Rana Plaza: this cannot be the norm

By Veronica Stupecka, intern, Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada

Many survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster have no option but to continue working in Bangladesh’s offshored garment manufacturing industry. (Narayan Debnath/DFID, Wikimedia Commons)

Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada and other civil society organizations are rallying to commemorate the 1,100+ victims of the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013. We are also calling on Canada to adopt strict mandatory due diligence laws to curb the impunity with which, this guest editorial argues, many Canadian corporations and their agents and suppliers in the garment and extractive industries abuse human and environmental rights abroad.

In 1989, the American novelist, poet, environmentalist, critic and farmer, Wendell Berry, delivered a commencement address at the College of the Atlantic, a Maine institution specializing in human ecology. In that now-famous speech, Berry asked, “How would you describe the difference between modern war and modern industry―between, say, bombing and strip mining, or between chemical warfare and chemical manufacturing?” He answered, “The difference seems to be only that in war the victimization of humans is directly intentional and in industry it is ‘accepted’ as a ‘trade-off.’”

Pitiful conditions in manufacturing and mining in the Global South are often deemed a necessary evil or even unavoidable, especially when they involve Western companies. Accountability is seldom asked for from these companies unless deadly incidents like the Rana Plaza (Bangladesh, 2013) and Brumadinho mine (Brazil, 2019) disasters occur.

This cannot be the norm. Preventing mass fatalities should be prioritized before tragedy unfolds. Both those disasters were foreseeable. Workers had reported concerns about Rana Plaza’s structural integrity, and Vale SA had known about the vulnerabilities of the Brumadinho tailings dam.

Rana Plaza: the dirt under the rubble

The Rana Plaza disaster, which killed 1,134 people and injured 2,581 on April 24, 2013, is considered one of the most fatal industrial structural collapses of the last 100 years. Most of the victims were making clothes for Western fast fashion companies that rely on rapid, low-cost manufacturing and quick, cheap, high-volume sales. They typically outsource production to countries like Bangladesh, where labour restrictions and wages are much lower and there is less oversight.

After the Rana Plaza collapse, information emerged of compromised working conditions and building neglect. Many analysts and activists blame corporate structures that prioritize overzealous production and profit over livable working conditions. Workers at Rana Plaza were working long hours for as little as $35 to $60 a month in substandard conditions.

The road ahead

There have been certain improvements in Bangladesh and other countries with large textile production centers. Many brands have signed the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment and Textile Industry, that helps maintain accountability on working conditions and provide remediation to workers affected by abuses. This was seen in the compensation given to Rana Plaza victims’ families. However, more needs to be done to ensure that the compensation is adequate and not based on the industry’s current low-wage standards.

Despite some strides, there are two issues. Firstly, numerous giants like IKEA and Auchan have not yet signed the International Accord and its Pakistan extension. Secondly, these accords end in October 2023. They must be renewed with more signatories and a wider scope to address issues including low wages, gender-based violence, environmental impact and the impunity of subcontractors.

From fashion to mining

The lack of oversight on the overseas operations of Western corporations is not restricted to the fashion industry. It also extends to sectors like mining, in which Canada is one of the largest players. Yet, the Canadian government has few concrete policies to protect workers abroad from abuses by Canadian companies.

The Rana Plaza disaster illustrates the insufficiency of existing measures, which are mostly guidelines that rely on voluntary compliance, in protecting rights, safety and the environment.

It is time to enact strong mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence (mHREDD) legislation. Such a law would mitigate risk by compelling Canadian corporations to assess, report on, prevent and remedy human rights violations and environmental abuses across their global supply chains. It would also help the victims of any overseas abuses by Canadian companies or their suppliers to access justice in Canadian courts.

This is imperative because, as recent case studies by the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability reveal, too many Canadian fashion and mining corporations are not being held accountable for widespread malpractices. The workers they victimize are rarely adequately compensated and often have to continue working in abusive conditions.

A moral responsibility

The Rana Plaza workers supplied several Canadian fashion houses. Yet safeguarding human rights remains little more than a suggestion for Canadian corporations.

It is our responsibility to make these corporations accountable. But how to do this, given the difficulties of implementing substantial, lasting change for workers whose livelihoods depend on potential problematic industries?
Improvement can start with holding corporations accountable beforehand through agreements like the International Accord that necessitate safe working conditions and better oversight of production lines. Such agreements can and should work in tandem with sectors like mining that face similar issues of unsafe, unfair working conditions, especially in the Global South.

It is up to us citizens of Western countries like Canada, where wealthy offending companies are often based and sell most of the goods produced in abusive conditions, to put solid structures and laws in place to ensure justice for workers around the world.

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