Nayla Ajaltouni of Éthique sur l'Étiquette says bad practices are back, ten years after the Rana Plaza disaster
On April 24, 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory buildings in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed 1,138 people and injured more than 2,000. The discovery of garments bearing the labels of major apparel brands amidst the victims’ bodies shocked the world. Among the NGOs received by the French authorities in the wake of the tragedy, Éthique sur l'Étiquette, a French collective comprising 16 trade unions and associations* advocating for workers’ rights, was represented by CEO Nayla Ajaltouni. Ten years later, Ajaltouni looks back for FashionNetwork.com on the positive change that followed the Rana Plaza tragedy, but also on the social washing some of the industry's top names are still engaged in.
FashionNetwork: What memory do you have of the Rana Plaza tragedy and its impact?
Nayla Ajaltouni: The Rana Plaza [tragedy] was a shock but not a surprise. Our member organisations had issued many warnings about safety conditions in factories. The number of deaths in factory collapses or fires in Bangladesh had been estimated at some 700. We had already documented the risks posed to workers by the massive growth of the Bangladeshi textile industry, in the absence of workplace safety investment. The unbridled quest for output led to factories being opened in buildings that were not fit for purpose, such as the Rana Plaza, an office complex whose structure could not withstand the vibrations generated by textile machinery.
FNW: What was your take on the reaction of [fashion] labels in the following months?
NA: Before the tragedy, various organisations were knocking on the doors of major international labels, trying to convince them to sign the agreement on safety and fire prevention in Bangladesh. Before the Rana Plaza tragedy, no major label had agreed to sign a contract that was regarded as too binding. It took the global textile industry’s worst disaster for them to finally respond to this proposition, which came from civil society.
The Rana Plaza demonstrated the failure of CSR pledges, which those same major labels were constantly drumming into our heads at the time. Apparel companies were always asking the public to trust them, to let them work with globalisation, adopting simple codes of conduct and social audits. An ideological position that destroyed the Rana Plaza complex.
FNW: Did the tragedy’s impact help to introduce the concept of a duty of vigilance on the part of companies in France?
NA: It allowed us to make much progress in France. We had to work for another five years after the tragedy before the Duty of Vigilance bill was made law. It was the first law that held multinationals legally accountable for their supply chains’ social and environmental impact. It’s hard to say what the impact of the tragedy was, but we didn’t talk much about duty of vigilance before Rana Plaza. Above all, the disaster validated the alarming findings on which NGOs were basing their calls for binding regulations. The Rana Plaza tragedy painfully demonstrated that NGOs weren’t so “disconnected,” despite being frequently accused of being ideology-driven, radical and leftist. The impunity enjoyed by multinationals despite the tragedies shocked the world.
FNW: What do you expect from [the EU parliament’s] vote on the [Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence] bill on April 24?
NA: The Duty of Vigilance [bill] was important for us in France, so that labels would not forget. Beyond “redemption measures” taken after the tragedy, we must promote the understanding that we need binding regulations to rein in globalisation’s most powerful players.
But the real challenge is managing to transform the fashion industry’s business model. Social and environmental impacts, fast fashion, and predatory business models must be made costly. The Duty of Vigilance [law] was a first step, but we have always envisioned this approach in a European perspective. The forthcoming EU directive must therefore be as ambitious as possible, and must learn from past tragedies.
FNW: How has the Rana Plaza tragedy changed the relationship between labels and NGOs?
NA: That’s a good question, and the answer is complex. Changes were made piecemeal, depending on individual labels. To add new lustre to their tarnished image, some were willing to reconnect with NGOs. Others were pushed internally by trade unions, which managed to shift corporate policy. Then, over the years, mid-range labels too began to reach out to NGOs. On the other hand, some labels and groups opted for a strategic retreat.
FNW: What do you mean? More circumspect CSR claims?
