It’s been more than five years since the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. Most were women working in a garment factory that makes clothes for Zara, Walmart and Joe Fresh, among other Western companies.

The disaster, in April 2013, was a prime example of the dangerous work conditions and lax labour laws in Bangladesh’s garment sector, which was plagued by a lack of accountability and transparency. The building was unsafe, not designed to support extra floors that had been added illegally. It was never meant to house the heavy generators that kicked in when the power would frequently go out. Cracks in the walls had appeared. The workers were scared to go in. Not long before the building fell, they had been ordered inside to get to work.

Five years later, safety and labour reforms have been brought about in the country, spurred by international organizations and activist groups, which spoke out quickly and soon began working with the Bangladeshi government and domestic nonprofits to enact reforms for safer labour conditions for garment workers. Agreements and treaties have been signed to institutionalize changes in factories to ensure safe work conditions — and better pay — for garment workers.

But more action is needed by Bangladesh. Can Canadians help?

The international response

After the collapse of Rana Plaza, the international community was fast to respond with collaborative efforts to improve working conditions. The garment industry has been instrumental in helping women out of poverty, giving them financial autonomy and a way to earn for their families. A boycott of clothing imports from Bangladesh would have hurt them. Instead, several multinational agreements came out of the tragedy, signed by companies and international organizations.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a legally binding agreement that was signed by companies such as Loblaws, Helly Hansen, Mango, Adidas and H&M. The Accord focuses on transparency, enforcing elected health and safety committees in factories and strengthening workers’ rights by creating a training program and an open complaints mechanism. The Accord was a five-year plan signed in May 2013 and has since been replaced by the three-year Transition Accord.

The second agreement formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Its 29 companies, including Canadian Tire Corporation and Hudson’s Bay Company, signed a five-year legally binding commitment to improve safety with assessments and steps for action involving mechanisms for fire, structural and electrical safety in factories. Factories are given Corrective Action Plans to fix unsafe practices, and the Alliance compensates workers who are unable to earn income while factories are under remediation.

Also notable is a program the International Labour Organization developed with Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. It’s called the Improving Working Conditions in the Ready-Made Garment Sector Programme, with its first phase lasting four years (2013-17). The goal is to strengthen the Bangladeshi government’s ability to conduct ongoing labour inspections and increase occupational health and safety awareness in factories. The European Union created a working group on sustainable garment value chains to focus EU development action on three priorities: gender empowerment, labour rights and supply chain transparency.

The Accord includes monitoring of remediation efforts at participating factories. In April 2018, Accord inspectors reported progress on 84 percent of safety issues identified in initial inspections in factories. Corrective actions based on follow-up inspections of fire, electrical and structural conditions have been slower in coming.

However, the Accord and the Alliance do not cover all garment factories in Bangladesh. They have a limited jurisdiction, as noted in a report by the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University. The Bangladeshi government oversees the rest of the factories, and it has focused less on helping garment workers and more on penalizing those responsible for the collapse.

The Bangladeshi response

A Bangladeshi court filed murder charges against 38 people, including Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, for illegally adding floors that ultimately contributed to its collapse. Three others were charged with helping Rana try to leave the country. Finally, in 2017, he was sentenced to three years in prison for corruption after Bangladesh’s Anti-Corruption Commission began building a case against him. There has been little progress in the Rana Plaza trials; many have been delayed by legal challenges, and most of the accused are free on bail.

International partners such as the EU urged Bangladesh to pass labour law reforms, which it did in 2013. However, Human Rights Watch says that the labour law is a patchwork of fixes that limits the ability of unions to fund themselves.

It is crucial that international partners continue to call for the prosecution of unsafe labour practices and violence against union workers. This can be done in two ways: first, the International Labour Organization, the EU and the United Nations can pressure the Bangladeshi government to fully apply the 2013 labour laws. Second, international corporations can be mindful of their corporate social responsibility and take steps to press for Bangladeshi suppliers to abide by those labour laws.

It’s too soon to stop the pressure

The government of Bangladesh must do more, and pressure must come from its citizens. While international pressure has led to significant changes in the garment industry, the agreements are temporary. In April 2018, those behind the Alliance and the Accord announced a plan to pass responsibility to grassroots partners in Bangladesh. This summer, Bangladeshi citizens took to the streets to demand enforcement of road safety laws. Earlier this year, there were street protests by students who were angry at the quota system that gave hiring preference to veterans of the 1971 war of independence and their families for government jobs. Both of these protests led to policy change — the motivation, perhaps, having something to do with coming elections in October.

Long-term structural reforms in factories and empowerment of workers require democratic representation for workers and increased accountability by the Bangladeshi government. Stronger partnerships with local grassroots organizations could enhance accountability. The Centre for Policy Dialogue, a think tank in Bangladesh, is one major institution pushing for reforms. It formed a partnership with several organizations to create a public accountability exercise three months after the tragedy, and it has continued to monitor what the Bangladeshi government has done to improve transparency and increase safety in the garment industry. It advocates for stricter guidelines and urges the government to implement safety compliance mechanisms to ensure that retailers and factories uphold workers’ rights.

The workers need a voice. The environment for trade unions is hostile, which makes it hard for garment workers to fight for change when factories are noncompliant with the Accord or the Alliance. Even since the 2013 labour law reforms, the national government has made it harder for trade unions to establish themselves. After the Rana Plaza disaster, the number of factories with unions increased to 437 by March 2015, still a small percentage of the 4,500 officially registered garment factories. Furthermore, 73 percent of applications to form unions were rejected in 2015, a sign the government is still unreceptive to labour representation.

What can Canadians do to help?

Canadians have encouraged reforms through activist pressure and legal action, including a court case in Ontario designed to force companies to abide by their voluntary corporate social responsibility commitments. A class-action lawsuit by the Toronto law firm Rochon Genova was filed against Joe Fresh and Loblaws that would bring compensation for victims of Rana Plaza and require Loblaws to abide by its voluntary corporate social responsibility standards. The lawsuit represents about 4,000 survivors and family members. It was dismissed in 2017, but appeal arguments were heard in Toronto this past April.

Canadians are also taking actions through organized labour. In April, the Canadian Labour Congress marked the five-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse by calling on Canadian corporations to sign the Transition Accord. It noted that the Canadian government is appointing a nonpartisan ombudsperson to ensure that Canadian corporations practise corporate social responsibility.

Pressure from international partners such as Canada helped to launch reforms, and continuing pressure on Canadian corporations to fulfil their social responsibility commitments will help. But the process will be self-sustaining only when the Bangladeshi government takes ownership. It can encourage unions to hold factory owners accountable and continue the progress that the Accord and the Alliance started. With a stronger regulatory framework and independent domestic watchdogs, it can bring about safe working conditions for impoverished Bangladeshi workers in garment factories. And Canadians can help by making sure that Bangladeshis know that we are watching.

Photo: In this April 19, 2018 photo, trainees at a garment factory work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

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Robert Wolfe is professor emeritus, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University; a research fellow of IRPP; and a member of the Global Affairs Canada Trade Advisory Council.
Juthika Hasan is a master of public administration candidate at Queen’s University and a junior analyst at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. Her interests lie in immigration and trade policy.

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