[This post is written by ELEVATE on April 30 2021. To view the blog on ELEVATE's site, please visit https://www.elevatelimited.com/blog/rana-plaza-anniversary/
Eight years ago, on 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. The building contained multiple clothing factories manufacturing items for major fashion outlets. The disaster was one of the worst industrial accidents on record. 1,132 workers lost their lives with more than 2,500 injured. The Ready-Made Garment (RMG) industry was awakened to the issue of factory structural integrity. The fires in 2012 at Tazreen Fashion (Bangladesh) and Ali Enterprises (Pakistan) had made clear to the industry the need to redouble efforts in fire and electrical safety. This combination of events served as a chilling reminder to retailers, brands, and consumers that many of today’s workers around the world face dangerous working conditions and that the risks if not identified and remediated can lead to grave consequences.
In Bangladesh, this was not a case of one unsafe building. This was a systemic issue reflecting a variety of interconnected problems. Across Bangladesh, as the garment industry grew, factories grew, new floors were added to multi-story buildings to support additional equipment and people. The additional equipment also increased power requirements, placing a greater load on electrical grids which were not necessarily sized appropriately. The grid issues increased the risk of fire, and the fire preparedness, prevention, and suppression systems did not keep pace with these increasing risks. Lastly, workers did not have a means of reporting safety and security issues as they were encountered.
Eight years later and so much has changed…and for the better. The Bangladesh RMG sector has taken has put significant effort and investment to significantly improve their safety standards. The Government of Bangladesh has taken the initiative to support worker well-being and safety by updating the BNBC and published new versions of the Code in 2020 to incorporate additional standards and regulations. Thousands of factories have been inspected, safety issues identified, and remediation started and for many, completed. Building, fire, and electrical safety trainings have been rolled out across factories to identify and reduce facility hazards, ensure the facility and workers are well prepared to deal with emergencies, and embed common requirements for safety from international clients. A helpline has been established for workers and new safety management evaluation system is emerging.
Worker safety includes making factories safe for workers not only from a building and fire safety perspective but from a holistic perspective – including the ability of workers to safely raise their voice. Worker voice can play a critical role in ensuring factory safety and can serve as an “early warning” system to flag safety issues before they escalate into major disasters like Rana Plaza. Since July 2014, the Amader Kotha Helpline has been providing garment workers in Bangladesh with a trusted, accessible mechanism to report and resolve safety and other concerns.
The Helpline receives hundreds of calls per month from the 1.5 million+ workers it reaches, across thousands of RMG factories, including worker reports of active fires in the factory, blocked or locked factory exits, structural building issues, and other urgent building and fire safety issues, as well as issues that affect workers and their well-being, including reporting harassment and abuse in the workplace, and other labor issues such as wage and compensation.
“In one case, the Helpline received a call from a worker who noticed that sparks were coming from an electrical circuit on the 3rd floor of the factory. When workers attempted to ring the fire alarm, it failed to work. Later that morning, sparks continued to be noticed from the circuit and after being notified, management allowed workers to leave the building until the cause of the sparks could be resolved and the malfunctioning fire alarm could be fixed. Several days later, the Helpline made follow-up calls to workers in the building confirmed that the problems had been resolved.” (Amader Koth Helpline)
Though the RMG sector in Bangladesh has taken positive steps to improve the safety standards of building structures and ensure factory workers are not at risk of physical danger, there is still much work to be done. Completing all outstanding corrective action plans, ongoing monitoring of safety management systems, continued training, better government enforcement and collaboration with different international organizations are all key to preserving the improvements and creating a new legacy in honor of the workers who lost their lives.