NA: Fast fashion stepped in, and went in the opposite direction to that we were hoping for. Labels refused to be held accountable and to give accurate information to civil society, the authorities and the media. The same labels that were talking vociferously about select CSR topics. H&M and others notably decided to use social media to talk directly to consumers, holding a unilateral conversation on some of their commitments. But without ever really exposing their strategies to those who would be able to question them, analyse them, and identify their shortcomings.
FNW: Nevertheless, some progress has been achieved in terms of factory safety.
NA: There was the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was later renamed the International Accord. It could not be challenged before the courts, and laid the foundations for making workplaces safer. According to our data, this has enabled Bangladesh to safeguard 1,600 factories, half of the country's total. A country where there are major obstacles to trade union freedom, and where the Accord requires that workers are directly involved in verifying workplace safety.
But the Accord has a five-year term, and since 2018 we have been making huge efforts to get signatory labels to ratify the document’s next versions. The latest version dates back to 2021 and extended its provisions to other countries, beginning with Pakistan.
The Accord focuses on working conditions and safety, but against a backdrop of low wages, extreme poverty and precarious employment. And while the first, Bangladesh-centred Accord brought together nearly 200 labels and retailers, the Pakistani extension was underwritten by only about 40.
This shows that CSR pledges will never be enough to bring about systemic change in the industry. So, we’re continuing with awareness campaigns and public condemnations, to remind labels of their responsibility, at a time when their CSR claims keep escalating.
FNW: The pandemic led many labels to cancel or unilaterally renegotiate orders placed with suppliers, which were left high and dry. The same labels that mostly refuse to pass on material cost increases. A sign that double standards are still entrenched?
NA: Labels have clearly dissociated their claims from their practices. Costs always have to be minimised, and this is a burden on manufacturers, and on textile workers. While labels put a fresh gloss on their marketing speak. Greenwashing and social washing are rife, as labels and their shareholders doggedly refuse to change a business model that, for lack of a legal framework, remains profitable.
Ten years after Rana Plaza disaster, bad practices are back, it’s business as usual. At best, it's a matter of cosmetic measures, to camouflage this refusal to truly change. This breeds monsters like Shein. Impunity has a perverse ripple effect, revealing increasingly predatory patterns.
FNW: In 2021, the Public Eye NGO published a report on Shein workshops, said to be sited, like the Rana Plaza, in unsuitable buildings.
NA: The turning point for fashion came when the prevailing model shifted away from manufacturing expertise towards adopting mass-market distribution parameters: low-cost production to sell more and maximise profits. H&M and Zara have embodied this thirst for profit. Shein has re-applied archaic methods to the business: a myriad small workshops are taking care of production, at a time when we’re trying to boost supply-chain traceability and improve worker remuneration. Shein is a 15-year step backwards. No questions are asked, except how much it costs to produce.
FNW: Again in China, the Uighur controversy is a reminder of how hard it is to investigate industry practices in that country. It is well-known that Uighurs are dispatched to work in factories across China, making it almost impossible to assess the true extent of the forced labour phenomenon. An opportunity for labels to deny their involvement?
NA: Yes. Difficulty in accessing information gives labels an additional opportunity to extricate themselves. Some labels are doing absolutely nothing about Xinjiang, on the grounds that they don’t know how far their supply chain extends. The same kind of exonerating noises could be heard at the time of Rana Plaza too. It is indeed difficult to investigate locally, and this is what prompted us to file a complaint against certain labels for “concealing crimes against humanity.”
But clearly, unfettered capitalism will always be one step ahead. Impunity is a blank cheque handed out to the less scrupulous companies. I believe the fashion industry has a double function. On the one hand, it regularly showcases all these distortions. On the other, it is also a laboratory capable of showing what kind of alternative economic model could be developed.
* Ethique sur l'Etiquette is a collective comprising the following organisations: Artisans du Monde, CFDT, FSU, CGT Consom Action, Solidaires, the Human Rights League, Oxfam, Actionaid, Ritimo, Terre des Hommes, Utolep, Solidatité Laïque, Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne, the Research and Information Centre for Development, the confederation of French associations for popular and lay education, and the Fédération Sportive et Gymnastique du Travail.
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