On 24 April 2013, an eight-story garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The building’s fall killed 1,134 people and injured hundreds of others.
The Rana Plaza tragedy was not caused by an earthquake or a terrorist attack, but rather by poor construction and a lack of oversight – and, in some ways, by a growing global desire for more cheap fashion.
It’s been two years since the Rana Plaza tragedy, and although much remains to be done to ensure the rights and safety of workers in Bangladesh’s still-booming garment industry, progress has been made. Global brands including H&M, Mango, Primark, the Gap and Walmart, among a dozen others, have contributed $21.5m to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, which was set up to award compensation to victims and their families.
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According to Srinivas Reddy, Bangladesh director for the International Labour Organization (ILO), which is administering the fund, there is a shortfall of $8.5m. “The fund is voluntary so we cannot make any brand donate,” Reddy said via Skype from Dhaka. “All we can do is encourage them to do so, or encourage those that have donated to donate more.”
Vocal protests have focused on late-to-donate brands like Benetton and The Child’s Place, while first movers Primark and H&M have received high praise for their commitment to making things right.
But the real change will come in the form of improvements to worker safety and worker’s rights. According to Reddy, Dhaka’s permitting offices have simply not kept pace with its booming garment industry, leading to a situation in which factories were being given permits without so much as a site visit, much less monitoring.
That has begun to change since the Rana Plaza collapse. According to Reddy, out of 3,508 factories identified as exporting clothing from Bangladesh, almost 75% have gone through building fire and safety assessments. As a result, 35 factories have been closed for failing to comply with structural integrity standards.
“That is not good news, necessarily, but what’s important is to recognize that we might have actually averted some building problems and accidents by closing down these factories,” Reddy said, “and putting the remaining factories through the remediation process” that requires building owners to fix various building safety issues.
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Still, both brands and national leaders had promised that this entire process – the review and updating of all of Bangladesh’s factories – would be completed by the two-year anniversary. So far, the review process is not quite finished and building improvements have just begun.
“A lot of work has happened, but the initial expectations seemed to be unrealistic in terms of completing this massive amount of work,” Reddy said. “A lot more work still needs to happen. A lot of commitments that were made by brands, retailers and national stakeholders still have to be met.”
Several brands and retailers are playing an active role in addressing worker safety issues in Bangladesh, according to Reddy, in terms of both paying for factories to be upgraded and working with government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to draft guidelines and strategies for improving the lot of garment workers.
However, those commitments are set to end in 2018. “So we need to focus on how to continue this work, train monitoring staff, and ensure that capacity is built into the local authorities,” Reddy said.
One problem that has yet to be addressed, according to Reddy, is the capacity issue in Dhaka’s Capital Development Authority. The Authority approves building permits and is supposed to monitor construction to ensure that buildings are built according to the approved design. “Currently they do not really monitor,” Reddy said. “They grant permits and then don’t monitor, because they just don’t have enough monitoring staff. That was one of the problems with Rana Plaza – they were approved for six floors and built eight. That’s still a weak link and we’re asking the government to step up.”
Safety, but not security
Although the ILO and other NGOs are pleased with the progress that has been made on worker safety, worker rights issues have lagged behind. At the end of 2012, there were 122 unions in Bangladesh’s garment industry and they represented less than 3% of workers. The Rana Plaza collapse spurred an increase in both the number of unions and the number of workers joining them, resulting in a more than 20% increase in factory-level unions in the country’s garment district.
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Today there are 437 unions, representing nearly 5% of workers in the industry. Part of the remediation plans that came out of talks immediately following the Rana Plaza collapse was the need to establish worker safety committees at the city’s factories, so that employees would have a place to voice concerns about workplace safety. So far, those committees have not been formed because the government has been slow to draft policies for their creation.
“We believe this trend [of increased union membership and more workers calling for safety committees] is mainly due to the aspirations of the workers and the fact that they’ve seen what happened in Rana Plaza,” Reddy said. “Each worker might have had serious doubts about going into the building – and in fact some of the workers I spoke with said they did have doubts about its safety – but they had no power as individuals and no ability to say anything about it, and so they kept going. And then it did go wrong.”
Reddy added that the Bangladeshi government has also made the process of starting and registering a union easier and more transparent, which has helped spur their adoption, although he said there remains a lack of trust between companies and unions.
Attention or pressure
“The Rana Plaza collapse was certainly not the first such occurrence but it struck a chord; it really seemed to resonate with people,” said Stephanie Hepburn, author of the book Hidden in Plain Sight, about human trafficking in the fashion industry. Added Hepburn, founder of the ethical fashion site Good Cloth: “It caused policy shifts but it also caused a really noticeable shift in consumer awareness.”
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That attention has been good and bad for Bangladesh’s garment industry, according to Reddy. On the one hand, it has spurred international brands to take a keen interest in the country, supplying funding, time and ideas to improving the garment industry there. On the other, it has created pressure for the industry to improve rapidly.
“All these issues evolved over the course of the past 30 years, but people wanted to see them fixed in months,” Reddy said. “Some people felt like, ‘Why is everyone focused on Bangladesh when there are a lot of other exporting countries that don’t meet these international standards?’”
The Rana Plaza reforms have not touched 40% of the country’s factories, and these tend to be the facilities that are exporting to various countries through small brands and retailers.
The hope now is that the world will continue to pay attention to these issues, and that smaller companies and brands, not just the big players with reputations to protect, will support reform as well.
