Masuma is a survivor. On 24 April 2013, she went to work in the Rana Plaza building in an outer suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The building was home to dozens of separate factory units, making clothes for the world market.
Workers didn’t want to go in to the building that day. Cracks had appeared in the concrete pillars the previous day and everyone was worried. But managers had production targets to meet from foreign buyers and so the work had to go on.
At 8:57am the building collapsed. Eight stories of concrete and heavy machinery crashed down, trapping the helpless workers inside. Masuma was one of them. ‘There was so much debris you could barely see,’ she says. ‘I closed my eyes and started to crawl my way towards the window.’
Well over a thousand people didn’t survive that day – many of them young women for whom the jobs had been a lifeline.
And since then, the words ‘Rana Plaza’ have become short-hand for all that is wrong with the international fashion industry. But Rana Plaza wasn’t a one off. Traidcraft has made a list of all the industrial accidents in the Bangladeshi garment industry over the last decade both before and after Rana Plaza. We could have gone further back, and we could have included other countries too. There is an endemic problem in the industry.
And that means that UK companies sourcing clothes from low-cost countries like Bangladesh cannot say that ‘we didn’t know’.
Jobs in the ‘ready-made garment’ industry in Bangladesh have made a big difference to the lives of many young women there, offering them respect and financial independence. And for the country, the massive growth of the industry has been a significant step down the road of industrialisation and development.
But if the international fashion trade is to continue on a just and sustainable basis, it must deal urgently with the safety of its workers – alongside decent pay, recognition of independent unions and placing orders in a manner which enables workers to have safe and good jobs.
Victims of all garment factory fires and building collapses need to have justice. Companies, both local and international, need to be held to account.
The scale of Rana Plaza shocked the world into action. A compensation fund has been set up, and despite its limitations (voluntary and not yet fully funded) victims should receive a payment.
But what about the others? It shouldn’t have to take a ‘Rana Plaza’ for this to happen.