A new campaign to change the way we think about shopping will be launched on Thursday, one year after the garment trade disaster at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. Backed by MPs including the shadow consumer minister, Stella Creasy, and Labour’s international development spokeswoman, Alison McGovern, as well as fashion-trade insiders such as Mary Portas and Caryn Franklin, the campaign was set up by Carry Somers, an ethical-trade entrepreneur. It aims to build connections throughout the fashion supply chain, linking the cotton farmer, the dyer and the seamstress with the consumer.
Surveys have shown that two-thirds of fashion firms are unclear about the full production process of the clothes they manufacture and have no plans to engage with customers’ ethical concerns. Fashion Revolution Day hopes to change that by encouraging people to put pressure on stores by sending messages through social media and other means to their favourite shops, asking: “Who makes my clothes?”
As the anniversary of the disaster approaches, campaigners are increasingly angry at the failure of some of the brands which used the Rana Plaza factory to give adequate recompense to the injured and the families of victims. Some 800 children were orphaned in the tragedy, while hundreds of others were left crippled and unable to work. The UN agency in charge of the compensation scheme revealed last week that only just over a third – £9m – of the £24m target had so far been raised.
Of the 28 brands linked to the complex at Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, which collapsed on 24 April last year, killing 1,133 people and injuring more than 2,500, only half have paid into the fund run by the International Labour Organisation, with some giving as little as £100,000. Brands which have not paid include Matalan, Benetton and JC Penney and there are concerns that the first round of payments – £1.2m due to go to 3,000 people – may not be made before the anniversary. Primark last week increased its contribution to around £8m and Mango has also made a payment, although it will not reveal the amount.
This week, another UK event will focus on those left in poverty by Rana Plaza. War on Want, Traid and the Rainbow Collective will premiere a new documentary, Tears in the Fabric, to press more brands to pay up and sign the Bangladeshi safety accord.
Bangladesh-born film-maker Hannan Majid, of the Rainbow Collective, has spent years documenting the garment factories with co-director Richard York. “Even before Rana Plaza, there were fires and accidents all the time,” she said.
This year they returned to make Tears in the Fabric, which features Razia Begum, who is raising two grandsons, orphaned when both her daughters and her son-in-law perished at Rana Plaza, leaving the boys without financial support. She is destitute and switches from shelter to shelter each night, with eight-year-old Bijoi and six-year-old Parvez, while awaiting compensation. “When you make documentaries there are often moments that are inspirational, but with Rana Plaza it’s hard to find,” York said. “There is a strong sense in Savar that something terrible happened here. The whole town is traumatised. [The] workers that day didn’t want to go into the building… they were forced in.
“It’s important for people to realise why this money is needed, a whole generation of young people died and that left grandparents to bring up their kids. When Begum goes to visit her daughters’ graves, they actually have to cross the rubble of the factory. You can still see all the ripped clothing of the workers and the labels from the clothes they were making for UK brands.”
On 24 April, the film will have its charity premiere in London at Regent’s University to raise money for the families.
Graciela Romero, international programmes director at War on Want, said: “It is scandalous that Rana Plaza victims, like Razia with her orphaned grandchildren, are struggling to survive, almost a year after the disaster.
“Mango has paid into the disaster trust fund, but not revealed how much, and Razia, the boys and others face dire hardship, while they wait for compensation.
“The lesson companies must learn from the disaster is they must not only sign the Bangladesh safety accord, but also ensure the victims do not suffer further, as brands drag their heels over providing redress.”
Pressure from inside and outside Bangladesh has seen some limited improvements to workers’ conditions. Two international agreements have seen inspections of garment factories begin in Bangladesh, with the first reports being published last month and revealing long lists of issues from blocked fire exits to overladen foundations and dangerous electrics. Owners are supposed to be getting financial support to make improvements but many have been complaining of confusion in the system and of not being able to access loans. They have also been talking of unnamed European buyers refusing to accept cost rises to cover the workers’ pay increases, which came into effect in November.
The rise in the minimum wage, brought in after several days of strikes and protests by workers last year, was supposed to address some of the concerns about sweatshop labour but has been swallowed up in many cases by local rent rises, which came into effect at the same time.
However, investment in Bangladesh does not seem to have been affected by the global attention after Rana Plaza, and the Tazreen fire which preceded it.
Export earnings increased 12.88% year-on-year to $22bn in the first nine months of the fiscal year, on the back of the continued high demand for the country’s clothing from Europe and the US. Garment exports between July and March rising 15.15% year-on-year to $18.05bn, according to the Export Promotion Bureau.
No one has yet been convicted over the collapse of the factory but last week the Bangladesh government seized properties belonging to the owner of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, a junior official in the ruling Awami League party, who was arrested days after the tragedy as he tried to flee into neighbouring India. He was one of around 40 people whom police said would be charged in connection with the disaster.
But the seizures came months after a high court ruling that they should be confiscated.
“We have confiscated all his properties, including the Rana Plaza land, a multi-storey tower at Savar and a big slice of land in the neighbouring district of Dhamrai,” said deputy district administrator Fazal Mir.
Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest clothing producer after China. Stores including Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour, as well as the US military, source large amounts of their clothes from Bangladesh, home to around 4,500 garment factories and employing some 4 million workers.