The substandard construction methods that are suspected of triggering the deadly collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh on Wednesday are a common problem in developing countries, where construction materials can be expensive and building inspections infrequent, experts say.
The catastrophic collapse happened around 9 a.m. local time in an industrial suburb of the Bangladesh capital city of Dhaka (map). Ranza Plaza housed four garment factories, as well as some shops and a bank. (See Bangladesh pictures.)
More than 150 people are confirmed dead, and more than a thousand injured. Many are still trapped in the rubble, buried beneath broken concrete slabs and twisted steel rods.
Scenes from the disaster show rescue workers and volunteers digging through the rubble by hand and clinging to makeshift ropes made from knotted, colorful strips of fabric as they search for survivors.
Officials have blamed the collapse on shoddy construction methods. The upper four floors of the plaza, for example, were reportedly constructed illegally without permits, and a crack was seen on the building exterior a day before the collapse.
"The building was not built in compliance with the [safety] rules and regulations," Bangladesh Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir told CNN.
"Stern legal actions will be taken against the people who built the structure defying the codes or laws."
The exact cause of the collapse has not yet been determined, but Henri Gavin, a civil and environmental engineer at Duke University, speculated that the building's foundation was substandard.
"It could be that one edge of the building was on much softer soil than the other, so that part of the building settled down a little bit more," Gavin explained. "That could easily lead to an instability that would precipitate a collapse."
Another possibility is that weight on the top factory floors—where the crack was spotted—was unevenly distributed. (Also see pictures: "Sinkhole Swallows Buildings in China.")
"If this building had very large open spaces the way a lot of factories do, and if the floors had long spans without lots of [reinforcing] columns ... then the building could start to lift one way or the other" if heavy equipment was not spaced evenly throughout the floors, Gavin said.
When designing a building, engineers are supposed to consider different combinations of how loads are placed in the structure. "The intention is to require the engineer to consider as many cases as possible," Gavin said.
Such modeling is easy to do—if one has the right computer and software. In developing countries such as Bangladesh, however, calculating different load distributions can be a time-consuming process, and as a result might be skipped.
Poor building design is only one part of the problem, however. The best building design in the world is for naught if a construction firm doesn't follow the plans precisely.
That may have been the case with Ranza Plaza, which appears to have been built largely out of concrete. (Learn about megastructures on the National Geographic Channel.)
Concrete buildings require large amounts of reinforcing steel, called rebar, to prevent excessive cracking. Depending on the country, steel can be costly.
"In developing countries, steel is relatively expensive in comparison to the labor and concrete," said Dan Jansen, a civil engineer at California Polytechnic State University.
"In the U.S., steel is not that huge a factor. It's easy to add more steel to make [the building] more ductile and stronger, and so we do it here."
But in developing countries, less steel is often used than is recommended because of the cost.
"Reducing or changing the reinforcing steel without the building official's approval is never acceptable whether you're in a developing country or the U.S.," Jansen said.
From looking at photos of the collapse, Jansen said he suspects not enough rebar was used in the building's construction.
"The way it collapsed, and the fact that so much of it came down, suggests there was a lack of redundancy," he said. "The amount of reinforcing steel used didn't allow it to transfer the load from one section to another, and that's why so much of it came down."
In addition to possibly being under-reinforced, the concrete mix may not have had enough cement, said Gavin of Duke University.
"Many of the casualties from the 1999 Kocaeli earthquake in Turkey were in medium-rise concrete apartment buildings," he added.
"Investigations following this earthquake revealed that the concrete had more sand and less cement than required by typical design standards."
Whether it was the rebar or the cement that was insufficient, a crack was indeed spotted on Rana Plaza's seventh floor by workers on Tuesday, a day before it collapsed. Upon hearing the news, managers at the factories supposedly told workers not to report to work on Wednesday, but later reversed the order, according to CNN.
But a crack in a concrete building by itself is not necessarily a cause for alarm, said Ben Fischetti, a senior engineer at the California-based engineering firm Penfield & Smith.
"There's a saying: There are two kinds of concrete, there's cracked concrete and concrete that hasn't cracked yet," Fischetti said. "Concrete cracks ... but generally cracks are not a cause for concern unless you can see it moving over time or it seems to be excessive."
In the U.S., building codes set a minimum standard for the use of rebar in the construction of concrete buildings as a means of creating structural redundancy and controlling failure mechanisms.
"The number one thing that structural engineers in the U.S. are trying to avoid is sudden, catastrophic failure. We design structures to fail, but they must fail in a controlled manner," Fischetti said.
"Concrete structures that include an adequate amount of rebar are more likely to yield in a ductile behavior, rather than folding like a deck of cards."
If Ranza Plaza lacked redundancy because it was built with insufficient rebar, then the building would have been a disaster waiting to happen. "When concrete without reinforcing steel cracks, you better run," Fischetti said.
If the crack was big enough, it could have been enough to precipitate the overall collapse of the building, experts say.
"It could be that the top floor fell on the floor beneath," Gavin said, "and that impact was too strong for the lower story to withstand, and the entire structure collapsed."
From photos of the scene, it also appears as if sections of the plaza were still under construction when the disaster happened. Some floors lacked walls, for example, and exposed columns with protruding rebar are visible on the upper levels.
"It looks like the building was partially built and used," Jansen said. "Occupying a building under construction is just a recipe for disaster."