Global Development Institute Blog

Four years ago, our institute marked the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse which claimed more than 1,100 lives. Professor Stephanie Barrientos from the Global Development Institute and Rosey Hurst (the founder and director of Impactt which works with organisations to improve working conditions in their supply chain) asked whether the world has since changed for garment workers in Bangladesh.

A ground-breaking Accord on fire and building safety, signed by 174 global brands, had an immediate important impact. Under the Accord all export garment manufacturers have to abide by stricter fire, building and electrical safety standards, while also promoting trade union representation

Jenny Holdcroft, Policy Director at IndustriAll global union – which represents 50 million workers worldwide – said Rana was  a “huge wake-up call” and that the whole industry was now duty bound to make the most of the opportunity for change.

“We have been able to use the global momentum from Rana to do something different. The compliance model of the past has not delivered and the Accord has seized the opportunity and shown that it is possible to find another way of doing things. This shows that you can have industry-wide reform and that everyone can work together. Brands are learning that they cannot do everything on their own, you have to bring suppliers to the table.”

Holdcroft admitted that the union situation was still difficult one year on, with unions divided and linked to political parties, but said there were some encouraging signs with more women now being given opportunities to become supervisors in garment factories.

Shafiq Hassan, Managing Director of garment supplier Echotex in Bangladesh and Echo Sourcing in the UK, stressed how the industry had indeed been a major social and economic driver in Bangladesh and played a significant role in empowering women.

However Hassan said Rana had been a “collective failure” that required a collective response and that that was now happening.

Rosey Hurst added that she had seen first-hand the positive impact that the industry had had on living conditions: “When I first visited Bangladesh many years ago you would see families living in complete poverty. Now when you go back you see the benefits the industry has brought in terms of an improved standard of living.”

The view was echoed by Shamima Sultana from Awaj Foundation in Bangladesh, who said that workers in garment factories, who are mainly women, were now asking far more questions. There has been a big groundswell change. They are now thinking about their rights and their safety.

Adil Rehman, Programme Manager at retailer Next which has major operations in Bangladesh, stressed how this was now an opportunity for the country to set a standard and be at the cutting edge of reform. He told the audience that out of the 42 countries that supply Next, Bangladesh was one of the biggest.

Speaking about the industry generally, he said it was no longer a race to the bottom in terms of costs for end retailers. “I think five years ago brands were prepared to jump ship for a penny, but now it is about building longer term partnerships which is precisely what we are doing in Bangladesh.”

Rehman made the point that consumers have their own role to play.

“If you see three t-shirts selling for £1 that should ring alarm bells. The amount of power that consumers have is unbelievable. Consumers need to say to brands ‘I want to know why these are £1’.”

Professor Richard Locke from Brown University in the US, said what was clear was that no one actor could solve the complex problems in the industry, while agreeing that consumers had a big role to play.

“We have to get over this idea that by simply paying more for a garment you as the consumer have done your duty. We need to translate that into a movement that says ‘do we really need two or three t-shirts at a very low price, and do we need consumption patterns like that?’”

Locke echoed the view that this was now a tremendous opportunity for the Bangladesh government to lead the way in transforming the industry.

He said one could promote more justice in Bangladesh by building new capabilities in the supply chain so that factories became both more efficient and ethical. He also said brands needed to look at their own product development, design and purchasing practices, while calling for changes to the supply chain model in order to build longer-term, more trusted relationships. “I believe this is doable and already happening in certain supply chains around the world.”

Locke’s own analysis of global supply chains found that companies invariably tried to protect worker rights via their own codes of conduct. However he added: “What we found was that this improves the situation up to a certain level but then stagnates. Information gatherers alone will not change behaviours.”

Locke added that many managers of supply chain factories had never been trained in modern management techniques which added to the problems. “When you provide this kind of training you can see not only improvements in quality and efficiency but improvements in working conditions. Once you have the greater gains from efficiencies the question of how you then distribute those gains becomes a political issue.”

He added that all sorts of little delays by buyers can have massive effects on factories. “Orders are often placed above the actual capacity of the plant. Even a small change in orders can then have incredible consequences for the factories in terms of how to meet that demand.”

Professor Stephanie Barrientos said it was clear that all key stakeholders had to work together to tackle the issues, and that went for consumers too.

“We want to be buying with a conscience and know that by buying these garments we are actually enhancing the lives of workers in Bangladesh. The key message from this is that all actors have to work together and that is not always easy. But if we can work together we will see better conditions, better worker rights and a more thriving industry.”

Five years on, Professor Barrientos continues work on improving rights for workers in global supply chains and finds that while there is increased transparency and awareness about issues – the issues still remaining. Professor Barrientos has been working with Ethical Trade Initiative, who bring together companies, trade unions and voluntary organisations to work together to tackle the complex questions about what steps companies should take to trade ethically, and how to make a positive difference to workers’ lives.

“Few will deny that more progress is needed,” said ETI in their article reviewing what has changed five years on. “Yet even as we look to these challenges, it is crucial to recognise and acknowledge the monumental overhaul that has taken place over the last five years.”

The quotes from the one year anniversary were first published on a blog for the Brooks World Poverty Institute.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole