One decade on from the devastating Rana Plaza building collapse, has the fashion industry changed its ways? A little, but not enough. Here’s why garment workers are still suffering to make our clothes.
Ten years ago, in Savar Upazila of the Dhaka District in Bangladesh, an eight-story building housing a number of garment factories collapsed in on itself. Despite cracks in the walls being recorded just one day earlier, there were thousands of people in the building at the time of its collapse, which took all of 90 seconds and left only the ground floor intact. More than 1,100 people died in the incident, while around 2,500 people were injured.
Inside Rana Plaza garment workers were making clothes for companies including Inditex (which owns Zara), Mango, and Walmart. The event, now known as the Rana Plaza disaster, sparked mass industry change. But for the millions of people still sewing fast fashion around the world today, was it really enough?
What happened after the Rana Plaza collapse?
After the tragedy with Rana Plaza, the fashion world was shaken. Major fashion brands promised to change their ways, and they signed a legally binding agreement, now referred to as the Bangladesh Accord or the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
According to the Business of Fashion, this agreement helped to establish a level of accountability in the fashion industry, requiring brands to organize things like independent safety inspections of the facilities that produce their clothes and publish the results. It was signed by more than 200 brands, including big names like Hugo Boss and Mango.
But while the accord was a sign of progress, making buildings a little safer for the hundreds of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh (and soon there will be a similar agreement in effect in Pakistan), it was far from perfect. To this day, major fashion labels are still exploiting human beings in the name of profit. Since 2013, there have been many more tragedies behind the scenes in the fashion industry.
Where we are now: Ongoing disasters in fashion
According to The True Cost, there are roughly 40 million garment workers around the world, and around 85 percent of them are women and only about 2 percent make a living wage. Many live in Bangladesh, but there are also factories in countries like China, Pakistan, and India. And most workers face daily risks including forced labor, sexual abuse, and unsafe working conditions.
“Ten years after more than a thousand workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse, labor rights abuses are still rife in Bangladesh and many are still working in unsafe conditions,” Paul Nowak of the Trades Union Congress in the UK told The Guardian.
This has only been made worse by the rise of ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein, which adds up to 10,000 new styles to its site every single day. Just last year, the brand admitted that two of its sites in China had breached local labor violations. A Channel 4 documentary investigating Shein also discovered that staff were working up to 18-hour days, with only one day off each month. They were allegedly paid around 3 cents per item.
Shein announced it would pay out $15 million to fix the issues in its supply chains. But can it really make a significant difference? After all, exploitation props up the fast fashion model. It is fundamental to producing incredibly cheap clothes at a fast rate, over and over again.
“Fast fashion often gets defended for being an affordable option, but affordable for who? Not the women paid $75 a month, struggling to feed their families,” Callum Winn of Gen Z styling app Whering told Dazed while protesting for better rights for garment workers. He added: “We are still protesting because garment workers are shot dead in the streets when they protest to be paid for their work.”
There have been multiple accounts of workers being killed during protests. In 2014, three Cambodian textile workers died when police opened fire during a demonstration for higher pay. And more recently, in 2021, one woman was shot and killed during a protest over salary increases for factory workers in Lesotho.
Many organizations are campaigning for change in the garment industry. The Clean Clothes Campaign, for example, is dedicated to amplifying the voices of garment workers and calling on brands to act. You can find out more about its ongoing campaigns here.
And if you want to buy new clothes, there are ways to make sure your purchases are as ethical and sustainable as possible. For more guidance, follow our guide to sustainable fashion designers making conscious clothing the new normal. And you can also find certified B Corp fashion labels changing the way business is done here.
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