Last week, thousands of mourners gathered at the remains of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh to pray for the 1 127 people who died when it collapsed on April
The poignant remembrance of the victims of this dreadful tragedy came amid a succession of actions and reforms announced by the Bangladesh government, local factory owners and some international clothing chains, whose products were being stitched by the largely female workforce crammed into five factories inside the Rana Plaza building.
The reforms announced so far include the immediate voluntary closure of a number of other factories believed to be unsafe; a lifting of restrictions on forming trade unions in most industries; the establishment of a new mechanism to guarantee a reasonable minimum wage for garment industry workers; and the decision by a number of major names in the international fashion and clothing industries to sign, by May 15, a binding agreement to improve fire and building safety conditions in their Bangladeshi contractors’ workplaces.
These welcome reforms showed a belated realisation, both locally and internationally, that this was a catastrophe that was totally preventable. Building regulations, worksite safety regulations – a whole web of protective rules have been routinely violated in Bangladesh’s garment sector, despite public knowledge and debate.
There have been plenty of advance warnings about worker safety in the country’s garment industry as a whole, with more than 120 lives lost in separate factory fires just in the past six months.
Together with their civil and political rights, all human beings, no matter where they live, have economic, social and cultural rights. These are recognised and protected in international human rights instruments, and include the right to life, to a standard of living supportive of a life in dignity, and to a range of workers’ rights, including the right to fair wages, to safe and healthy working conditions, to join and form trade unions, and to strike. The measures taken so far are encouraging, and may mark a turning point for protection of Bangladesh’s garment workers.
But they should be seen as the beginning, not as an end result. It is vital that swift action is taken to empower trade unions and overhaul the garment sector, with factory upgrades and a far more stringent and corruption-proof approach to oversight and inspection.
If the changes turn out to be cosmetic attempts to appease public anger, an effort to buy time until the impact of the disaster fades and the cheap-as-possible approach can be resumed, then more disasters will inevitably occur.
By the midnight deadline on May 15, a total of 37 international companies, the majority of them based in Europe, using more than 1 000 Bangladeshi garment factories, had signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
This is an important and in many ways unprecedented agreement that includes strong governance and accountability elements, which mean the accord can be legally enforced in the countries where the international companies are based.
It provides for inspections and other oversight mechanisms, including regulated remedial actions to make factories compliant with building, fire and electrical safety standards and fire safety training, health and safety committees with trade union representatives, and public reports.
Some major retailers, especially in the US, have chosen not to sign the accord, but have pledged to perform their own inspections. The spotlight will be on them to ensure they carry out these pledges in a credible manner.
These issues are not solely linked to Bangladesh, as we were reminded just this week when the roof of a shoe factory in Cambodia collapsed, killing three workers.
Two years ago, the UN agreed on a series of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that provide a framework for what needs to be done by businesses and governments everywhere; governments must take appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress abuse of workers’ rights through effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication.
Corporations must do human rights due diligence to prevent and address human rights abuse. Victims of abuse must have access to effective remedy. Perpetrators must be prosecuted. And the processes of supervision and oversight must be freed from unhealthy and ultimately toxic and dangerous ties to special interests.
The best way to honour the victims of Rana Plaza is to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.
South African-born Navi Pillay is the UN High Commissioner for Human