Today marks the 4-year anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza – a garment factory in Bangladesh. Over 4000 people were inside – mainly young female garment workers, producing clothing for export for Western brands such as Primark, Matalan and Mango. The world watched as rescuers attempted to free the thousands of people trapped beneath the mountain of rubble. The official rescue effort ended after seventeen days. A total of 1,132 people were dead and over 2,500 injured – making the incident the deadliest disaster in the history of the global garment industry, and Bangladesh’s worst ever man-made disaster.
I remember feeling – along with many around me – horrified that so many had lost their lives making the clothes on our backs. I couldn’t separate myself from the incident. I felt the best way to remember and honour the victims was to try to understand what happened, in order to campaign to ensure it never happened again. So I undertook a research project exploring the causes of the collapse – the key points of which are summarised here.
What were the immediate causes?
The most immediate cause was the flawed construction of Rana Plaza. The building materials used were low quality, especially the cement, which was watered down to lower costs. The site was unsafe as it was soft, reclaimed marshland unsuitable to support such a substantial building. The weight of Rana Plaza was almost six times more than it was built to bear as it was illegally extended by two floors. These factors combined meant that when the electricity generator whirred into action that fateful morning the vibrations caused the building to collapse.
However, this was not without warning. The day before, significant structural cracks appeared in the walls and the building was evacuated. An engineer carried out an inspection of the building and declared it ‘vulnerable.’ Despite this, the next day the Rana Plaza garment workers were ordered to return to work – threatened with docked wages or dismissal if they didn’t obey.
What were the secondary causes?
So April 24th 2013 saw over 4000 workers inside a building that was known to be liable to collapse. But how did that situation come to be? Three underlying factors seem key: repression of unions, ‘fast fashion’ and lack of safety regulation.
The opportunity to improve conditions or refuse an unsafe working environment by engaging in union-led collective action was not available to workers of Rana Plaza. There were no trade unions registered at any of the five garment factories housed in the building. This is systematic of the repression of unions in Bangladesh at the time through highly restrictive government policies as well as fear and self-censorship due to targeted violence towards union organisers.
The notion of ‘fast fashion’ is also inextricable from the collapse of Rana Plaza. ‘Fast fashion’ is the demand-driven strategy of quick response production and lean retailing which means that a ‘trendy’ garment can be identified, produced and in stores within only a few weeks. This has created the fast-paced, throwaway fashion culture we have today with increasingly cheap clothing and higher volumes of collections in stores. For the factories, ‘fast fashion’ leads to overtime above legal limits, lack of investment in safety due to tight profit margins, ever lower wages and huge pressure to meet order deadlines. This was without a doubt a key reason why Rana Plaza factory managers were forcing workers into a building they knew to be unsafe.
An understandable question to ask is why wasn’t there government safety regulation preventing the situation? Well there was regulation in place, but it was not implemented. The government had struggled to keep up with the rapid expansion of the garment industry since 1980s. At the time of the collapse they had only 46 inspectors to monitor the thousands of factories in Dhaka. In addition, the clear overlap between politics and the industry lead to a culture of impunity. 10% of Bangladeshi parliamentarians were themselves garment factory owners, with many more having connections through family members. This is demonstrated by Rana Plaza, which had, in plain sight, been illegally extended by two floors with no repercussions.
Impact of Neoliberalism: an over-arching cause
It is important to look deeper and ask why did these secondary causes come about? A key reason was the prevailing belief that the garment industry played a vital, positive role in the Bangladesh’s growth and so should be prioritised above all else. This is despite evidence that this path to growth has left the economy vulnerable and dependent; not translated into increased human development; jobs created are of poor quality with poverty wages; and any gains in women’s empowerment outweighed by gender discrimination within the industry. But the positive view prevailed. Why? Because of neoliberal ideology.
Neoliberalism advocates for an extreme form of free-market capitalism. It sees the realms of politics and economics as separate, with the market having superior status above all else. Bangladesh is a key example of a country that has undergone deliberate neoliberal structural adjustment facilitated by the development institutions, such as the World Bank. This led to an export-orientated growth strategy built on garments and saw 2,200 factories open in the 1980s alone.
Bangladesh implemented key neoliberal polices which contributed to causes of Rana Plaza collapse, such as:
- labour flexibility (removing ‘rigidities’ in labour market by e.g increased temporary contracts and relaxed firing policies) which led to increased exploitation and repression of trade-unions.
- trade liberalisation (the reduction of barriers to trade in order to promote free trade between nations) which led to prioritisation of the international market over the domestic, resulting in the implementation of the buyer-led ‘fast fashion’ approaches.
- roll back of the state (weakening and reducing size of state in order to prioritise the market) which contributed to lack of enforced safety regulation.
The collapse of Rana Plaza was an extreme case of neoliberalism’s inherent tendency to prioritise profit and economic growth over human development and the quality of life. If the Rana Plaza collapse is to remain the worst incident in history of the garment industry then the influence of neoliberal ideology needs to be challenged. As campaigners we must take time to understand the deeper causes to know what we are fighting. The first step in winning is knowing what you are up against.