When workers die, no company can walk away
Two years after the Rana Plaza disaster, customers demand that companies take responsibility for their workers.
Two years ago, the eight-story Rana Plaza fashion building crashed to the ground in just 90 seconds, 1,134 people died, some sawed through their limbs to escape; it was a record-breaking disaster. But out of its painful legacy, a new model has emerged that brings responsibility for worker health and safety to the doorstep of global brands.
Often, desperately poor people work in dangerous sprawling factories to produce cheap products for a suite of famous corporations. But when disaster strikes, those same familiar names distance themselves from the source, leaving the people that power their businesses behind.
The Rana Plaza Donor Trust fund, set up by the UN’s International Labor Organization, changes that. It independently assesses the money owed to victims and their families to cover lost income and critical medical support.
Some companies that made their clothes in Rana Plaza stepped in to pay their share straight away. For others, it’s been a two year battle.
Last week, Benetton’s CEO Marco Airoldi announced his company will contribute $1.1m to the Rana Plaza victims in Bangladesh.
For two years Benetton had refused to pay any compensation at all. After two months of pressure by more than one million Avaaz.org members, the company was convinced it had to step forward.
Benetton’s contribution is not nearly enough to ease the death and suffering of people who made clothes for the fashion giant. But the huge public outcry and Benetton’s announcement sends a crystal clear message: When workers die, no company can walk away.
Every major global brand with direct links to the factory has now contributed to the Rana Plaza fund and citizens have the stragglers in their sites. A generation ago, this would have been unthinkable.
In 1984, when a huge pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, exploded, the American company Union Carbide walked away from the disaster, leaving chemicals on the ground that continue to poison families to this day.
Now customers expect, and demand loudly, that companies take responsibility for all of the workers who touch their products, from those in the front offices and retails stores to the people on the factory floor.
And there are large national companies still refusing to pay their fair share. The US’ JCPenney; France’s Carrefour; Germany’s NKD and Adler Modemarkte; and the UK’s Lee Cooper have not paid a cent.
As we remember those who died two years ago, there’s one powerful way to honour them: Our pressure can make sure all the companies involved with the Rana Plaza disaster pay into the groundbreaking fund for victims.
Together we can send a clear signal that customers don’t just want high quality products – we demand high quality companies.
Dalia Hashad is a campaign director of the advocacy group Avaaz.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.