Why Did Rana Plaza Collapse?

Situated in Savar, an industrial district on the outskirts of Dhaka, the Rana Plaza factory complex was an eight-storey building housing five garment factories.

This overcrowded, poorly built complex became a symbol of global inequality when, on 24 April 2013, it collapsed in on itself – its straining internal pillars buckling and cracking under the weight of too many storeys, too many machines and bales of cloth, too many human beings packed in tight rows.

Considered the deadliest unintended structural failure of modern times, Rana Plaza was a mass industrial homicide. An estimated 1,138 people were killed. Thousands more were trapped in the rubble – some of whom had to self-amputate their own limbs before they could be pulled free.

For the world outside of Dhaka, when the TV screens lit up in April 2013, the death of so many people and the brutal injury of thousands more exposed the truth that should never be forgotten: The fashion industry places more value on the clothes it sells than on the lives of the people making them.

It was a catastrophe that showed an industry out of control – where illegally constructed buildings crack under the weight of people and machinery while fashion brands make billions in profits. Where millions of impoverished women work as machine operators and garment quality inspectors, pressing shirts and snipping loose threads six days a week while billionaires buy super-yachts.

Rana Plaza was not an accident

The dangerous nature of the building was common local knowledge. Major cracks had appeared the day before the collapse and on the morning of 24th April 2013, people employed in the Rana Plaza factories resisted the idea that they should even set foot in the building. Their resistance led to arguments and finally to an ultimatum: Go in and get to work or lose a month’s pay.

Twenty-nine global brands were identified as having recent or current orders with at least one of the garment factories in the Rana Plaza building. These brands included Primark, Matalan, Benetton, Mango, C&A, Walmart, The Children’s Place, and KiK.

Primark admitted it had done two safety audits of Rana Plaza and given the building a clean bill of health.

In the aftermath, unions and campaigners in Bangladesh and around the world worked tirelessly to stop it happening again. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created and brands were pushed to sign up to a legally binding inspection programme that improved conditions in 1,600 Bangladeshi factories.

The Bangladesh Accord was due to expire at the end of August 2021, but after a concerted campaign, a new version, the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, came into force with the intention that the factory safety programme will spread beyond Bangladesh.

The logic of profit

Rana Plaza speaks to a long history of violent exploitation. The British Empire exerted its reach around the world through colonialism, slavery, military force, terror and financial weight, its rule allowed for the colossal extraction of wealth.

What we see today in the garment industry are the latest iterations of this colonial exploitation. We still live in a world where life and dignity are repeatedly sacrificed to a system that values profit over people.

Fashion brands make their sourcing decisions deliberately – following colonial pathways to industrial sites where they can evade the standards that keep people safe and where they hope any resistance to their crimes can, and will, be crushed.

Nor do brands pay living wages in their supply chains. Workers in fashion factories can expect to earn 2 to 5 times less than the amount needed to support a family. This underpayment of suppliers cannot be separated from unsafe conditions in factories – when factory owners are left with such tight margins, factory safety gets sidelined.

This neo-colonial exploitation is backed by deeply unequal global financial systems. The reason over 4 million Bangladeshis still work in fashion production is because Bangladesh was steered into over dependence on clothing exports by the IMF and World Bank who pushed Bangladesh to abandon dreams of self-sufficiency and instead enter a dead-end in the global economy as a source of intensive, extremely low-paid labour.

Forty years later, Bangladesh remains in this precarious trap, creating vast profits for some of the most powerful multinational corporations in the world while being unable to achieve financial stability.

The Rana Plaza Solidarity Campaign believes we must:

  • Work in solidarity with people on the sharp end of exploitation in the garment industry – workers and trade unions in Bangladesh, and around the world, who face daily threats and attacks for their work.
  • Build a global movement capable of ending the violence against garment workers and bringing about structural change.
  • Work towards solutions that centre workers, challenging white saviourism and activism that preserves and replicates colonial paternalism towards citizens of the Global South. 
  • Focus our efforts away from activism predominantly revolving around ethical consumerism, towards activism that actively challenges brand business models as the epicentre of exploitation and ruthless greed. 

Photography: Rainbow Collective