Women could see large cracks in the walls. They knew that returning to their sewing machines meant risking their lives, but factory owners were threatening to withhold their meagre salary that barely puts food on the table.
On April 24, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed within 90 seconds, killing 1,134 people and imprinting the tragedy in our collective memory.
Worse still, many global brands tried to wash their hands of the situation. Activists had to dig through the rubble to find the labels of 29 Western fashion brands sourcing from these deathtrap factories.
This was the worst ever industrial incident to hit the garment industry -- but it’s far from uncommon.
Just last month, a tragic factory flood and fire took the lives of garment workers in Morocco and Egypt.
Eight years on, the truth is that many European fashion companies are still linked to human rights abuses on a daily basis. Workers are underpaid, forced into excessive overtime, denied sick leave, in dangerous conditions, and trapped in child and forced labour. Workers are even threatened and intimidated when they claim their rights.
Such abuses are present throughout all levels of fashion supply chains. From those packaging our clothes in warehouses for final delivery to young women working in spinning mills, to entire families working on farms to harvest raw materials like cotton.
In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Chinese government has detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples in internment camps and prisons, the largest detention of an ethnic and religious group since World War II. Forced labour across factories and farms is a key part of the system of control.
The Uyghur Region produces almost 20% of the world’s cotton - one in five cotton products sold globally, including those sold across the EU, could be tainted.
Yet, as the world looks on in horror, many companies continue to drag their feet in taking action. Some firms have even gone “two steps back”. Since the backlash in China, Zara has taken down its own zero-tolerance to Uyghur forced labour policy from its website, while MUJI, FILA and ASICS reaffirmed their use of cotton from the Region.
The fashion industry is built on exploitation. Fashion brands are constantly driving down costs and turnaround deadlines in their dash for profits. They rely on long and opaque supply chains, with layers of suppliers and subcontractors, to evade liability for the conditions faced by workers.
COVID-19 didn’t help. Garment workers lost between $3 and $5.8 billion in wages in the first three months of the pandemic alone.
Even the safety agreement between brands and unions – signed in the aftermath of Rana Plaza – is under threat. Unless brands break their silence and commit to a renewed binding agreement, it’s on course to be replaced by yet another toothless voluntary mechanism when it expires at the end of May.
The groundbreaking Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety made over 1,600 workplaces safer for 2 million workers by allowing unions to ultimately hold brands to their due diligence obligations in court. Now fashion companies are turning their backs on it.
But now we have the opportunity to finally hold the industry accountable and ensure victims can access justice. Back in April of last year, Didier Reynders, European commissioner for justice, announced he would propose new human rights and environmental rules for companies.
Less than a year later, EU lawmakers gave him an undeniable mandate to move swiftly.
As civil society, we applaud this as a good first step. But for such a law to make a difference, it can’t just be a list of boxes companies must tick.
The law must cover all businesses, and mandate brands to undertake due diligence to assess risks, examine the impact of their business model on the ability of suppliers to meet labour, health and safety standards, and take action to prevent abuses.
It can’t be restricted to one level of supply chains - but apply from the factory floor to farm level - and companies must be obliged to map and disclose everyone they work with.
To prevent future tragedies, Commissioner Reynders will have to propose administrative, civil and criminal liability for corporations, with serious penalties for those failing to comply.
This will not only incentivise companies to do better; it’s also the only way to provide grieving, traumatised and injured workers and their families with a much-need path to justice and compensation when companies fail to prevent abuses.
It took more than two years for the last reluctant brands to agree to pay into a compensation fund for Rana Plaza victims. Not one brand sourcing from the factory was ever held accountable in court.
It’s impossible to say whether things would have turned out differently had the EU already had an effective law in place back in 2013. But what we can say is that the likelihood of the collapse would have been significantly lower; factories would have been safer; decent wages would have allowed workers to choose not to enter; garment workers would have had the right to unionise and collectively say no; and fashion brands wouldn’t have been able to hide their complicity in the rubble of a collapsed factory.
Claudia Saller is the director-general of the European Coalition for Corporate Justice; Jasmine O'Connor OBE is CEO of Anti-Slavery International and Ineke Zeldenrust is the international coordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign.