A year ago today, over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers lost their lives when, despite prior warnings, the building in which they were working collapsed. Over 2,500 more were injured in the disaster, some crippled for life.
The victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, most of them young women, were part of a global supply chain that brings affordable garments to markets around the world. This was not the first event of its kind in Bangladesh, and Bangladesh is not the only country where industrial disasters have occurred.
As members of The B Team, we recognise that these incidents violate basic human rights, they are avoidable and they must stop.
We know that change is possible. More than a century ago, industrial disasters in Great Britain and the United States became the focus of national campaigns that led to improved working conditions and greater societal concern for worker safety. Problems such as blocked exits, locked doors and inadequate inspections of factory conditions were addressed generations ago in these parts of the world.
In response to the Rana Plaza disaster, two separate initiatives involving global apparel brands have taken shape over the past year — The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Both are a critical part of wider efforts by governments, international organisations, domestic manufacturers and local civil society organisations to ensure such accidents do not happen again. These initiatives, as well as the Rana Plaza Arrangement, which is the only coordinated and systematic approach to ensure all the victims, their families and dependents will receive entitlements to cover their losses, are clear steps in the right direction, but more is needed.
Ultimately, we believe business should be a driving force for wellbeing. That is why we have committed to listen to the needs of employees throughout our businesses and supply chains to make sure they are treated with dignity. This means building an environment in which all employees can thrive, in line with international human rights and labor standards and where workers receive a fair proportion of the value they create through a decent living wage.
While immediate action by companies is absolutely necessary, their efforts alone cannot achieve a sufficient response. Another Rana Plaza could happen any day and workers around the world remain at risk. Current attempts to address worker safety are too dependent on audit-led approaches. These are incremental at best, and unlikely to bring about the systemic changes needed.
To ensure decent work for all, concerted action is required at multiple levels.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide an overarching, authoritative framework for ensuring businesses everywhere are respectful of human rights. They reaffirm existing state obligations and make clear that all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations and supply chains. In Bangladesh this means retailers that rely on a wide network of suppliers for production must know and accept responsibility for addressing factory safety throughout their supply chains.
Western governments and international institutions must also invest more to bolster the government of Bangladesh, which needs to create a culture of safety, not only through effective industry regulation, inspection and monitoring of factories, but also by strengthening infrastructure. Governments must also accelerate their efforts around the world and at a local level to improve regulations, ensuring companies everywhere adhere to universally accepted human rights.
Businesses and their shareholders must play a bigger role in improving factory infrastructure and paying fair wages to workers — recognising their right to form unions and bargain collectively. They must also put the right safeguards in place throughout their operations and provide training and support to principal suppliers and to all subcontractors to help them meet international standards. This will require long-term business commitments to Bangladesh that will enable shared approaches to addressing these challenges.
Civil society has an equally crucial role, not only in providing legal aid and support to workers, but also in encouraging citizens to vote with their wallets, demanding that their favourite brands treat workers with dignity. Increasing consumer pressure will help ensure businesses are accountable for providing a safe working environment, where workers can form trade unions to collectively negotiate for improvements in their pay and conditions.
And where protection gaps exist, business, unions, civil society and governments must come together to address abuses by developing adequate remedies that reach all garment factories in Bangladesh without undermining existing legal frameworks and protection mechanisms.
If such levers can be used, we can move much closer to a system that puts inclusive prosperity and long-term sustainability before short-term profits.
No worker should ever have to fear for her or his life while on the job. Our inaction has given tacit consent to a system that leaves far too many workers vulnerable in the face of unacceptable risks.
We must move faster to bring about these changes. It will require bold action, courageous leadership and new business models. We all have a role to play. Rana Plaza must not fade in our memory, or become just another tragedy among many — but remain a clarion call for global collective action to protect human rights regardless of the financial cost.
This post first appeared on the B Team blog on April 24, 2014.