Shahida Begum said that when the floor fell out beneath her, she had just turned to ask colleagues why the lights had gone out. Kabir Mollah said he was inspecting garments when a friend called his cellphone, screaming that the building was on a perilous tilt. Nazma Begum said she had washed her long black hair that morning, leaving it loose and wet. When a concrete pillar crushed her, that choice meant that she was unable to move her head or body.
On the morning of April 24, 2013, more than 1,100 people were killed when Rana Plaza, an eight-story building that housed five garment factories on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed in about 90 seconds.
It is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the modern garment industry, and one of the worst industrial accidents ever. Many major retailers used the factories to produce their clothes, and the disaster led to a reckoning around workplace safety for garment workers and the responsibility of brands selling low-priced clothes to Western consumers.
Ten years on, vigils commemorating the accident are being held online and all over the world, including in Dhaka, London and New York. The New York Times spoke to five survivors of the collapse about the accident and where they are now; their thoughts are interspersed through this article. And for current garment industry workers, where has progress been made? What work is still to be done?
Why was the Rana Plaza collapse so shocking?
The disaster came after a series of fatal garment industry accidents in Bangladesh, including a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in November 2012 in which 117 people were killed.
The day before the collapse, cracks had been discovered at Rana Plaza and workers had been assured it was safe to come to work. IndustriALL, a workers’ union, declared it a “mass industrial homicide.”
“I had been sent home from work the day before the collapse because large cracks appeared in the building and the generators kept switching off. Everyone was terrified. But we came back to work the next day. I had to. I needed the money. When it happened, I stood up at my machine in shock just as the roof caved in on my head. A pillar crushed me at my waist, shattering my spine and killing everyone around me. I screamed until I lost all sense of time and the world went black.”
Noor Banu, 30
It also exposed the price paid by low-wage garment workers in the global South as demand for cheap trends skyrocketed in the West. Fast fashion retailers rarely own the factories that supply their wares. Instead, a vast majority of garment and footwear orders are outsourced to suppliers in emerging markets like Bangladesh, where overhead and human labor are cheap.
Until the Rana Plaza collapse, Western brands were not always required to ensure safe working conditions in the factories they used. After the disaster, that started to change.
Did it lead to immediate reforms?
After the collapse, many international fashion brands that sourced their garments in Bangladesh quickly announced the creation of two five-year agreements to ensure worker safety in garment factories. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety was first signed in May 2013.
It is a legally binding agreement between factory owners, global unions and European clothing brands like Inditex, Primark and H&M that created an inspection and remediation program to mitigate fire, building, electrical and boiler safety risks for factory workers in Bangladesh.
The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a less constraining and non-legally-binding agreement that applied to North American brands like Walmart, Gap and Target, was rolled out the same year. Both had initial five-year terms.
Why was the accord so groundbreaking?
In the years since the accord was signed, there have been 56,000 inspections across 2,400 factories in Bangladesh and more than 140,000 issues have been corrected, said Joris Oldenziel, executive director of the International Accord. The program also includes a way for workers to file grievances about health and safety concerns and violations of their right to organize.
“I lay in the wreckage for four days and four nights on top of a decapitated body. My phone had no reception but I could use the flashlight, and I’ll never forget the horror I saw. It took me seven years to recover from my injuries. I kept trying to return to factory work but I always became overwhelmed and had to step away. It meant falling into debt, even though I am the breadwinner of my family.”
Kabir Mollah, 32
“The accord is unique because it is a legally enforceable agreement with protocols that clothing companies are required to follow,” said Aruna Kashyap, associate director on corporate accountability at Human Rights Watch. Companies cannot cut ties with suppliers and are obligated to support remedial actions. All inspection reports are publicly available.
There have been several iterations of the agreement. The most recent is the International Accord, which was signed in 2021 and is set to expire at the end of October this year.
In January, the International Accord began to cover Pakistan as well, with 45 brands signing on. At a time when due diligence laws affecting the fashion industry are becoming more common, it is the first step in the expansion of the agreement beyond Bangladesh.
What are activists pushing for now?
Today there are about 7,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, the second largest garment-exporting country in the world after China. But for all the progress made, there is still much work to be done. Many American companies that source from the country, including Walmart, Levi’s, Gap and Amazon, haven’t signed the International Accord despite reaping its benefits.
A report this month from the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights found that the exploitative purchasing practices of some major clothing companies continued to place garment workers and some factory owners under economic hardship and insecurity, particularly in the wake of more than $3 billion of canceled orders and mass layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. These practices included pressuring suppliers to make unreasonable price reductions, withholding payments and canceling orders.
“I was a sewing operator on the seventh floor and trapped for 12 hours. I remember the horror and tears on the face of the co-worker who found me. He pulled off his clothes and tried to stem the blood from my wounds when they could finally lift the pillar from me. No one expected me to live. I had four surgeries and was in hospital for nine months. I have never been able to work since.”
Nazma Begum, 42
“Workers don’t have to fear going to work anymore in the way that they once did, but that should be the minimum threshold,” said Christy Hoffman, the general secretary of the UNI Global Union. “Brands need to be paying more for their garments, and the workers need to be paid much more, too.” (The minimum wage in Bangladesh is about $75 per month).
Christina Hajagos-Clausen, textile and garment industry director of IndustriALL, cited another sign of progress: a pilot employment injury insurance program that started in 150 Bangladeshi factories. It provides compensation and rehabilitation for injured workers in the garment industry.
But thousands of Bangladeshi garment factories are still not subject to any agreements or protections (the accord only covers about 1,500). And life for many of South Asia’s 40 million garment workers remains a continuing struggle, as they grapple with low pay, physical or sexual harassment and union busting.
Accidents haven’t disappeared entirely. Last week, four firefighters were killed and nearly a dozen were injured after a fire ripped through a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan.
What is life like now for the survivors of Rana Plaza?
A recent survey of survivors of the tragedy by ActionAid found that more than half were unemployed, with physical health as the key reason cited for their unemployment. Just over a third have returned to work in garment factories.
One-third also said they remained traumatized and had mental health problems. Most of the garment workers in the Rana Plaza complex were women. The complex has not been rebuilt.
In a Zoom interview in March, Noor Banu, a survivor of the collapse, wept as she explained that the event had changed her life in the worst possible way.
She was dressed in an orange sari and had dark shadows under her eyes as she spoke from the offices of a local union, the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation. Injuries from the accident make it hard for her to sit or walk properly, she said, and with three children to support, she relied on handouts.
Shadida Begum said she desperately missed the chance to earn an income and felt unlucky to be alive.
And Shiuly Khanom, who had worked for nine years on the eighth floor of Rana Plaza until the morning of the collapse, when her forehead and spinal cord were broken, cried as she said she had only ever received about $50 of government compensation. She is a widow with three young daughters.
“Even now, I cannot sleep,” she said. “I use sleeping pills but they aren’t enough to get away from the ghosts of the past or all my fears for the future. My life will never be better.”