by Rebecca Prentice
The survivors of the deadly supply chain disaster were paid ‘rights-based’ compensation from global brands; it wasn’t sufficient to help rebuild their lives
The Rana Plaza collapse on 24 April 2013 was a crisis of many kinds. More than a thousand garment workers were killed when the eight-storey garment manufacturing building collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh. Family members lost beloved sisters, sons, and mothers, and a source of vital household income vanished in an instant. For the thousands of workers who survived the wreckage, many hundreds experienced life-changing injuries such as amputations, spinal damage, and psychological trauma.
For the global fashion brands that source from Bangladesh, Rana Plaza was a crisis of another sort: a public-relations crisis. It brought media spotlight to labour conditions in their supply chains. Consumers learned that the workers who stitch for well-known companies like Primark, Walmart, Mango and Benetton toiled over long hours in lamentable conditions. What’s more, these workers did not have the collective power to refuse unsafe work when their bosses demanded they enter a visibly-cracked building that day.
Bangladesh lacks a robust system of work-injury compensation, and Rana Plaza survivors had no guaranteed means for rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. In the midst of unrelenting protests by survivors, workers, and their allies, the global fashion brands agreed to pay financial relief to Rana Plaza’s surviving workers, and the families of those killed. In 2015, the International Labour Organization (ILO) spearheaded the creation of the Rana Plaza Arrangement, a voluntary compensation deal through which the brands paid roughly $30 million to 5,109 of Rana Plaza’s survivors.
What made the Rana Plaza Arrangement unique was that it paid survivors’ claims for compensation not based on whatever amount global fashion brands were willing to donate, but instead based on the ‘universal’ standards of work-injury compensation enshrined in ILO Conventions. In other words, Rana Plaza’s survivors received the amounts of compensation they would have been entitled to, had the factories inside the building carried employment injury insurance.
How have the survivors who received this compensation fared in decade since Rana Plaza’s collapse? My research with colleagues at Jahangirnagar University paints a grim picture. Our interviews with 72 survivors between 2019-2020 identify widespread stories of injustice and struggle. For families already living in poverty, work-injury compensation after a devastating factory disaster is grossly inadequate to their needs.
While roughly a fifth of survivors we interviewed were able to put the compensation towards a new livelihood such as opening a shop or purchasing a rickshaw, most saw the payments disappear into day-to-day expenses, medical care or clearing debts. As Yeasmin*, a sewing machine operator who worked on the fourth floor told us,
‘We are poor people, people of scarcity. Whenever we got money, we just spent it to bear the different expenses of the family.’
Yeasmin received only BDT 100,000 (£755) in compensation from the Rana Plaza Arrangement because her medical assessment deemed her fit to return to work. But the psychological impact of the collapse prevented return to employment. Instead Yeasmin runs a tea stall, which generates a fraction of the income she once earned.
Even when survivors are physically and mentally capable of factory work, stigma interferes with getting a job. Employers believe that Rana Plaza survivors will be troublesome, impaired or demanding. Urmi, a 16-year-old machine operator when the building collapsed, put it this way:
‘I wouldn’t get the job if I told them. They think they have to randomly give off days to Rana Plaza workers. They know we have a lot of problems. So, we work by hiding the truth.’
Stigma arises not simply from ignorance of survivors’ circumstances, but also from the circulation of false claims that they received enormous sums of compensation. As a quality controller called Anis said,
‘Government and [national employers’ associations in Bangladesh] always said on TV and other media that we got tons of aid. […] People believed them; they thought that we are in very good condition. The more we say we don’t get enough money, nobody will believe us.’
The Rana Plaza families have received neither justice nor compensatory damages for their pain and suffering. Civil cases against the global fashion brands for sourcing from unsafe factories failed in foreign courts. Criminal charges against the building owner, Sohel Rana, and the factory owners are still unresolved.
Labour activist groups like the Clean Clothes Campaign championed the Rana Plaza Arrangement as a victory for labour rights. Survivors were compensated to the internationally-recognised standards of work-injury insurance enshrined in ILO Conventions. But work-injury insurance provides very small sums indeed.
The scandal of the Rana Plaza Arrangement is that the global fashion brands were under intense scrutiny and unrelenting protest in the weeks and months after the collapse. Campaigners called for the brands to recognise a moral obligation to survivors. Once a company paid into the programme, campaigners stopped ‘naming and shaming’ them—regardless of how much was contributed. Brands were under no obligation to disclose the size of their contribution. So, by making even a small donation, a global fashion brand that sourced from Rana Plaza could evade bad press. Even when brands donated more—such as Benetton’s highly-publicised $1.1 million contribution—the amount represented a tiny portion of the company’s annual revenue.
Too little has changed in the garment industry from the time of Rana Plaza. Factories are safer when it comes to fire and building safety, but the low wages, long hours, and suppression of labour rights continue. Workers who attempt to unionise their factories face firings and other reprisals. Meanwhile, the global fashion brands now pay less than ever for garments produced in Bangladesh. Unless brands are willing to improve labour conditions by paying more to have their goods made, they will continue to fail the garment workers of Bangladesh.
*Names have been changed
Rebecca Prentice is a Reader in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex.