From the Ashes of Rana Plaza: ‘Consumers Want to Know How Their Clothes Are Made’

It took a huge tragedy for the garment factories of Bangladesh, filled with exploited young women workers, to finally draw international attention and action.

(Jason Motlagh)

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Editor’s note: The year 2013 saw the worst accident in the history of the international garment industry: A clothing factory collapsed outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing at least 1,127 workers, mostly young women, and injuring another 2,500.Poorly constructed and weakened by the vibrations of a two-ton generator on the roof, the eight-story building had visible, growing cracks in its walls about which workers had warned their supervisors the day before the collapse,” wrote Michael Posner in Forbes. “The workers were told they would lose their jobs if they refused to return, so they went back the following morning. Many ended up beneath the rubble.

Ten years later, the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster offers an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made and the work that still needs to be done to ensure decent conditions for Bangladesh’s more than four million garment workers.”


From the Summer 2013 issue of Ms. magazine:

One afternoon, a fire broke out at the rear of Smart Export Garments, an illegal factory in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. More than 300 people ran screaming toward a single exit on the second floor, only to find it locked. By the time guards arrived to open it, seven women had already been crushed in the stampede; an eighth died later.

The incident had little impact. In Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest apparel manufacturer with $24 billion annually in exports, workers’ lives were as perishable as the clothes they made.

Just two months earlier, a blaze at Tazreen Fashions outside of Dhaka claimed 112 workers, most of them women. In the wake of that fire, an Associated Press reporter had taken photographs to prove that clothing was being made there for top U.S. retailers Walmart, Sears and Disney. The companies tried to distance themselves from the tragedy, claiming their orders had been subcontracted without their knowledge. Pledges were made to improve worker safety, yet the companies refused to sign a binding fire-safety agreement that, by high estimates, would end up costing them about 10 cents more per garment.

If the apathy shown by major foreign contractors seemed flagrant, perhaps it was because no one was closely investigating the murky underworld of their supply chains. Two weeks after the Smart fire, hand marks were still visible on the charred walls of the stairwell where the trapped workers had died. On the ground beneath rows of blackened sewing machines, piles of jeans, casual jackets and winter vests were left to rot. Labels for several name brands were once again scattered on the floor.

Child workers. Dangerous conditions. Hundreds of casualties. And the response of big Western retailers? To pour more orders into Bangladesh.

In the dank basement of an apartment in view of the Smart factory, Rajina Akter, 15, explained how she was sewing pockets for about 18 cents an hour when the fire’s toxic fumes knocked her unconscious. Although private donors helped cover some of her medical expenses, money was running short. With minimal education, and relatives to support, Akter would have to find another assembly-line job.

“What else can I do?” she shrugged.

Child workers. Dangerous conditions. Hundreds of casualties. And the response of big Western retailers? To pour more orders into Bangladesh. The relentless market demands of fast fashion, a consumer-driven model that produces trendy styles at low prices, was pushing the country’s factory owners to cut corners—with fatal results. What, if anything, would it take to finally wake up consumers to the reality that cheap clothes have a devastating cost on the other side of the world?

On April 24, an eight-story commercial building collapsed in Savar, an industrial city near Dhaka. Home to five clothing factories, a bank and several other businesses, Rana Plaza was a hive of activity on most days; on this one it became a tomb. Initial reports said at least 300 were dead, and each passing day the figure grew higher. As ill-equipped rescue workers sifted through the wreckage for survivors, the Bangladeshi government reportedly rejected assistance offers from other countries and from the United Nations in a shameful display of pride.

Haunting images taken at the scene stirred public outrage, none more so than a photograph of two workers buried alive in a dust-cloaked embrace. As the death toll climbed to abstracting heights, the picture served as a poignant reminder of those who toil for the world’s lowest wages, and a searing indictment of the Bangladeshi authorities and foreign brands that have put profit over people.

The groundswell of anger found an easy first target—factory owner Sohel Rana, who was caught at the Indo-Bangladeshi border trying to flee. Heavy-set and unshaven, here was the villain. Rana was also known to be a leading member of ruling political party the Awami League’s youth wing.

The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, had at first denied Rana’s party membership, but the blowback forced her to have him and seven others arrested in an about-face that underscored the shady nexus between political power and the country’s garment industry.

When the Rana Plaza rescue effort was finally called off on May 13, at least 1,127 workers were confirmed dead and some 2,500 injured, making it the worst accident in the history of the international garment industry. Yet this was no accident. The top three floors of the building were built illegally. A day before the building collapsed, inspectors had discovered cracks in its façade and ordered it closed. The factory owner, rushing to fill orders from European and Canadian brands, gave employees an ultimatum: Work or lose a month’s pay. They knew that in a country where workers have very little room to organize, no one would dare push back.

A relative of a victim, who died in the Rana Plaza garments factory tragedy, on its 10th anniversary at the site where the building once stood in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24, 2023. (Munir uz Zaman / AFP via Getty Images)

Back in 1978,  Bangladesh’s total ready-made garment exports were just $40,000. By all accounts the staggering growth since then has been driven by low-cost infrastructure, lax governance and, most critically, a bottomless supply of cheap labor. So cheap, in fact, that in response to rising domestic labor costs, even China, the world’s largest garment manufacturer, is starting to outsource the final stages of garment production to Bangladesh.

Of the more than 3.5 million people working in the country’s garment industry, the vast majority—roughly 88 percent—are women. Despite the harsh conditions and a national minimum wage in 2013 of about $37 a month, it is common for underage girls to lie and begin working to support their families. Often forced into early marriages by parents seeking to alleviate financial burdens, these girls face pay discrimination as well as sexual harassment as they struggle to earn for their new families. When bosses are abusive and conditions threatening, there is nowhere to turn.

Kalpona Akter (of no relation to Rajina) was one of these girls. Starting garment work at the age of 12, she endured years of 14-hour workdays, seven days a week, sleeping on the factory floor. But she was also the only woman to join a 1,500-strong strike line against managers refusing to pay overtime wages, and she joined the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO training office—a bold move toward holding garment-factory owners accountable. In return she was blacklisted, her picture hung on the gates of factories around Dhaka.

While Akter lost her job, Bangladeshi women gained a fierce and unrelenting advocate. Days before the Rana Plaza tragedy, Akter was in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to press American retailers on the fire-safety accord. She was accompanied by 19-year-old Sumi Abedin, a Tazreen survivor. Convinced that another tragedy was already in the making, the pair traveled around the country leading protest actions, including at Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and the Gap in San Francisco.

Akter returned to the U.S. in June to raise her voice at Walmart’s shareholder meeting joined by 14,000 protesters. “This is the moment,” she said, looking back on the experience. “Consumers are more aware and they want to know how their clothes are made.”

If years of activism have taught Akter one thing, it’s that pressure for meaningful change in her country’s garment industry must come from outside. Systemic corruption and decades of government suppression of labor organizers have stifled the union ranks. Those who dare challenge their bosses are invariably laid off, arrested or worse. The fate of Aminul Islam, an outspoken colleague of Akter’s, was a case in point: Having weathered years of harassment by police and intelligence agents, he disappeared one night in April 2012 after helping workers in a dispute over wages and sexual misconduct. His body was found more than 40 miles away in a roadside ditch, showing signs of torture.

While factory workers face a culture of fear, there is impunity for the ownership elite. It’s no secret that inspectors are easily bribed to overlook abuse, and just 18 state inspectors are tasked with vetting thousands of known factories, to say nothing of illegal ones that remain invisible.

“This is essentially a government of garment employers for garment employers,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The Bangladeshi government has to be dragged kicking and screaming to protect workers’ rights in a meaningful way.”

The Rana Plaza fire sparked a trans-Atlantic network of labor activists to redouble efforts to force retailers to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh—a five-year, legally binding commitment that subjects retailers to independent inspections and public reports. It also requires signatories to fund safety upgrades costing up to $500,000 each.

In the U.S., the Corporate Action Network, and United Students Against Sweatshops aligned with the International Labor Rights Forum to support the End Death Traps Tour, led by Kalpona Akter. Campus groups called for store boycotts and raised funds for the families of Rana Plaza victims. Across Europe, the Clean Clothes Campaign rallied thousands to protest in front of retailers.

Then there were creative flourishes: In an appeal for responsible clothing production, Spanish artist Yolanda Dominquez lay slickly dressed mannequins under piles of rubble in the middle of Madrid’s most prominent shopping district. These far-flung actions have yielded unprecedented results.

Will Rana Plaza be a turning point in the way Western garment makers operate abroad? Or will exploitation persist in the shadows?

Prior to Rana Plaza, just two companies—PVH Corp, whose portfolio includes Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Germany’s Tchibo—had agreed to the workplace safety accord. More than 60 companies, overwhelmingly European, have added their names. They include Swedish mega-retailer H&M, the largest global buyer of ready-made garments from Bangladesh; France’s Carrefour; Britain’s Marks & Spencer; and Inditex, the Spanish firm that owns Zara, Pull & Bear and Bershka (whose labels were found by human-rights activists at the scene of the Smart fire). Within a year, the agreement is expected to cover up to 1,000 of Bangladesh’s 5,000 registered factories.

