Three years after the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 factory workers, the rights and safety of workers are in greater focus, but progress in fixing problems in the supply chain is slow, experts and activists say. Global fashion retailers say the tragedy prompted them to work together more closely to protect workers in developing nations and ensure the safety of buildings. There has also been legislation to ensure greater supply-chain transparency.
"You have about 200 brands working together, and there's definitely more transparency, more attention to the issue of human rights in the global supply chain," Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of Business in New York, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"But in addressing fire safety, building safety, workers' protection - there aren't enough practical discussions around these issues, not enough financing. So not enough has changed," said Labowitz, who wrote a report on the aftermath of the disaster, published in December.
In the Rana Plaza disaster, one of the worst ever industrial accidents, 1,135 people were killed when an eight-story building housing five garment factories supplying global brands suddenly collapsed.
The collapse of the complex, built on swampy ground outside the capital Dhaka, sparked demands for greater safety in the world's second-largest exporter of readymade garments and put pressure on companies buying clothing from Bangladesh to act.
The duty-free access offered by Western nations and low wages for its workers helped turn Bangladesh's garment exports into an industry with $25 billion in annual revenue. Sixty percent of the clothes go to Europe, 23 percent to the United States and 5 percent to Canada.
The minimum monthly wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is $68, compared with about $280 in mainland China, which nevertheless remains the world's biggest clothes exporter.
British budget fashion chain Primark, which was sourcing some clothing from Rana Plaza, said companies had recognized the need to ensure that workers were paid fairly and conditions were good, but building safety had not been an issue.
"It is fair to say that the industry had not considered structural integrity of buildings as a risk," Paul Lister, head of Primark's ethical trading team, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview.
"You would look inside the building, but not onto the floor above or below. You would see all the certificates, however these with Rana Plaza were later proved to be false. I don't think industry anticipated those buildings would collapse."
After the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24, 2013, a former chief engineer of the state-run Capital Development Authority said the owner had not received proper consent for the building, and that an extra three stories were added illegally. More than 40 defendants face charges over the disaster, but about 24 of the accused have absconded.
The disaster led to the creation of two international coalitions designed to assess and help fund improvements to building and fire safety at thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh. Most European retailers signed up to an Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which oversees more than 1,600 factories used by retailers like H&M, Marks & Spencer and Primark.
Accord inspectors set out structural, electrical and fire-safety improvement plans for most of the factories. But nearly three years on, about 70 percent of those plans are behind schedule, according to data on its website. North American brands, meanwhile, signed up with a different inspection group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Setting and maintaining standards is tough, Labowitz said. "There are economic, geographic and political factors with supply chains. How do you ensure governance across them? A global inspection system is difficult," she said.
The slow pace of inspections led Primark to employ its own structural surveyor to monitor the 100 factories in Bangladesh and 60 or so in Pakistan from which it sources its products, Lister said. "These are the countries where you have these high-rise factories and the added corruption of allowing these factories to be built when they should not be," said Lister. "The risk is greater."
A TINDER BOX
In neighboring India, also a hub for clothing manufacture and export, retailers H&M, Inditex, C&A and PVH committed earlier this year to improving the lives of workers in the southern city of Bengaluru, after a report said employees lived in appalling conditions and were denied decent wages and freedom of movement.
Activists say workers' conditions are still far from ideal, and chances of another disaster like Rana Plaza remain high. "While compensation for victims became a priority after the disaster, the perennial problems of safety, health and prevention still need to be addressed," said Gopinath Parakuni, general-secretary of non-profit Cividep India. "Every factory is still a tinder box, and effective ways to ensure day-to-day safety are still not in place," he said.
Legislation such as the UK's Modern Slavery Act, passed a year ago, is expected to put added pressure on companies to clean up their supply chains. But garment workers in Bangladesh still face daunting challenges to unionization, and remain at risk of interference and threats, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Thursday.
"Let's remember that none of the factories operating in Rana Plaza had trade unions," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement. "If their workers had had more of a voice, they might have been able to resist managers who ordered them to work in the doomed building a day after large cracks appeared in it."
As well as companies and governments, consumers are getting involved in the campaign for greater supply-chain transparency. Global retailers' efforts will have little impact unless consumers demand more ethically produced goods, industry experts said at a Thomson Reuters Foundation panel last week.
Fashion Revolution, a UK-based charity established in response to the Rana Plaza disaster, has popularized the Twitter hashtag #whomademyclothes, while The Human Thread Campaign, similarly set up after the disaster, asks Catholics to reflect on the origin of their clothes.
"Politically, socially, there's a big debate about the real cost of globalization," Labowitz said. "If the fashion industry were to disappear tomorrow, it wouldn't be good for Bangladesh and other countries where workers are dependent on it. But we are going to need to keep the debate going, keep the pressure on retailers, on governments, on consumers," she said.
(Additional reporting by Belinda Goldsmith in London and Anuradha Nagaraj in Chennai, editing by Tim Pearce.