The Fight for Bangladesh’s Garment Workers’ Rights

Up against exploitative fast fashion and union-busting factory owners, Bangladesh’s garment workers have extended a landmark safety initiative – but the struggle for better working conditions is far from over.

A garment worker at a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh during a countrywide lockdown on July 5, 2021. Credit: Allison Joyce / Getty Images

In the face of exploitative global fast fashion brands and union-busting factory owners, Bangladesh’s garment workers have successfully extended a landmark safety initiative, now named the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry.

Far more ambitious than previous agreements, the 2021 Accord aims to extend globally within one year, expanding its work to at least one other country, which will be decided by signatories in the next six months. Agreements will also expand to include human rights due diligence along the global supply chains of fashion brands.

But perhaps most crucially, the new Accord covers health and safety – not just fire and building safety. This addition could not arrive sooner than during a pandemic. Just last month, during the deadliest wave of the pandemic in Bangladesh, garment workers were forced to return to factories across the country.

Remembering Rana Plaza

To understand the fight for these reforms is to understand what happened in eight years ago in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza building, which contained five of the city’s garment factories, collapsed. The factories were suppliers for prominent western brands such as Primark, Matalan, Bonmarché, and many more. It was an entirely avoidable disaster that claimed the lives of 1,132 people and injured a further 2,500.

At the time of the collapse, less than 3.11 percent of Bangladeshi garment factories—who employ 4.1 million people, 80 percent of whom are women, in the third-largest exporter of ready-made garments to Europe—were unionised, leaving garment workers defenceless and unable to air growing concerns over safety conditions and pay.

However, widespread public outcry had prompted the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an alliance of trade unions and NGOs, to embark on extensive campaigning relating to the ready-made garment industry.

One month after Rana Plaza, trade unions forced authorities to legislate the 2013 Accord on Fire Building and Safety into existence. By October of that year, 100 brands were signed up. But since many workers faced horrific and life-changing injuries that prevented them from working in the future, unions also formed the Rana Plaza Arrangement to deliver compensation to workers and their families, as well as to help ensure long-term medical care for these people.

The trade unions and the garment workers they represent received the Accord well; Babul Akhter, the leader of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), said that the Accord’s neutrality had ‘earned a good reputation and credibility’ among the members he represented.

But with the first Accord programme ending in 2018, a transition agreement was put in place between employers and unions that was set to expire on 31 May 2021 and be replaced by the Ready-made Garments Sustainability Council (RSC).

Labour movement organisations resisted this agreement and refused to sign it, arguing that the RSC lacked any significant legitimacy in enforcing rights, and would fail to hold employers to account. The fears of returning to the conditions that were widespread before Rana Plaza were very real. After buckling under pressure, the Accord was extended to 1 September 2021, but its legacy remained under threat until last week, when the Accord was extended by another two years.

The Fight Continues

Why was an extension to the Accord so necessary? Despite the legacy of Rana Plaza, high-rise buildings and factory disasters remain.

In March, a fire at a textiles chemical factory in Gazipur killed a 23-year-old garment worker and injured twenty more. In July, a factory owner was charged with the murder of 52 people after a fire erupted in the Dhaka-based fruit juice factory he owned. A government minister alleged that many survivors were children as young as 14, prompting an inquiry into child labour.

There is no doubt that the picture would be far bleaker without the Acord. Thanks to it, 2,000,000 workers are protected, an estimated 1475 safety complaints have been logged and investigated, 371 factories have been remediated, and 38,155 safety inspections have taken place across factories. And the Accord would not be in its current shape were it not for the tireless work of labour movement organisations such as the Awaj Foundation, who represent over 600,000 former garment workers and are crucial in militating for better working conditions.

Speaking on the Wardrobe Crisis Podcast, Nazma Akter, a leading figure in the Awaj Foundation, passionately called for garment workers to organise against the ‘corporate power [that is] killing our culture, our nature and our environment’, that is ‘making us hungry, making us illiterate. We need to stand up. We need anger, hope and action.’

Put Them Under Pressure

While the new Accord is in place for two years, the fight for safer and improved workplace conditions is far from over. With suppliers devastated by the brands cancelling orders during the pandemic, garment workers at the end of the supply chain are still chasing lost wages.

Here in Western countries, our fashion consumption should not cost human lives. To ensure this, there must be a push for British brands to commit to signing the new Accord; all eyes should be on brands like Primark, particularly given that one of their suppliers was a factory on the second floor of the Rana Plaza building.

In a practical sense, groups like Labour Behind the Label make a difference as they build solidarity between people who wear clothes and garment workers who make them. They also directly support garment workers with labour-related issues, such as obtaining severance pay when factories close or when they face illegal dismissal. You can also keep track of brands upholding labour movement commitments to progress garment worker rights.

While the threat of social murder is ever present, the new Accord and the efforts of trade unionists, grassroots organisers, and activists have helped further ensure that a disaster on the scale of Rana Plaza will never happen again.