On a government level, the U.S. suspended Bangladesh’s trade privileges June 27 over outstanding concerns with safety hazards and labor violations in the garment industry. Because Bangladeshi garment exports do not have duty-free status in the U.S.—however, the move will not affect the garment industry and is therefore seen as symbolic. But it could have grave consequences if it prompts a similar response from Bangladesh’s top global customer, the European Union, which buys 60 percent of the country’s garment exports, duty free.

Activists demand safe workplace for garments workers to mark the sixth anniversary of the of the Rana Plaza building collapse disaster in front of National Press Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2019. (Mamunur Rashid / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Rana Plaza’s impact has drawn early comparisons to the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City, in which 146 garment workers, mainly immigrant women in their teens and 20s, perished in a locked building. A public outcry led to improved safety standards, stronger unions and limits on working hours. More than a century later, will Rana Plaza be a turning point in the way Western garment makers operate abroad? Or will exploitation persist in the shadows?

Scott Nova, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Workers Rights Consortium and a key architect of the fire safety accord, is optimistic. He said the accord represents “a sweeping transformation” and “fundamental departure from the failed models and evasion we’ve seen from other brands over the years.” Because it is legally binding, companies will remain on the hook for violations even after public pressure fades.

Yet many top American firms are refusing to commit. Walmart, Gap, JCPenney, Sears, Target and other U.S. retailers are instead developing an alternate plan with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit based in D.C. While the companies say they worry about legal liability if they join the existing safety accord, critics believe they just want to avoid binding obligations and long-term costs. Indeed, a Dec. 5 report alleged that Walmart representatives took a lead role in blocking a 2011 push to have retailers underwrite fire-safety upgrades on grounds that it was “not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”

In early July, a group of nearly 20 North American retailers, including Walmart and Gap, announced a separate five-year pact designed to improve safety conditions in Bangladeshi factories. They pledged to enforce basic safety standards within three months and have all factories they do business with fully inspected within a year. However, unlike the accord with mainly European countries, the plan lacks legally binding commitments.

There is good reason to doubt these corporations’ ability to police suppliers on their own. For instance, audits conducted by Walmart at the Tazreen factory months before the fire overlooked obvious fire hazards and approved a higher safety rating. Given this track record, Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum contends that union involvement and transparency are needed for inspections to be effective, and “that’s not what we’re seeing so far.” Without the participation of Walmart and top U.S. retailers, she said, the new safety accord “won’t be able to reach its full potential.”

The Gap’s resistance has particularly confounded labor activists. The San Francisco-based company has long prided itself on its corporate social responsibility, with a history of star-studded global campaigns in support of urgent public-health issues such as AIDS and poverty reduction.

Slammed by protesters, the company has nonetheless chosen to stand alongside Walmart and other American holdouts, taking it from an industry “leader to laggard this one instance,” said Robertson. “It’s really shameful, and they should pay the price for it.”

The name-and-shame approach has not been entirely fruitless in the past. ABC News’ Brian Ross confronted designer Tommy Hilfiger at a fashion event in New York about several deadly fires in 2010 at the Bangladeshi factories where his clothing was made. After initially denying any connection, Hilfiger admitted that he was unaware and agreed to work with labor-rights organizations to formulate the landmark fire-safety accord. PVH, owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein labels, became the first brand to sign on. (Abercrombie & Fitch and Sean John have since followed.)

Explaining the cleavage between European and American companies, some analysts point to more longstanding relationships among governments, unions, activists and companies in geographically smaller Europe. They posit that European consumers generally keep companies under closer scrutiny, and that tightly knit advocacy groups know how to effectively mobilize the public when abuses are revealed and squeeze those companies where they feel it most—in retail stores. By contrast, it’s widely agreed that American companies abroad still hew to a more bare-fisted style of capitalism, with business models designed to ensure one thing: rock bottom prices.

“It’s the retrograde character of many key U.S. companies—they think they can ignore unions and kick the crap out of them with impunity,” said Nova. “The E.U. doesn’t love unions but at least it respects the rights of workers to organize.”

An advisor to U.S. companies in Bangladesh—someone who grew cynical and left the country—puts it more bluntly: “It’s kicking a can down the road. They want to evade this [agreement] because they care more about saving a few pennies on the cost of a shirt than saving the lives of workers.”

