10 Years from Rana Plaza – have lessons been learned?
Dr Ciarán O'Kelly and Dr Ciara Hackett look at whether any lessons have been learned from the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh.
April marked ten years from the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,138 and injured thousands of others. Rana Plaza was a commercial building containing five clothing factories. Most of the people in the building at the time of the collapse were garment workers. The tragedy put health and safety regulations and labour laws on the world stage particularly in the fast fashion industry.
Beyond the immediate tragedy in the locality, it was a seismic event within the business and human rights field, accounting subsequently for many case studies, academic articles and reports. Its focus on the fast fashion industry, labour laws, and supply chains had the potential to make changes in the space. Ten years later, have these changes made any difference for victims and for safety in the industry more generally?
How can victims access a remedy in a corporate disaster such as Rana Plaza?
Business and Human Rights considers the relationships and tensions between states (as protectors of human rights), businesses (and their responsibility to respect human rights) and victims’ right to access an effective remedy. This idea of effective remedy has been central to the drive for a business and human rights treaty and indeed charts much of the debate on existing mechanisms such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, ILO and UN Global Compact. Business and Human Rights as a field, navigates many areas of law which demonstrates its potential but also the challenges in identifying effective mechanisms for responsibility, accountability, and remedy. Remedy for a human rights impact can be captured by Pillar III of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, specifically:
As part of their duty to protect against business related human rights abuse, States must take appropriate steps to ensure, through judicial, administrative, legislative, or other appropriate means, that when such abuses occur within their territory and/or jurisdiction those affected will have access to effective remedy. (Principle 25 UNGPs)
Industry, multi-stakeholder and other collaborative initiatives that are based on respect for human rights related standards should ensure that effective grievance mechanisms are available. (Principle 30 UNGPs)
The third Pillar of the UNGPs covers both foundational and operational principles for judicial/non judicial and state and non-state-based remedy, but these two are of the most interest in the case in hand.
Reactions: responding to current victims
The Rana Plaza disaster demonstrates the extent and reach of remedy (and its limitations). It also shows how in the immediate aftermath there is a tendency to react to the crisis at hand (see Principle 25), but later remedy developments focus on pro-action to ensure that similar crises can be abated/avoided (Principle 30). With the Rana Plaza disaster, forty-one defendants faced charges over the collapse of the complex, of which 38 were charged with murder. One of the thirty-eight was Rana, owner of the complex, who was also charged (and later found guilty) of corruption.
The murder trials have yet to be completed – restarting in 2022 after a delay of five years. Yet, no one has been convicted and some of the initial defendants have died in the interim. Only one witness has testified. Trial proceedings regarding building code violations have also been stalled. Judicial proceedings can take time, and there are considerable financial and evidentiary burdens to overcome. This is a challenge for effective access to remedy for victims. Beyond criminal charges in the current case, various fashion brands (under public and government pressure) contributed funds to help rebuild the factories with other monies being set aside as a compensation fund for families of those who died or were injured in the Rana Plaza disaster.
Pro-action: protecting/limiting future victims
The Bangladesh Accord was established after the Rana Plaza collapse. It was established in 2013 and extended in 2018. It is a legally binding independent agreement between over 200 brands, manufacturers, and trade unions. It had introduced measurable safety improvements designed to make garment factories in Bangladesh safe workplaces. It also includes a complaints mechanism for workers to file grievances about health and safety concerns and violations of their right to organise. It sits alongside the 2013 Compact for Continuous Improvements in Labour Rights and Factory Safety in the Ready-Made Garment and Knitwear Industry in Bangladesh (the Compact), negotiated by the EU and ILO with others including the government of Bangladesh. The Compact aimed both directly at worker safety and at labour law reform towards worker empowerment. Whereas these initiatives have arguably contributed to fewer disasters throughout Bangladesh, issues remain.
In 2021, it was agreed to extend and expand the Accord to the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry. Whereas this has made huge inroads into improving working conditions in garment factories, some big companies still have not signed up. However, this may be about to change.
German Due Diligence complaint: International impact in action
In January 2023, the German Supply Chain Act (GSCA) (English overview here) came into force. This is a piece of due diligence legislation, like several other national legislative advances within the EU in the last few years. Generally, due diligence requires businesses to exercise reasonable care at all stages of the supply chain process (including before engaging/contracting with a supplier) to ensure that human rights are being respected. The GSCA requires large companies to make sure that social and environmental standards are observed in their supply chain. The obligation is placed on companies to monitor their own operations as well as their direct suppliers worldwide and to act if they uncover violations/human rights impacts.
