1.Around nine in the morning on April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-story building in Savar, Bangladesh, collapsed catastrophically in a hail of twisted concrete, steel bar, and sewing machinery. At the time, more than 3,000 garment workers were on duty in five separate factories, located on the building’s third to eighth floors. Photographs of the scene showed hundreds of people—community members, workers from other nearby factories, and police and firefighters—furiously moving debris and pulling people out of rubble. When the rescue and recovery effort was finally suspended more than a week later, 1,134 workers, most of them women, had been found dead; 2,500 others had been hurt, many with amputations and severe head and back injuries.
1 Most of the victims were under 30, and a fifth of them were teenagers. They had earned in the range of $38 to $102 a month.
2 It was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the global garment industry. The collapsed building was owned by Sohel Rana. Rana, 35, was described as a “gun-toting politician” who “traveled by motorcycle, as untouchable as a mafia don, trailed by his own biker gang.” In 2007, he had obtained the permit to build the plaza directly from the mayor of Savar, a political ally, bypassing the standard procedure. The building, which was partly situated on a drained swamp, was initially permitted for five stories; Rana illegally added three more floors between 2008 and 2012 and was in the process of constructing another when the structure collapsed.
3。The architect later said the building had not been designed for industrial use. “If I had known that it was to be an industrial building, I would have taken other measures,” he told an investigator.
4 Analysis showed that the building was carrying almost six times more weight than it was designed to bear. Poor-quality concrete and steel used in construction and uneven settlement on saturated soils may also have contributed to the structural failure.
5 The day before, workers reported that large cracks had opened up in the building’s walls. An engineer called in to inspect the cracks told Rana that the building needed to be shut down immediately. Managers of a bank and retail shops operating on the first and second floors told their employees to stay home until the building was declared safe. But Rana himself dismissed the engineer’s conclusion, saying, according to witnesses, “The plaster on the wall is broken, nothing more. It is not a problem.”
6 Managers of the five Bangladeshi-owned factories operating in rented space in the building—New Wave Style, New Wave Bottoms, Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, and Ether Tex—all of which manufactured apparel for export to Western firms, apparently agreed with Rana. The next morning, when garment workers arrived for work, they were greeted by a loudspeaker: “All the workers of Rana Plaza, go to work. The factory has already been repaired.” Workers who objected were threatened with the loss of a month’s pay. Shortly after the workday started, factory managers turned on large electric generators located on the third and fourth floors, a common occurrence because of regular power fail-ures in the building. A government report later found that vibrations from the generators had shaken the building, triggering a massive structural failure as the already compromised concrete walls failed, floors began collapsing onto the ones below, and the entire building buckled outward.7 Several dozen well-known U.S. and European retailers and brands—including Walmart, Benetton, Primark, Children’s Place, Loblaw, and Mango—were at the time or had recently sourced products from factories in Rana Plaza. The extensive news coverage of the disas-ter repeatedly mentioned these companies and displayed photos of their labels. One par-ticularly gruesome photograph showed a dust-covered human corpse, partially buried in rubble, surrounded by clothing tags displaying the logo of the brand Joe Fresh, owned by the Canadian retailer Loblaw. “I am troubled,” Galen Weston, the executive chairman of Loblaw, told reporters, “that despite a clear commitment to the highest standards of ethical sourcing, our company can still be part of such an unspeakable tragedy.”8 Now, Loblaw—and all the other companies that sourced apparel from suppliers in the low-wage and notoriously unsafe Bangladeshi garment industry—faced a stark and immediate chal-lenge: What should they do now, after Rana Plaza
At the time of the Rana Plaza collapse, Bangladesh was the site of one of the fastest-growing garment industries in the world. Located between India on the west, north, and east and Burma (Myanmar) on the south-east, Bangladesh (meaning “the Country of Bengal” in the native Bengali language) sat on a vast delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers, which emptied into the Bay of Bengal. The country, which was predominantly Muslim, had become independent of Pakistan in 1971. With almost 164 million people in a country about the size of Iowa, Bangladesh in 2013 was one of the most densely populated nations in the world. It was also one of the poorest. The United Nations ranked the country 146th (out of 187) on its human development index. Fifty-eight percent of the population was estimated to live in multidimensional poverty, defined by the United Nations as “overlap-ping deprivation in health, education, and standard of living.” Forty-three percent lived on $1.25 or less a day. In 2013, the country was still predominantly rural; almost half of Bangladeshis lived off the land, mostly growing rice.9 The low-lying nation was particu-larly vulnerable to natural disasters and regularly suffered punishing typhoons and floods.10 The Bangladeshi ready-made garment industry had its origins in the worldwide quota sys-tems that emerged shortly after the country’s independence.
The Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) of 1974 capped the volume of textile and apparel exports to the United States and other developed nations from various countries, especially in East Asia. One consequence of the MFA was a shift of manufacturing to other countries, like Bangladesh, that had no prior history of garment production and were therefore not covered by the quotas. In 1978, Desh Garments, headed by Bangladeshi businessman Noorul Quader, negotiated an agreement with Daewoo, a Korean firm, to teach the Bangladeshis how to manufacture apparel.11 After training in Korea, Quader and his team returned to set up the first export-oriented garment factory in Bangladesh. Development of the industry was further spurred by structural reforms in the 1980s that privatized and deregulated markets, opened the nation to foreign investment, and permitted garment companies to take loans secured by contracts from foreign buyers.
12 Once established, the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh grew steadily. Entre-preneurs flooded into the industry, drawn by low capital requirements, readily available workers, and cheap industrial rents in communities, like Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka and Chittagong. Large operators secured contracts with Western apparel companies, and small ones emerged to handle their overflow as subcontractors. By 2013, Bangladesh had become the largest garment exporter in the world, after China, employing 4 million workers in 5,600 factories, as shown in Exhibits A and B. Bangladesh exported more than $20 billion of garments annually, accounting for 10 percent of its GDP and more than three-quarters of its total exports by value. (Other exports included frozen shrimp, jute, and leather.) The United States and Canada were the destination of 25 percent of Bangladesh-made garments; more than half went to Europe.