Five years on from Rana Plaza, much has changed (Photo credit: IndustriAll)

Five years on from Rana Plaza, much has changed (Photo credit: IndustriAll)

As the global garment industry stops to reflect on the tragic events that took place in Bangladesh exactly five years ago today (24 April), it is also a time to consider what has changed, what hasn't – and what still needs to be done. Here we share the views of a number of industry executives and stakeholders on progress so far. 

Anne-Laure Henry-Gréard, officer in charge, International Labour Organization RMG programme Bangladesh:
In the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse, the ILO encouraged brands and retailers to stick with Bangladesh as a sourcing destination. We argued that the challenges facing the industry and its 4m workers were best dealt with through engagement rather than by walking away. The majority of brands did stay, with many formalising their commitment to enhancing workplace safety through the Accord and Alliance, carrying out training as well as supporting compensation efforts for Rana Plaza survivors. For this, these brands and retailers should be applauded.

Five years on from Rana Plaza, much has changed. The Government of Bangladesh, with ILO support, has invested a major effort in the inspection and remediation of RMG factories and is building the foundations for industrial safety. Combined with labour inspection reform, this should eventually benefit not only the RMG industry but all economic sectors. The foundation for a longer-term culture of safety and health is also being created and through the Better Work programme we are showing how increased safety and compliance can help boost productivity and competitiveness rather than hinder it.

While much has been done, many challenges remain. Respect for labour rights remains patchy with considerable mistrust existing between employers and workers. Remediation needs to be completed and the momentum gained towards creating a safer industry cannot be allowed to fade away as the memories of Rana Plaza recede. Greater efforts are needed to support the rights of women in the workforce and help them step up to supervisory and management positions. Meanwhile, the issue of excessive overtime, which is common throughout the industry, remains a problem – the solution to which often lies beyond the factory gates.

Lotte Schuurman, Fair Wear Foundation:
In the years since the Rana Plaza tragedy, we have seen signs of change. Fair Wear Foundation has successfully pioneered the establishment of anti-harassment committees in Bangladesh and India. Other initiatives have united leading garment brands, and the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance have achieved improvements in structural, fire, and electrical safety at garment factories. However, problems are still widespread, deeply rooted, and include many other labour-rights issues.

"Rana Plaza demonstrated that major brands do not know exactly where their clothes are being produced"

Rana Plaza demonstrated that major brands do not know exactly where their clothes are being produced. Garment brands have probably been using codes of conduct for over 25 years. But it's not enough. They need to scrutinise their suppliers, conduct research and help factories resolve problems that may occur.

Along with setting quality and price requirements, garment brands can use their economic power to call for decent working conditions. As the main beneficiaries and drivers of the garment industry, brands have a huge responsibility for the welfare of the workers who make their clothes. They need to be willing to change their business practices, like adjusting prices and improving production planning to reduce pressure on factories.

Brands can have a much stronger impact if they cooperate more in shared factories to remediate problems and handle complaints. We already see this happening, especially among outdoor brands. They're exchanging tools, sharing audits, remediating together and holding regular meetings and roundtable discussions.

The garment industry doesn't have to be like this. All garment brands must take responsibility for what they sell in order to support positive changes at factories and help ensure that garment production countries flourish.

Ansgar Lohmann, head of CSR, KiK:
Rana Plaza has drawn attention to building safety in the textile factories. Western brands, NGOs and labour unions have joined forces to upgrade factories according to international standards. Building safety, electrical safety and fire protection in factories producing for foreign markets have improved significantly due to these efforts. A complaints mechanism has been established. All Bangladeshi suppliers have been inspected and remediation has been completed at 80% of KiK's suppliers.

Bangladesh remains a key sourcing country for us. Therefore, we have signed the prolongation of the Accord through 2021. While the measures adopted so far have strengthened occupational safety, an increase in workers' compensation and labour union representation will now be on the agenda. In addition, KiK supports the ILO in establishing a permanent national employment injury insurance scheme to guarantee compensation in the event of future accidents.

We conduct our business in a responsible manner that respects human rights. In practice, we focus on creating safe workplaces, training employees and respecting environmental standards. However, one must not forget to enable governments in the sourcing countries to take their responsibility in protecting human rights more seriously.

