Forgetting Rana Plaza

April 24, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Naomi Hossain, from SOAS, on the 11th anniversary of the tragedy in Bangladesh

Despite heated and even violent contention around monuments and memorials in recent years, the politics of memory are still seen as largely symbolic. Apparel industry workers can tell you that this is wrong: memorials matter materially. For survivors of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, the lack of an official memorial for the thousands of victims has real consequences: an active effort to forget the disaster has helped promises of compensation and workers’ rights protections to be reneged on with impunity.

Figure 1 A poster advertising the 10 Years After Rana Plaza Exhibition; picture credit Ismail Ferdous.

A preventable tragedy

It seems unlikely anyone could forget the Rana Plaza disaster. The collapse of the garments factory in Savar, Bangladesh in 2013 was a dark and tragic moment: 1,134 workers were killed and thousands more left maimed and traumatized. The world watched for days as volunteers pulled mangled bodies from the rubble. Rana Plaza was a preventable tragedy. Workers had been forced to work in a building known to be unsafe. They were sewing fast fashion for labels like Primark and Zara that demanded ever faster turnaround times. Workers that refused to work in the broken building risked losing their jobs. They had no trade unions to protect them against these pressures or to demand safer workplaces because factory owners had busted unions, attacking and killing labour leaders, with the tacit support of the government.

The spectacular horror of the disaster meant its images flashed around the world, and it looked set to change outsourcing in global supply chains for good. Lessons about the need for workers’ rights to trade unions and to safe workplaces spread beyond Bangladesh and beyond the fashion industry. The Bangladesh Accord pioneered the use of binding agreements between companies and trade unions to improve factory safety; Bangladeshi factories are far safer than a decade ago, and the initiative has spread to factories beyond Bangladesh. A new generation of efforts to integrate human rights protection into international business practice has since emerged in Europe. These mandatory human rights and due diligence laws aim to hold brands accountable for what goes on in their supply chains.

Active forgetting

So yes, lessons have been learned. Yet when a group of us decided to mark the 10th anniversary last year we learned that those lessons were rapidly slipping away. We found an active effort to forget the disaster within Bangladesh: neither government nor factory owners respect the victims or survivors with any public or official statement. International brands do nothing to remember it, unsurprisingly given how many of them denied they were even sourcing in the Rana Plaza complex at all. Brands we all buy, Walmart, El Corte Inglés, and Benetton among them, evaded accountability then, and they do so now. Bangladeshi workers are still forced to take to the streets in pitched battles with the police in their efforts to secure a living wage: collective bargaining is still disallowed, trade unions are still proscribed, labour leaders still face criminalization and murder.

I worked with the award-winning photo-journalist Ismail Ferdous as he developed his breathtaking 10 Years After Rana Plaza exhibition last year at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka (which you can visit online here: Several things surprised us in the process of putting this together. The first was that, despite the attention it received at the time, the only marker of the horrors at Rana Plaza was a basic hammer and sickle statue in what is now filthy waste-land, a site where unrecovered bodies still rest. The labour rights activist Kalpona Akter, who also worked with us on this initiative, told us that workers had been campaigning unsuccessfully to turn the site into a clinic or community centre, a place that would bring them comfort and much-needed practical support.

Figure 2: The memorial at Rana Plaza; January 2023

A second surprise was that we failed to engage garment manufacturers in any discussion of what had been learned from Rana Plaza. The former President of the manufacturers association generously gave us an interview, let Ismail take her portrait, and shared her views on the future of the industry – which include, among other things, greater protections for workers’ rights. But we were unable to attract any other current officials or factory owners to the exhibition. I remember talking to a fashion entrepreneur at a Dhaka party, and learning with excitement that the Bangladeshi garments industry was now designing, as well as manufacturing, for the European market. But when I invited him to attend the exhibition in Dhaka, he shook his head. I do not know of any industry folk who attended. Perhaps they are too ashamed or horrified about what happened. Others quite possibly do not want to remember.

Figure 3: A poster advertising the 10 Years After Rana Plaza Exhibition; picture credit Ismail Ferdous. The framed photograph is of Fazle Rabbi, who was only a teenager when he died in the disaster.

Official amnesia

Survivors and volunteers from the Rana Plaza locality came to the exhibition. We had been worried that the immersive nature of the exhibition might be re-traumatizing for the surviving victims and their families. But many were, not happy, but satisfied, with what we had done. In a context of official amnesia, survivors felt they had been forgotten. Several said that nobody asks after them anymore. Other people assume those who had been injured were looked after, but survivors I met had medical and other needs for which they received no financial support. Without being officially remembered, they will never receive the support they still need.

Visitors to the exhibition left comments: ‘Never Again’; ‘This was no accident, this was corporate manslaughter’; and ‘I still wonder who is responsible’. These views echoed those of workers, who described Rana Plaza not as a disaster but as a mass murder.  Most of the exhibit visitors were young people, Bangladeshis as well as visitors to the country. Several told us they knew very little about the disaster, and were deeply moved by the images.

Figure 4 Feedback from exhibition-goers, July 2023

Figure 5: Scene from the exhibition

We were genuinely shocked to meet a pair of teenage garment workers who had never heard of the disaster. This was so despite them being extremely bright, high school-going, and terminally online – worldly in the way of their generation. How had this important moment in their own history passed them by? How will they know why it is so vital for them to build and join their own labour organizations if they do not know what happens when workers lack such collective power? The fact is that without official recognition they will never know. This, of course, is why some prefer for us to forget Rana Plaza.

April 24, 2024
Duncan Green


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