The German NGO FEMNET (“feminist perspectives on politics economics and society”), the Bangladeshi National Garment Workers’ Federation (NGWF) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) have filed the first complaint under the Supply Chain Act based on research conducted in Bangladesh in March 2023. They have filed the complaint against Amazon, IKEA and Tom Tailor for failing to sign up to the Bangladesh Accord or its successors. Their research in Bangladesh noted several safety deficiencies (particularly around lack of inspections) that are embedded within the Accord, but also other issues on labour rights and freedom of associations (neither fully covered by the Accord). Those filing the complaint argue that ‘the failure to sign [the Accord and/or its successors] is a violation of corporate due diligence’. It will be interesting to see how this complaint proceeds. The action could lead to an increased number of corporations signing up to the Accord and indeed it is a very interesting use of due diligence legislation. However, currently, the Act only applies to companies’ operations and their direct suppliers unless very specific requirements can be met. Our fear is that these types of complaints can also lead to blurring of relationships within the supply chain, with increased use of third-party contractors which would limit the liability of the label.
What value remedy without rebalanced relationships?
The NGWF’s involvement in the complaint against Amazon, IKEA and Tom Tailor reflects a deeper tension with business and human rights. As Jennifer Bair et al point out, while the Accords have been effective as part of a corporate toolkit for addressing worker safety in their supply chains:
the government failed to take measures under the Compact to empower workers so they can advocate for their own safety. Moreover, together with the country’s powerful cadre of factory owners, the government resisted and thwarted elements of the Accord’s mandate that might increase worker voice and thus threaten managerial control (Bair et al, 2020, 970-1).
Support for due diligence and its processes have been forthcoming, and steps were taken towards remedy, governments and others have however been less forthcoming in redressing the power imbalances that contributed to the disaster.
The field of business and human rights has been weaker on such structural and systemic revisions to the relationships upon which global production is founded. In centring the corporation as the best-placed actor to know its own supply-chains, business and human rights found an important tool in collapsing the distance between human rights abuses and their beneficiaries. It has been very successful in highlighting the ties from production to profit in complex environments. In drawing the corporation, the ‘nexus’ through which these ties are formed, into business and human rights has constructed at least the promise of new and softer pathways to remedy, circumventing the hard edge of corporate resistance that litigation can provoke.
By centring the corporation in this way, and by relying on its information flows, business and human rights risks continuing the displacement of worker voices in global production. Even the remedy ‘pillar’ privileges corporate power, not least in its disaggregating individual events that can produce redress from systems that are either invisible or might even be invoked as mitigation (viz climate change). Moves to centre worker voice or to disrupt the primacy of corporate-state relations fit less easily into the business and human rights frame.
In these terms both ESG from the corporate perspective and business and human rights from an NGO and state perspective represent an experiment in seeing how far technocratic control over production and its impacts, negotiated between governmental; NGO; legal; and corporate technocrats, can replicate or replace a politics of human rights that aims at centering victims and revising systems. Business and human rights offers a systemic fix absent any systemic solution.
Events such as the Rana Plaza collapse are disastrous. They have a huge local impact on workers, their families, and the local economy. Whereas many routes to remedy are initiated, these are often encumbered by judicial delays together with evidentiary and financial burdens. These are process delays and do not take into consideration additional issues such as intimidation and corruption. Beyond judicial remedy and non-judicial state-based remedies such as compensation funds, events such as Rana Plaza can also instigate improvements to the industry and to rights beyond the local economy. Here, the Rana Plaza collapse can be linked to the Bangladesh Accord which later became the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry and also the Compact for Continuous Improvements in Labour Rights and Factory Safety in the Ready-Made Garment and Knitwear Industry in Bangladesh. Whereas this does not solve all of the problems associated with the garment industry it does shine a spotlight on issues such as fire safety and may (and has) put pressure on large corporations to engage with the relevant procedures. These initiatives become part of the remedy toolkit for those acting on behalf of victims and potential future victims world-wide.
Ultimately there are no effective politics of human rights along the lines we discuss above, at least none available to Bangladeshi garment workers. Workers must rely on compacts and accords, negotiated at a distance on their behalf. What this says about human rights is key. Business and human rights has proven both partially effective in shifting the debate and consistently frustrating in solidifying the landscape. An enhanced focus on workplace safety and rights may well lead to a more transparent approach to respecting rights within the workplace. Without countervailing voices, it might also lead to supply chain partners obscuring their supply chains to reduce the risk of potential liabilities down the line. We ought to pay close attention not only to the fixes business and human rights propose, but to how those fixes reflect and propose a sense of the possible in the world as it is.
The question is: is the possible as imagined by business and human rights enough?