Jenny Holdcroft, assistant general secretary, IndustriAll Global Union:
In the five years since Rana Plaza, the groundbreaking efforts of the Bangladesh Accord have significantly improved safety in the garment factories supplying to signatory companies. There is no doubt that many lives have been saved as a result. But doubts remain as to whether this transformation of the physical buildings has been accompanied by the necessary changes in attitude by employers to put worker safety first. The protection of a trade union is fundamental to empowering workers to protect their own safety, which often means standing up to their employer. Yet there is still a culture of active resistance to union organising in the Bangladesh garment industry.

"The bigger lesson for supply chain corporate accountability from the experiences since Rana Plaza is the need for collaboration at industry level"

The bigger lesson for supply chain corporate accountability from the experiences since Rana Plaza is the need for collaboration at industry level. This means brands and retailers working together with trade unions to drive change at a national level, so that all employers are subject to the same requirements. Joint engagement by brands and trade unions towards national employers and governments is essential to improving standards across the board. In Bangladesh, the first priority is to build effective representation of garment workers through trade unions, not only to improve safety in the factories but to increase the pressure towards higher wages and better working conditions for all garment workers. Given the increasing expectations on global brands to be accountable for conditions in their supply chains, how the government and employers react to these demands will determine the future viability of Bangladesh as a sourcing country.

Mostafiz Uddin, managing director, Denim Expert Ltd (Bangladesh):
There have been significant changes in the Bangladesh apparel industry since the tragic Rana Plaza incident. All export-oriented garment factories have been inspected by the Accord, Alliance and National Initiative and they have been given corrective action plans (CAPs) where necessary. The whole process has also been done in a very transparent way. After addressing the safety concerns, the garment factories have also moved towards sustainability.

Though safety remediations have already been completed in more than 80% of the Accord and Alliance factories, efforts are still needed to reach 100%. Though there has been a tangible transformation of Bangladesh's apparel industry, change is a continuous process, so efforts for ensuring workplace safety, as well as dignity and wellbeing, must be continued.

The silver lining of the Rana Plaza tragedy is that it created a paradigm shift in the mindset of the industry as a whole with regards safety. There is no denying that responsible business conduct is the only way of establishing a sustainable global supply chain, which needs to be practised by all stakeholders, including the manufacturers and buyers.

Sustainability, innovation and technology will be key to the progress of Bangladesh's apparel industry in the coming years.

Ranjan Mahtani, chairman and CEO, Epic Group:
If I was to summarise progress in Bangladesh over the past five years, I would say the hard part is done...but the detailing will never end. I think what the Alliance and Accord have done has been phenomenal. There has been mega improvement since Rana Plaza in the form of tangible, physical activity and investment into factory building and fire safety – but at the same time the standards are evolving, and the bar is being raised year on year.

The top suppliers who control the major percentage of business coming out of Bangladesh have gone about it non-conditionally, and have really taken it to the highest international standard that's possible. So while there is always endless improvement on existing factories, the industry's expansion is now going in the right direction. You're also seeing that Bangladesh is leading the front in terms of green building certification.

The next challenge for all the factories is make sure that the improvements achieved so far are sustainable into the future. Once the Alliance and Accord are not there, how do we recreate the strength and depth in our organisations to create our own requirements? It's a question I ask myself every day.

Rubana Huq, managing director, Mohammadi Group:
The industry has gone through serious transformation in terms of structural, electrical and fire safety. We have become one of the safest manufacturing hubs in the world. There has also been an increase in general awareness about workplace safety among both buyers and manufacturers.

The level of accountability has gone up as producers have been placed in the spotlight by buyers, while buyers themselves have come under pressure from consumers. So, in brief, sourcing practices have become more demanding and the supply chain has become more cautious about the long-term sustainability of business.

What hasn't changed are price levels. So, asking for better price from the suppliers' end is often met with a demand for better efficiency, indicating that higher efficiency will lead to lower costs and eventually a lower margin – while expectations of shorter lead time has also crept in to the list of demands. So suppliers are facing enhanced demands on lead time, price and efficiency while the CM level has dipped.

"Responsible manufacturing cannot change the race to procuring the cheapest; awareness about sustainable sourcing must be practiced by those who buy from us as well"

Lessons on rights and responsibilities have been learnt – but the lesson has to be learnt throughout the supply chain. Just responsible manufacturing cannot change the race to procuring the cheapest; the awareness about sustainable sourcing must be practiced by those who buy from us as well.

