safely outside.”

In one factory fire, 112 people lost their lives. “The majority were burnt to ash or jumped from the nine-storey building to their death,” Kalpona recounts.

A work in a progress

“There have been many changes in the RMG [ready-made garment] sector in Bangladesh in the last 10 years,” notes Idris Ali, a designer cum pattern master, and president of GWTUC (The Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre). “Among them, there have been several ‘green’ factories. Garment factories are now safer than before, and compliance has started in factories.

Find out more about the workers – how are they paid? How are they being treated?

“But there is no improvement in the quality of life of the workers. On the contrary, the government has added some clauses that change the labour law, thereby undermining the workers’ interests and increasing the risk of job loss.”

To improve the situation, Idris advocates the amending of labour laws to include clauses that protect the interests of workers, and the regular inspection of factories by the labour department and removal of irregularities.

Garment decorators in the UK wishing to help garment workers should ask questions of suppliers, suggests Kalpona, noting that transparency is key. Find out more about the workers – how are they paid? How are they being treated? Press the brands for answers to these questions, is her advice.

One course of action she emphatically doesn’t agree with is refusing to buy from brands made in Bangladesh. “Boycotting is not the solution. We cannot be nude – if we don’t buy from Bangladesh then we need to buy clothes somewhere and the working conditions are pretty much the same everywhere. It’s a dilemma for the consumers, but they are creating a job for us.”

Factory-led unions

“The question is whether you have a job with dignity or not,” states Kalpona. “Rather than feeling guilty, change it into anger – go beyond the size, colour, style and price, ask other questions of the brands. Are they paying poverty wages? Are they treating workers well, not making them work long hours?

“Those buying these thousands of T-shirts, they have a responsibility to us – they should want to know whether we have a living wage, collective bargaining, is a factory safe, is it gender-based violence-free. You’re not asking anything that people shouldn’t ask.” The answers should be validated by factory-led unions, she adds.

Kalpona says that unions are vital to advancing workers’ rights. “If Rana Plaza had had a union on their shop floor, they wouldn’t have died. Unions are that important. They save your life.”