Fortunately, there are several of Bangladeshi garment factories that defy sweatshop clichés. At Syntex Knitwear, which employs more than 4,000 workers, maps, emergency exits and fire-safety equipment are prominently displayed on every floor of its Dhaka plant. Fire drills are held every couple of weeks, and the atmosphere is one of a well-oiled machine where bustling productivity is balanced by competitive wages and amenities. Outside, workers on break crowd around a company snack bar for tea and samosas.

In less than 10 years, managing director Omar Chowdhury has built his company into a multi-million-dollar-a-year business that counts Zara among his clients. But his climb to success did not spare him the high-stakes pressure of fast fashion, where turnaround time on garment orders is measured in weeks instead of months. Although his base of mostly European customers has a “zero tolerance” policy for backdoor subcontracting, he conceded that in the past he had to enlist smaller factories to help cover large orders. One disruption—a power outage, strike, delay of raw materials—might “put you out of business almost overnight,” he said.

Chowdhury now speaks from a position of stability, with hefty contracts to fall back on. As ever-larger garment orders come to Bangladesh, he explains, the real concern is off-book garment factories opened by unscrupulous people. The lure of foreign money is moving more of them to buy used equipment and pack as many job-starved people as possible into makeshift spaces, working them to the bone to achieve razor-slim profit margins. Corners must be cut, starting with wages and safety. Catch me if you can.

The frequency of factory fires around Dhaka has tapered off sharply in the months since Rana Plaza, according to researchers at the Solidarity Center. And with some hard-won momentum, labor groups are working with Western buyers to inspect and retrofit as many factories as they can before any more lives are lost. “It’s a major logistical undertaking,” said Nova, of the Workers Rights Consortium.

The labor groups must also contend with new factories that are opening to keep up with demand—because despite all the protests and boycotts, Bangladeshi garment sales are soaring. In May, a month after the tragedy, exports were up 15 percent from the year before

Eight thousand miles away from Dhaka, at an H&M store in downtown Washington, D.C., midlife women rub shoulders with 20-somethings in the shoe section, and teens rummage through accessories. “Made in Bangladesh” tags are ubiquitous in the aisles and on mannequins. With neon shorts reduced from $7.99 to $5 and

$12 blouses on offer at 50 percent off, no one seems to care where they came from. The grim irony of “fire sale” comes to mind.

Does Bangladesh strike a chord with shoppers? Even for the more socially conscious, hard economics trumps ethics in lean times. Sandra, a robust woman from a lower-income neighborhood who has 20 grandchildren, is adamant that American companies “shouldn’t be moving overseas unless they’re using the same labor laws that they would have to use at home.”

Yet with a large family to look after, she said that low prices, variety and ease of access have to come first. While some important new steps have been taken since the Rana Plaza building fell down, the consumer crush on any given day at H&M suggests that fast fashion isn’t slowing. But what choice do price-conscious consumers have, even those who want to “look for the union label”? Unions are being crushed, and not just in Bangladesh. Fast fashion becomes the only fashion, and while prices may be low, the markups are still high enough to satisfy greedy manufacturers.

Maybe now, though, as more activists and governments and companies stand together, the big-box retailers buying from Bangladeshi factories can no longer ignore worker safety. That garment hanging on a Walmart or Gap rack is no bargain if it costs a young woman her life. And because of Rana Plaza, that young woman, so long out of sight, is no longer out of mind.

“From the Ashes of Rana Plaza” originally rain in the Summer 2013 issue of Ms.

You may also like: A Decade After The Rana Plaza Disaster, Global Clothing Companies Owe More To Bangladeshi Garment Workers,” Forbes, Michael Posner, April 19, 2023.

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About and

Jason Motlagh is a writer, broadcast journalist and filmmaker whose work focuses on conflict and human rights. Formerly TIME magazine's Afghanistan correspondent, he has reported from more than 50 countries and a half-dozen conflicts spanning West Africa to Southeast Asia for National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Economist. He has received a National Magazine Award for News Reporting and the Overseas Press Club's Madeline Dane Ross Award for Best International Reporting on the Human Condition. Jason is the founder of Blackbeard Media, an Emmy Award-winning company that produces news documentaries for Al Jazeera, National Geographic and SBS Dateline. He also hosts investigations for AJ+, Fault Lines and People & Power.
Susie is a freelance multimedia journalist and artist, focused on women in conflict/ post-conflict environments. She has worked for the The American Interest Magazine, Washington International Research Group, The CS Monitor, The Atlantic, TIME video, Words Beats & Life, and others. She's worked in The Balkans, South America, and most recently South and SouthEast Asia.