Bangladesh remains a key country for sourcing garments and yes, there's more to be done. The power to negotiate a better price or deal will have to stem from an unwavering commitment to ethical manufacturing, along with ensuring safety of lives and livelihoods of the millions who work for us. Since post-2013 we have emerged as a mature industry with excellent industry practices, we might as well brand ourselves better by sharing our stories with the world. The brands could also help us portray Bangladesh in a better way now, especially as we have evolved into a more sophisticated and mature manufacturing landscape.

Avedis Seferian, president and CEO, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP):
Reflecting on the five years since the tragedy at Rana Plaza, perhaps the simplest way to summarise the journey the Bangladeshi garment industry has undertaken and where it finds itself today is to say a lot of progress has been made and a lot of work still remains. In terms of progress, there is no doubt that, due in large part to the efforts of the Alliance and the Accord, the industry is a safer working environment today than it was five years ago; a comparison of the statistics around fire incidents in factories before 2013 to those in the years afterwards shows the unequivocal truth about the improvements in physical safety. And while some of that progress has spilled over into other elements of responsible sourcing, it is in the broader arena of social compliance that work still remains.

For Bangladesh to maintain its position as the world's second largest exporter of apparel, the industry needs to continue building on its forward momentum by improving working conditions beyond fire, electrical and structural safety; to do so, even better (and sustained) engagement is needed across the collection of players in the supply chain – buyers, manufacturers, the government, and civil society.

Jill Tucker, head of supply chain transformation & innovation, C&A Foundation:
The garment industry in Bangladesh has become a portrait of opposites. As the second largest apparel industry in the world, it boasts some of the most modern, state-of-the art facilities, including the only three LEED platinum certified garment factories in the world. At the same time, the industry is known for its continued industrial accidents, poor labour standards and the stifling of worker voices.

In the five years since the Rana Plaza tragedy, there has been great progress in fire and building safety. The Accord and the Alliance initiatives provided the world with shining examples of accountability through transparency by making their factory assessments publicly disclosed for all to see. Factories are motivated to improve conditions, and workers and their representatives have the information they need for fact- and data-based negotiations. But transparent public disclosure of information in Bangladesh has been limited to building, fire and electrical safety.

"Now is the time for Bangladesh to grab the reins of transparency and expand public disclosure to other aspects of factory conditions – setting an example for the world"

Now is the time for Bangladesh to grab the reins of transparency and expand public disclosure to other aspects of factory conditions – setting an example for the world. The BRAC University factory mapping project is an example of a path-breaking transparency initiative. The initiative aims to map the entire universe of apparel factories in Bangladesh, including subcontract factories. Used in the right way this kind of transparency can lead to true change, forging the way to a fair and sustainable apparel industry in Bangladesh.

Nate Herman, SVP supply chain, American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA):
It is hard to believe the tragedy at Rana Plaza took place just five years ago. At the time, AAFA was hosting our annual sourcing event, discussing many of the challenges and opportunities within the supply chain with representatives from throughout the industry. As the news of the collapse reached us, the first emotion was shock. The second was determination that we would never let this happen again.

Though horrible, the events that transpired in 2013 have had a dramatic impact on the industry and the way we work with partners throughout the world. Shortly afterwards, two organisations – the Alliance and the Accord – were formed with the sole purpose of bettering working conditions in Bangladesh. As a result of the hard work of these organisations, we have witnessed tremendous progress in both compliance among Bangladesh factories and safety awareness among workers.

While the progress made during the past five years deserves recognition, it would be irresponsible to say the work is complete. Continuous improvement is essential when it comes to worker safety, which is why 2018 is essential for the future of the industry in Bangladesh as both the Alliance and the Accord work on plans for future safety monitoring in the country. Further, it is important to work with all stakeholders, the Bangladesh government, the Bangladesh industry, Bangladesh workers, and others to ensure all of the great progress made during the last five years on worker safety can be sustained with local capacity into the future.

Debbie Coulter, head of practice, evidence & learning at the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI):
Scarcely an article is written about Bangladesh's garment industry without mention of the desperate events of 24 April 2013, when 1,134 workers lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory.

