Five Years Later: What have we learned from the Rana Plaza disaster?

Five years ago, the Rana Plaza building collapsed, taking with it at least 1134 innocent lives and injuring more than 2000 others. This industrial tragedy of incomparable scale constitutes a milestone in the business and human rights discussion. There will always be a 'before' and an 'after' Rana Plaza. Its aftershock triggered potentially seismic changes in the regulation of transnational corporations, such as the much-discussed French law on the ‘devoir de vigilance’. It is, therefore, essential to scrutinize with great care the aftermath of the tragedy: the innovations it triggered in the transnational regulation of the garment supply chain, the different processes initiated to compensate the victims, and in general the various hard and soft, private and public, legal and non-legal initiatives stemming from the urge to tackle a fundamental injustice. Thus, in the days to come we will feature a series of blogs on Rana Plaza and its consequences prepared by our outstanding interns: Raam Dutia and Abdurrahman Erol.

The Doing Business Right research team aimed to contribute to this necessary appraisal by organising on 12 April (with the support of the Bangladeshi embassy in The Netherlands) a day of discussions on Rana Plaza with a wide range of participants coming from different geographical and professional horizons (you can find our background paper for the discussions here and the programme of the day here). We divided the discussion into three broad themes. The first was dedicated to the victims: the injured and the families of those who died. Who are they to turn to in order to find justice? How can they locate legal (and/or moral) responsibility? When global brands are pressuring their Bangladeshi suppliers to keep prices down and satisfy their customers, who is responsible if garment factories in Bangladesh do not invest sufficiently to keep their factories from collapsing? The Bangladeshi government, the Mr. Ranas of this world, the profit-seeking brands, the conflict-ridden auditors, or the consumer in pursuit of ever-cheaper clothing? Those were the difficult questions we have struggled with and will continue struggling with in the years to come. As will be comprehensively shown in Raam’s first blog, victims of Rana Plaza have been rather unsuccessful in locating anyone (besides Mr. Rana himself) liable to start compensating the immense losses they have suffered. Western courts have simply refused to hold western brands (or auditors) accountable for the collapse. Nor have Bangladeshi courts yet proven able to provide justice to the victims. While international solidarity (maybe based on a feeling of moral responsibility) in the form of the Rana Plaza Arrangement, has offered some financial compensation to the victims, this is a far cry from a full-fledged legal responsibility recognized in court. Rana Plaza reminds us that in our world of organised irresponsibility, as the late Ulrich Beck would call it, law (and private international law in particular) can be used to immunise global brands and final consumers from the externalities they cause far from home.

The second panel of the conference tackled the transnational responses borne of the need to ensure that such a tragedy never again recurs. While nobody was willing to acknowledge their own responsibility for the Rana Plaza collapse, everybody was ready to accept that never again should such a tragedy take place. However, disagreements quickly emerged as to how to ensure this. Three different, at times competing, initiatives were introduced. They were set up in very different fashions. One, the Bangladesh Accord, is a multi-stakeholder collaboration involving NGOs, Brands, and Unions. The other, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, is corporation-led, and primarily controlled by North-American brands. Finally, the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity in the Garment Sector of Bangladesh is a government-led initiative supported by the ILO and foreign states. Altogether, these initiatives have led to quantifiable improvements of the security of workers in garment factories in Bangladesh (see the recent reports here and here). In his blog, Abdurrahman derives some comparative lessons from their parallel operations and raises some pointed critiques with regard to their institutional structures and long-term effects. In any event, they constitute an interesting new type of transnational administrative legal construct, raising many questions in terms of their legitimacy, effectiveness, and durability.

Finally, our last panel touched upon the national responses to the tragedy in Bangladesh as well as in Europe. What has changed in the way France and the Netherlands regulate corporations doing business in Bangladesh? What has changed in the way Bangladesh regulates its economically vital ready-made garment sector? Even in a globalizing world, states still have a decisive influence on the companies they bring to life (through their corporate law) or let operate in their territory. On the one hand, the French Loi relative au devoir de vigilance des sociétés mères et des entreprises donneuses d’ordre reminds us that a state can impose certain hard/legal responsibilities on local companies doing business abroad, such as in this case the obligation to produce a due diligence plan to deal with human rights risks. In theory, noncompliance with the law could lead to civil liability for the damages caused by a specific human rights violation. On the other, the Dutch Agreement Agreement on Sustainable Garment and Textile offers another (perhaps competing) alternative for national governments to drive corporations active on local markets to engage in (mildly) binding human rights due diligence with regard to their supply chain (on the detailed functioning of the Agreement see our paper here). Both solutions are country specific and their practical effects highly context-dependent. It is not yet clear whether they will dramatically improve the fates of Bangladeshi workers. Nonetheless, they need to be thoroughly scrutinized for their actual effects (or the lack thereof). In any case, they are part and parcel of the legacy of Rana Plaza. 

I will end this blog on a personal note. In a way, the days after the Rana Plaza collapse brought me back a decade earlier to the state of shock triggered by 9/11. This was a truly global tragedy. I had a similar feeling of powerlessness in front of dusty images of suffering. A similar tireless search for survivors was going on, with similar walls of pictures of missing persons. And yet, it was radically different. The towers of the World Trade Center were hit by two planes before collapsing; Rana Plaza simply collapsed. The tragedy could not be blamed on terrorists. It was the result of greed, of cold economical cost-cutting. By Mr. Rana, the factory owner, by the multiple brands whose logos and tags were littering the ruins of Rana Plaza, and at the end of the chain by myself as a consumer of those brands. I believe this painful feeling of distant complicity (made immediately visible) was shared widely across the globe and fuelled much of the initiatives that were put in place in the aftermath of the tragedy. I think it rightly tells us that the responsibility to ensure that we never again face a Rana Plaza lies not only there, in Bangladesh, but also here in the boardrooms of our favourite brands as well as in our very own shopping carts. It is this feeling that drives the Doing Business Right project.


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