April 24th marks the third anniversary of one of the worst industrial disasters in the world.
In 2013, a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,100 people. The factory was one of many in Bangladesh’s large apparel manufacturing industry, producing clothes exclusively for consumption in the west.
I went there in January, as a supply chain consultant, I wanted to see for myself the truth about the worst of what can happen in sourcing our materials across a complex—and often exploitative—supply chain.
The event highlighted two key issues regarding treatment of workers—firstly, the lack of safety procedures in the industry locally and secondly, the oppressive conditions that they work within.
By many accounts, the signs of building decay was clearly evident in the days leading up to the collapse with sizeable cracks in the walls. On the morning of the collapse, workers were reticent to enter the factory, however they were threatened with being fired or not being paid, so they relented. Once they were in the building, they were locked in.
Once the building collapsed, there was no emergency evacuation procedure. Without sufficient safety exits, many were trapped with nothing to do but to await death. Local authorities were poorly equipped to deal with the crisis and—given the danger of the collapsed building structure—were too cautious to enter to retrieve survivors. Instead it was left to the general onlookers and factory workers in surrounding buildings to rush in and save people.
The world was horrified as new spread across the world. In response, the Bangladesh Accord was signed by large manufacturers in the region. This was a legally binding document, with the intent to ensure that fire and safety procedures are implemented in Bangladesh to protect workers from this happening again.
What’s there now?
As a consumer of Bangladeshi made clothes, it is sobering to stand at the site where the factory collapsed. Now there is just an empty space with a shallow pond where family members are cultivating fish in memory of their loved ones.
News spread quickly that a lady of western appearance was at the site taking pictures, and within minutes a huge crowd formed wanting to tell their story. It wasn’t aggressive or threatening—it was gratitude they expressed, that outsiders still have concern for their plight.
“I lost my sister and brother-in-law, and now we raise their five children,” one person cried out. They locked us in!” cried another.
Two men—who between the two of them, carried out 70 living and 36 dead bodies in the rescue effort—walked me around the site. They told me that as recently as six months ago, human remains were still being found just under the surface. They pointed out the patched up holes on the neighbouring buildings where they had to break through to retrieve bodies.
Still more work to be done.
The Solidarity Project is an organisation formed in Bangladesh to support organised worker rights through trade unions. I spoke to Kalpona Akter, a project manager within the centre. She is passionate that the Bangladesh Accord is an improvement but still does not address the other major issue facing workers—desperately low wages.
Currently the minimum wage is 5,000 taka (or approximately $65 USD) per month. Kalpona argues that this is not a living wage, which should account for the local costs of the number of calories needed to carry out the work, housing, healthcare and education. The centre calculates that the current minimum wage is little more than half of what an actual living wage would be.
You can make a difference.
As consumers, we have the most power—let’s demand to know how our stuff is made and demand for it to be slavery free.
April 24th marks the three year anniversary of the collapse. Although at the time it sent shock waves across the world, we quickly forget and move on. But it is still tender in Bangladesh, and there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure that this will not happen again.
The answer is not in boycotting clothes made in Bangladesh—the answer is in campaigning our brands to pay adequate prices to factories that give them the ability to create fairer working conditions. Bangladeshi garment workers want to make these clothes for us, but it is time for them to be able to do it with dignity.
Author: Kate Nicholl
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Author’s own.