The Rana Plaza disaster is just one of the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) factories in Bangladesh to have undergone tragedy in recent years (Siddiqui & Uddin, 2016, p.680). In fact, it was the world’s worst industrial accident in almost three decades. On 24 April 2013, the eight-story building collapsed, killing 1,129 workers (MacKinnon & Strauss, 2013, pp.7) and injuring 2,500 others (Siddiqui & Uddin, 2016, p.688). At the time of the collapse, many of the workers were producing clothing for Joe Fresh – an inexpensive Canadian clothing brand (MacKinnon & Strauss, 2013, pp.11). The rise of ‘fast fashion’ in recent decades highlights the convenience of cheap labour in Asian garment factories for Western consumers to change trends with the seasons on a low budget (MacKinnon & Strauss, 2013, pp.13). Increased demand for inexpensive garments, low safety standards, and lack of governmental responsibility resulted in tragedy for RMG factory workers.
North American fair trade laws once required fixed product prices, however, this policy was repealed in the 1970’s, resulting in the competitive prices of merchandise (Rosen, 2002, p.185). Inexpensive sale values resulted in the need for reduced operating expenses – such as labour costs (Rosen, 2002, p.188). And as a result of globalization, clothing stores have been able to access low-wage imports from developing countries (Rosen, 2002, p.177) where millions of workers are willing to put in long hours for the fraction of Western wages (MacKinnon & Strauss, 2013, pp.24). Low enforcement on safety standards reduces operating costs further, and with workers guaranteed just $38 a month, the North American garment industry moved to Bangladesh as it has the cheapest labour of any Asian country (MacKinnon & Strauss, 2013, pp.28).
One day prior to the accident, a TV channel had recorded footage of cracks in the Rana Plaza building. While all other shops in the building were closed immediately, RMG workers were forced to continue working in order to meet their deadlines (Siddiqui & Uddin, 2016, p.688). Fatal accidents are not uncommon in the RMG sector in Bangladesh (MacKinnon & Strauss, 2013, pp.8) as factories are built like Jenga blocks on top of withstanding buildings that do not have the proper foundations to support the excess weight (MacKinnon & Strauss, 2013, pp.40). Following the collapse, a team of engineers determined that 90 percent of Bangladesh’s 4,000 RMG factories are not structurally sound (MacKinnon & Strauss, 2013, pp.62).
In the months following the Rana Plaza collapse, hundreds of factories were shut down by strikes and violent confrontations as a result of the significant media attention surrounding the collapse. As Gary states, “public knowledge is a powerful component in the creation of legitimacy regarding health and safety regulatory enforcement” (2009, p.336). The RMG workers in Bangladesh ultimately won a 77 percent increase in the minimum wage by coming together, however, this still remains the lowest in the world (Siddiqui & Uddin, 2016, p.694).
The Bangladeshi Government was among the first targeted by the UN to claim responsibility for its lack of “political will, technical capacities, and resources” to address human rights disasters among its RMG factories. The Bangladeshi government and owners of the RMG factories in question were both accused of criminal negligence by the UN (Siddiqui & Uddin, 2016, p.680). Several meetings took place in the weeks after the Rana Plaza collapse to identify the top human rights priorities for RMG factories. The presence of collective bargaining agents and working conditions were identified as high-priority issues (Siddiqui & Uddin, 2016, p.685). Global manufacturers promised to review their use of Bangladeshi workers, yet these corporations continue to abuse the RMG factory labour for the greatest return on their garments (Siddiqui & Uddin, 2016, p.688).
In Canada, Bill C-45: Criminal Liability of Organizations, states that any individual of authority is responsible for any harm that may arise to the employee performing the work or task within nation borders (Gray, 2009, p.327). However, individual worker safety responsibility is now arising from Neoliberal discourses (Gray, 2009, p.326). This new strategy attempts to undermine organizational blame for safety concerns, and hold individuals responsible for any harm to themselves (Gray, 2009, p.338). “The notion of a health and safety offender has traditionally conjured up images of negligent employers and corporations sacrificing injury and death for profit” (Gray, 2009, p.326). Under this framework, individuals are blamed for their injuries in an unsafe workplace rather than the organization for maintaining low safety standards for its employees (Gray, 2009, p.330).
While most of the concern of slavery and workers’ rights is focused in poorer economies, occurrences of worker mistreatment do exist in Canada. A ‘slave-like’ work camp was recently discovered in rural British Columbia where mostly foreign workers were subject to squalid conditions and no pay for their work at a tree-planting business. African workers were racially profiled and assigned more difficult work and fed inferior food (Shantz, 2015, p.235). The temporary foreign worker program in Canada is used as a source of inexpensive and vulnerable labour, much like outsourcing from abroad (Shantz, 2015, p.237).
Although Canadian organizations and corporations, such as Joe Fresh, are known to seek the most inexpensive labour and materials in order to gain the largest profits, they often lack the compassion for human well-being and fundamental rights. The Bangladeshi government is unable to control the unsafe working conditions within the RMG industry, and Canadians are well aware of the slave-like conditions of factory workers, yet ‘fast fashion’ remains a priority over workers’ safety rights. The Canadian Bill C-45 does not protect workers from dangers and is being undermined by the neoliberal framework of individual safety. As seen in the Canadian temporary foreign worker program, the issue of long working hours and unsafe conditions is not only a problem in the Global South but in our own nation as well. The media and public recognition of corporate wrongdoings are the most significant method to protect the harms to workers that occur globally.
Gray, Garry. 2009. The Responsibilization Strategy of Health and Safety: Neo-liberalism and the Reconfiguration of Individual Responsibility for Risk. British Journal of Criminology.49(3): 326-342.
MacKinnon, M. & Strauss, M. (2013, October 12) The true cost of a T-shirt. Globe & Mail [Toronto, Canada], Canadian Periodicals Index Quarterly. Retrieved from go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=CPI&sw=w&u=fred46430&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA345425411&it=r&asid=0023429ee1c5fa7824b73c1133d9dc4c.
Rosen, Ellen Israel. 2002. Apparel retailing in the United States: From mom and pop shops to transnational corporation. In Making Sweatshops: the globalization of the US Apparel Industry (177-201). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Shantz, Jeff. 2015. “Slave-like Conditions”: Abuse of Foreign Workers in Canada. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal.27(3):233-239.
Siddiqui, J. & Uddin, S. (2016). Human rights disasters, corporate accountability and the state: Lessons learned from Rana Plaza. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal. 29(4): 679-704.