When Rana Plaza collapsed, Mossammat Rebecca Khatun was inside. It was two more days before she was rescued. She survived but paid a heavy price. Her injuries robbed her of her right foot and her left leg. But the collapse of the cramped eight-storey building took far more. She lost five members of her family under the rouble; her mother’s body was never found.
What happened that day was first and foremost a tragedy for all those affected. More than 1,100 lost their lives. More than two and a half thousand were injured. Lives destroyed, families ripped apart, entire communities bereaved.
But the collapse of Rana Plaza had a powerful meaning beyond those it directly affected. What happened at Rana Plaza was a brutal message to the world.
The disaster exposed to the world the appalling and unsafe conditions in which many Bangladeshi garment sector workers are employed.
A stark reminder that in the second decade of this century workers around the world are exploited every day. From Qatar to Cambodia, Bangladesh to the South China Sea, 21 million live in modern day slavery; millions more, like those at Rana Plaza, work for pennies a day in conditions that wouldn’t meet the most basic health and safety conditions. And the garments they produce are the mainstay of many clothes shops on our own high streets.
Decent work for decent pay under decent conditions should be a right for all. But in Bangladesh more than 1,000 workers went to their deaths in a building that many of them feared was dangerous and knew to be creaking.
More than a year on, the survivors of this tragedy must rebuild their lives – but they can’t do it alone.
That’s why the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) has established a Trust Fund to cover payments to Rana Plaza victims and their families. The ILO initiative is largely funded through donations from international garment manufacturers, and the funding deadline for the Trust Fund is today.
Labour has been calling on all companies to play their part.
After initially refusing to contribute to the fund, overnight Matalan, the last major UK garment retailer with links to Rana Plaza not to contribute finally bowed to pressure – including petitioners from 38 degrees and a direct letter from the Shadow DFID team – and announced a donation to the fund.
Matalan should never have dragged their feet before paying into the Fund, but now we need full transparency.
Matalan – and other companies that profited from Rana Plaza – have a moral responsibility to pay their fair share. But as things stand, the Fund is significantly short of its target, meaning that the compensation payments will be more limited than it should be: in short it means the victims of this terrible tragedy will be wronged again.
British shoppers want to buy their clothes without fear that companies are unresponsive to worries about risks in their supply chain.
We also need co-ordination action in the future to see safer workplaces for all, no matter where they happen to live.
On coming to power, one of the first steps of the Tory-led government was to end UK financial support to the International Labour Organisation. As well as being wrong-headed, this move detracts from any moral authority to urge retailers to support the ILO-backed fund.
Equally importantly, it means Britain has abdicated its place in the vital work the ILO and others are doing to prevent a re-occurrence of a tragedy like Rana Plaza, through the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
This is a landmark agreement between retailers and trade unions to require safety inspections of Bangladeshi factories and to contribute financially towards repairs that are identified as necessary, as well as committing retailers to withdrawing contracts from factories that refuse to provide safe working conditions.
The remarkable power of consumer pressure, unleashed in the wake of Rana Plaza, has led to the majority of major UK fashion retailers signing up, but significant exceptions remain, including Gap.
To call for better conditions for workers worldwide is not an attack on cheap clothes on our high street – faced with stagnant wages here in Britain, hikes in clothes prices are the last thing our constituents need; nor is it a denigration of the role employment in the garment sector can play in developing countries like Bangladesh, providing reliable wages and lifting many out of poverty.
There is no reason why safe working conditions and decent wages cannot sit alongside good value clothes for British customers. The majority of retailers have recognised this and are taking action. Government and consumers need to be united in encouraging those few who drag their feet to change their course.
Modern slavery, forced labour and simple exploitation of vulnerable workers is nothing new. But what is new is an ever increasing power for the international community to do something about it. That’s why international workers’ rights will be a core component of DFID under Labour.
The global response to Rana Plaza must be much more than simply saying ‘never again’. It should be real action to protect workers around the world; to insist on a decent day’s work for decent pay, under decent conditions – everywhere.
Labour MP Jim Murphy is shadow Secretary of State for International Development and Labour MP Alison McGovern is a shadow minister in the department.