Garment Workers' conditions still abhorrent 10 years after Rana Plaza tragedy

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A garment worker's hands guiding fabric through a sewing machine

April 24 marks the ten-year anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The disaster exposed the dangerous and difficult working conditions that garment workers are forced to endure in the name of fast fashion.

"The Rana Plaza tragedy shone an international spotlight on the unacceptably high-cost workers pay in the name of fast fashion," said Lana Payne, Unifor National President. " "It's sickening to see multinational corporations make profits on the backs of predominantly women workers, who receive extremely low wages, work long hours, face health and safety hazards, subject to harassment and sexual abuse on a daily basis and face anti worker laws that prevent them from having the power of collective bargaining."

On April 24, 2013, the eight-storey Rana Plaza building, where nearly 5,000 garment workers worked every day, collapsed. In just 90 seconds, over 1,100 worker lives were lost, with an additional 2,500 workers suffering injuries. Five months earlier, 112 garment workers died just outside the city of Dhaka at the Tazreen Fashions factory after being trapped inside while a fire raged within the workplace.

Many of the garments were being fabricated on behalf of large and profitable multinational brand name clothing corporations, such as Benetton, Children's Place, and Joe Fresh/Loblaw. The disaster exposed these companies' lack of oversight in outsourcing and subcontracting the manufacturing of their garments to the lowest bidder.

"Thanks to the work of international unions and human rights organizations, considerable progress has been made, but the fight for global corporations to respect the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining continues," said Payne.

Unifor's Social Justice Fund (SJF) responded to the disaster by partnering with key organizations, such as UNI Global Union and the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, over the years to support projects in the country aimed at monitoring worker health and safety, conducting workers' rights education and training, and leadership development for women in the workplace.

However, there is still much work to be done.

“Bangladesh labour unions are hampered in their ability to organize, and globally, less than 10% of garment workers belong to trade unions.It is only through organizing and building worker power that garment workers can make lasting changes,” said Navjeet Sidhu, Unifor International Director  

Stronger mechanisms are also needed to ensure corporations are held accountable. In Canada, this means finally establishing an independent ombudsperson who can investigate and hold Canadian companies to account for labour and human right violations where they may operate in other countries.

Unifor will continue to work with its allies, both in Canada and around the world, in advocating for safe and healthy workplaces and ensuring that all workers are able to organize to improve their rights and conditions of work. Find more information on Unifor’s Social Justice Fund here.