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Power at play: Making clothes in Bangladesh, after Rana Plaza

On the anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, it’s particularly timely to revisit the impacts of some of the programs and policies that were implemented in the wake of the disaster.

In their article, Ashwin et al. (2020) show how stakeholder perspectives vary across systems of global production and invite readers to (re)consider power dynamics at play.

The Rana Plaza disaster killed more then 1,300 people, on April 24th, 2013. Workers in the building were making clothing that was heading to consumer markets in the Global North, like Canada, the UK, and the United States.

When it comes to the clothing that we wear, it can feel quite sticky to think through how our own individual understandings of ethics (from what we care about, to who we care about, to the world we want to live in and build together) is connected, or disconnected, to the big, wide world of global clothing manufacturing.

While we might like to think that we make our own choices when it comes to selecting what to put on, it’s also true that by the time our clothing finds its way to our bodies, loads of decisions have already taken place.

Decisions like, which material an item is made from, and the quality of that material, but also decisions about the conditions of labour facing the workers who used their skills to bring that item to life. Companies often lay out their decision-making process in annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, drawing attention to the goals and initiatives the company is working towards, such as programs related to workers and to environmental protections.

When the Rana Plaza building collapsed, clothing companies producing in Bangladesh were called on to do their part to ensure that, moving forward, garment workers would be safe at work. Because of the scale and scope of the disaster, different stakeholders involved with garment making in Bangladesh at the time (from governments to non-governmental organizations, to companies and worker groups, for example) worked together on several different initiatives.

The Accord for Fire and Building Safety was one such initiative, which saw loads of different stakeholders and stakeholder groups join forces. This agreement was unprecedented in the world of clothing manufacturing, and it’s often used as an example of a successful initiative.

Stakeholders invested in making clothing in Bangladesh have different, and at times divergent, interests and priorities, however. And when it comes to worker safety, it is necessary to think through how power dynamics are at work across systems of global production. A key challenge relates to low cost, tight production timelines.

On the one hand, companies making clothes in Bangladesh offer CSR reports which lay out standards of operation that claim to support worker rights. On the other hand, however, brands purchasing products from Bangladesh have reportedly, even since the 2013 disaster, applied increased pressure on their factory suppliers to produce even more product at an even lower cost (Ashwin et al., 2020). These applied pressures have a direct impact on conditions of labour for garment workers in Bangladesh, and elsewhere.

Woven within systems of clothing production are pressures related to brand competition under the logic of capitalism.

As we mark this anniversary, nearly 10 years on, we can turn to research from Ashwin et al. (2020) to consider how, despite some changes realized by the Accord, it’s not a simple story: of course, nothing ever is.

Reference:

Ashwin, S., N. Kabeer, and E. Schüßler. (2020). ‘Contested Understandings in the Global Garment Industry after Rana Plaza’, Development and Change, 51: 1296-305.

Ashwin et al. (2020) is licensed under the Creative Commons, through an open access Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.

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