One year on

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One year ago today 1138 garment workers working in the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh died when the building they were working in collapsed. Thousands more were injured. They were making garments for many British high street brands.

We spoke to Liz Parker, a workers’ rights campaigner, about her work on compensation for victims and prevention of further tragedies in the future.

How would you describe your work?
I’ve been involved with workers’ rights issues since 1999. I’ve worked with the Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label off and on since 2005, and I co-ordinated the Fashioning an Ethical Industry project from 2006-2010. I also teach fashion students at LCF and other institutions.

What have been the major changes in Bangladesh in the last year?
One of the things I’ve worked on is fire and building safety in clothing factories, both on prevention but also to seek compensation, not just for the victims of Rana Plaza but also for victims of other industrial tragedies such as the Tazreen fire in Bangladesh that killed over 100 in November 2012.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is aimed at preventing more casualties. In the weeks after Rana Plaza 40 brands signed the Accord; now over 150 brands have committed.  A key aspect of the Accord is that workers are in a central role – workers and trade unions are involved in monitoring fire and building safety on an ongoing basis. External inspections have already started and action has been taken to make factories safer. The Accord commits brands financially and legally, which is fundamental to the whole process.  Once brands have signed up they have to commit to making the changes, and making sure that workers are compensated in terms of wages or finding new work if the factory closes. The Accord is historic and unprecedented – it’s a huge piece of work to try and inspect thousands of factories in Bangladesh but work has started to protect Bangladeshi people from further disasters.

In addition to prevention the other key action is securing compensation for victims. This work has been on-going since 2005 when the Spectrum factory collapsed in exactly the same area of Dhaka as Rana Plaza. The United Nations body the ILO is involved as an independent chair of the Arrangement, a process for compensating Rana Plaza victims using a formula based on existing ILO conventions for compensation for industrial accidents. The Arrangement has been agreed by the Bangladeshi government, the exporters’ association in Bangladesh and from NGOS like the Clean Clothes Campaign and Bangladesh and international trade unions. It’s ground breaking to have this formula in place. The demand is for $40 million to be paid by all brands buying from Bangladesh into a fund, but that’s not been achieved yet. Only about $15million has been contributed so far.

Some of the brands that had a commercial relationship with Rana Plaza factories, including Primark, have already contributed. Even some brands that didn’t have a sourcing relationship there have paid into the fund, but other brands who were buyers including Matalan and Benetton haven’t. Walmart, amongst others, have been criticised for not paying enough. What Walmart have contributed works out about £300/family according to Labour Behind the Label, which is insulting when you think about the devastation to people’s lives – over a thousand people’s lives have been lost. The struggle to survive goes on and on for the people whose lives have been devastated by the collapse. Trying to rebuild your life after a trauma like that must be inconceivably hard. Survivors are struggling to make ends meet. Women have lost their homes because they are injured and can’t afford their rent as they are not working. Brands failed the workers by not providing a safe working environment and are failing them again by not providing compensation so they can rebuild their lives.

What can people do to help?
There’s a whole range of things that people can do. Go to the Labour Behind the Label website and join their actions. One action focuses on Matalan, to encourage them to pay into the compensation fund. Another action is to write to their MPs, to support an early day motion to get the government to encourage British brands – whether they were buying from Rana Plaza or not – to contribute to the fund. These are two really concrete things to do.

I often get asked ‘what can buy? who can I buy from?’ but I can’t give a really simple answer as the industry – and ways to change it – are complex. It’s not just about what you buy that’s going to make a difference. The obvious point to underscore is that this is not about calling for a boycott of clothes made in Bangladesh, but we can question how many clothes we actually need and how much they are prepared to pay. A cheap pair of jeans might be made in the same factory as an expensive pair of jeans, but if you buy the cheapest you are contributing to competition between brands on price , a competition that creates a spiral of low cost. Instead of buying three really cheap items think about buying something else – it’s really controversial, I’m aware of that, but we need to be give thought to the implications of our actions.

The other thing I would say to people is that if you are going to buy from the high street, a really simple thing to do is to speak to a shop assistant or send a copy of your receipt with a letter asking for information about how the worker’s who made the garments are treated. It won’t solve the problem but it makes people think and start asking question: shop assistants will ask their managers, the managers will ask head office and say hey people are asking about this, there is a demand out there.