The tragedy cast a spotlight on the country's garment sector and the international brands sourcing from there. Since then, Bangladesh has undergone a transformation. Few would deny it's a work in progress, but the numbers speak for themselves. Looking at the two major safety initiatives set up in the disaster's aftermath, the Accord has helped to address 130,000 safety problems in 1,600 factories, while the Alliance reports 90% remediation. Of all safety upgrades, 85% have now been completed.

As Bangladesh's garment sector continues to grow, the challenge now is to make sure workers have a voice to raise their concerns, not just relating to safety, but also issues such as discrimination, harassment and poor conditions. That's why organisations like ETI and the ILO have been working to establish workplace committees and train workers on their rights, including the freedom to organise, collectively bargain and engage in social dialogue.

Yet even as we look to these challenges, it's crucial to recognise what the country has achieved: quite simply, the monumental overhaul of an entire industry.

Ben Vanpeperstraete, lobby and advocacy coordinator, Clean Clothes Campaign:
Five years ago, all of us witnessed, mostly in disbelief and horror, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building collapse. After this wake-up call, the fashion sector committed to do better and to start respecting the lives of those working long hours for low pay to make our clothes.

In the following years, all stakeholders did join hands to ensure compensation for loss of income was delivered on the victims (although the money was only delivered after campaigning and political pressure). There has also been impressive, laudable and demonstrable progress in preventing similar disasters through the Bangladesh Accord. However, this has been limited to one country, lacks universal participation on the side of the brands, and continued progress faces resistance.

However, change is going slow, in other countries and on other issues (like Freedom of Association and wages) not much has happened. The success of the Accord shows the only way forward is a framework that makes brands and retailers accountable to take the measures required to guarantee workers in its supply chain with a dignified and sustainable livelihood. One place to start would be the EU – the world's largest consumer bloc. It has a mandate and obligation to protect human rights and has indicated an interest in combatting human rights violations in the garment industry. An industry that allows so many lives to be lost, wages to be stolen, or women to be harassed, and yet continues on as before, can only be changed by enforceable regulation at international level.

Heather Franzese, vice president of worker engagement, Elevate Global:
There has been tremendous progress in physical remediation and getting factories to a starting point, but we've also seen that the physical infrastructure is only one piece of the puzzle. It's essential to have other components like the helpline (Amader Kotha), training, and safety committees because each of these items contribute to an overall safety culture. 

"The lesson is that it's amazing what can be achieved when there's a catalyst for collaboration"

One of the things that has enabled the gains we've seen in Bangladesh over the last five years is the pooling of resources. There was this catalysing event that brought together a lot of money at the same point in time and aligned people around common strategies. The lesson is that it's amazing what can be achieved when there's a catalyst for collaboration. It's obviously unfortunate that it came at such a cost, but there's now a blueprint for how that type of collaboration can be replicated in other places.

Companies are being more thoughtful about their sourcing. I'm seeing a lot of consolidation of factory bases and companies being more strategic to say, "if we're going to source in a country like Bangladesh that has safety challenges or other issues, what does it take for us to do it well and to do it responsibly?" I see from my experience with companies, they're being more thoughtful and more strategic about their approach entering countries that may not have the same rule of law or systems in place to support working conditions.

Ambassador James Moriarty, executive director of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety:
Five years after the devastating Rana Plaza collapse, we pause to remember the 1,134 victims, reflect on the progress achieved and pledge to continue our fight for better safety conditions in Bangladesh's garment sector. Since 2013, the Alliance has helped drive a sea change in factory safety. Today, 90% of safety remediation work is complete across all Alliance factories. More than 1.5 million workers, security guards and managers have been trained in fire safety. And 1.5 million workers have tools to bring immediate attention to safety concerns, including access to our confidential, 24-hour helpline.

The benefits of safety also extend beyond the men and women on the factory floor. Reforms have bolstered Bangladesh's position as a key supplier for major brands worldwide. Buyers are more confident sourcing from Bangladesh because their products are produced in safe factories where workers are empowered to voice their concerns. This experience demonstrates that safety isn't just good for the well-being of workers – it is also good for business.

It is now the shared responsibility of all stakeholders to make sure that these gains are sustained over the long-term. Alliance brands will join with credible, local partners in the weeks ahead to form a joint entity to carry on our factory monitoring, worker training and helpline initiatives. Together, we can continue to make safety the rule, not the exception, in Bangladesh.