Published in April 2023
The Rana Plaza disaster ten years on: What has changed?
Over 1,100 people – mostly garment workers – lost their lives when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 24 April 2013. Many more were injured, and the survivors faced a very uncertain future.
Ten years on from the disaster, much has changed. Today, the industry is safer and the capacity of the Bangladeshi Government to oversee compliance is much stronger. But what challenges remain?
Bangladeshi garment sector at a glance
Bangladesh is the second largest apparel exporter in the world, after China. As of 2021-22, the sector was a USD 42.6 billion industry that accounted for about 82% of the country’s total export revenue.
There are around 4 million garment workers, representing a sizeable part of the country’s 69 million total labour force. In 2018, it was estimated that 60.5% of garment workers were women.
The typical worker in the ready-made garment sector is female, 23 years old, and an internal migrant from a rural area who lives with her family in inadequate housing near to work.
Occupational safety and health is now a national priority
Following the Rana Plaza disaster, the first priority was to ensure that no other garment factories were at risk of a similar collapse.
Work commenced in late 2013 to inspect the structural, electrical and fire safety of all export-oriented garment factories. The Bangladeshi government and the private sector led the assessment of 3,780 factories.
Rana Plaza and the other industrial accidents suffered by Bangladesh brought home the urgent need to establish a culture of workplace safety in the country’s garment industry and beyond.
Over the past 10 years, good progress has been made, such as the establishment of a National Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Policy and a National Plan of Action.
Safety at work: What still needs to be done?
Efforts to improve safety in the Bangladeshi garment sector have been strongly positive. However, industrial safety in other sectors remains a concern.
Fatal accidents such as the recent Seema Oxygen Plant explosion in March 2023 have underscored the need for safety, enforcement and compliance in all industries to match progress made in the garment sector.
More needs to be done to ensure that OSH standards, guidelines and accident reporting protocols are understood and implemented at all levels. Further strengthening of the capacity of the Safety Committees, labour inspectorate and trade unions will be integral to this.
Injured workers have the right to receive medical treatment and compensation
Following the Rana Plaza disaster, a major effort involving the ILO (as the neutral chair), national and international trade unions, employers and industry associations, brands and retailers, NGOs, development partners and the Government of Bangladesh represented by the Ministry of Labour and Employment saw compensation paid to family members of victims and injured workers. By October 2015, payments were complete, with over USD 34 million disbursed.
In June 2022, the Government launched a pilot scheme that provides compensation in the form of a monthly income to permanently disabled garment workers or qualified relatives of those who died due to garment work-related accidents or occupational diseases. This scheme had the technical support of the ILO and the German cooperation agency GIZ.
Insurance and compensation: What still needs to be done?
The launch of the pilot employment injury scheme is a major achievement and a positive legacy of the Rana Plaza disaster. To be a success, it requires full backing from the Government, employers and trade unions as well as transparency in its administration and operation.
If successful, it will lead to the introduction of a permanent statutory employment injury insurance scheme in Bangladesh that can be expanded from the ready-made garment industry to other economic sectors.
Improved laws and stronger capacity to inspect workplace safety
Over the past ten years a number of changes to national laws have had a positive impact on workplace safety and labour rights.
Together with the Tazreen Fashions fire just a year earlier, the Rana Plaza collapse highlighted the lack of adequate capacity to oversee industrial safety.
In response, the Government initiated a major reform of the Department of Inspections for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) to empower it with more budget, status and staff. In collaboration with the ILO and other partners, the Government also embarked on an ambitious drive to significantly strengthen its planning and operational mechanisms.
Whilst these efforts to strengthen regulatory capacity are ongoing, progress has been made, and the inspection service is more effective, credible and accountable.
Laws and inspection: What still needs to be done?
Despite improvements, several provisions in the labour laws have yet to be aligned with international labour standards, as it was highlighted in a complaint made to the ILO in 2019.
The Government has developed a National Action Plan for the Labour Sector that includes further labour law reform. The plan also includes steps for better handling of workers’ complaints, further strengthening labour inspectorate capacity ‒ including the recruitment of more labour inspectors ‒ and the effective transition of factory safety work to the Industrial Safety Unit.
Efforts to improve labour rights
The Rana Plaza disaster brought into sharp focus the need for labour rights to be respected and for greater social dialogue between the Government, employers and trade unions. Whilst there has been progress over the past decade, the path has not always been smooth.
The Bangladesh Labour Act was amended in 2013 to simplify the registration of trade unions, leading to a sharp increase in trade union numbers. As of 28 February 2023, there were approximately 1,201 registered trade unions in the garment sector; 97% of these were active.
Social dialogue has also been facilitated through the formation of a National Tripartite Consultative Council (TCC) as well as a TCC for the RMG sector. These two bodies, where the government members, employers and workers discuss a wide range of issues, have helped foster harmonious industrial relations and sustainable growth.
Labour rights: What still needs to be done?
Despite the sharp increase in the number of trade unions, workers still face persistent issues concerning trade union registration, anti-union discrimination, unfair labour practices and violence. This prompted the adoption of standard operating procedures for the registration of trade unions as well as for the investigation and remediation of cases of unfair labour practices and anti-union discrimination.
The National Action Plan for the Labour Sector drafted in response to the 2019 ILO complaint, together with a subsequent roadmap, include measures to bring Bangladesh labour law into compliance with ILO standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining.
The ILO continues to work with the Government, employers and workers to help implement the National Action Plan and roadmap and to tackle the problems mentioned above.
Making a difference at factory level
Better Work Bangladesh was launched in 2014 to help create a more competitive garment industry that provides decent jobs and improved conditions for workers and promotes good business for factories and brands. These goals work in concert to further economic development in the country.
In Bangladesh, Better Work has helped garment factories steadily improve compliance with ILO core labour standards and national legislation, including coverage of compensation, contracts, gender inclusivity, OSH and working time.
Bangladeshi factories affiliated with Better Work continue to demonstrate improved worker-management dialogue, more effective management systems and a strengthened commitment to staff learning.
The challenges still to be met
There have been many achievements since the Rana Plaza collapse to improve safety and rights in the garment sector. However, much remains to be done. Top ILO priorities include:
- Further reform of labour laws in alignment with international labour standards
- Building on the good practices, lessons learned and progress made in the ready-made garment industry to enhance industrial safety in other priority sectors, for example through strategic compliance planning for labour inspections.
- Strengthened respect for labour rights in an environment where trade unions can operate freely and without harassment, where improved social dialogue between the Government, employers and trade unions takes place
- Better access to social protection for workers across Bangladesh, in all economic sectors
ILO will continue to work with the Government, employers, trade unions, brands and retailers, civil society and development partners to build on the collective achievements and create workplaces that provide decent work for all.