Rana Plaza Collapse at 10 Years: Brands, Bangladesh Government Must Do More

Rana Plaza Collapse at 10 Years: Brands, Bangladesh Government Must Do More

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Rana Plaza Collapse at 10 Years: Brands, Bangladesh Government Must Do More


Ten years after the multi-story Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,138 workers and injuring thousands more, garment workers and their unions say that although safety has improved in some instances, much more needs to be done. And fundamental to achieving safe working conditions is ensuring workers have the freedom to form unions.

“When a trade union exists in a factory, the union committee, on behalf of the workers, can negotiate with management about the problems the workers face,” says Babul Akter, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF).

protest, "I don't want to die for fashion"

Credit: Solidarity Center

In the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, which came months after a factory fire at Tazreen Fashions that killed more than 100 garment workers, unions and fashion brands created the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The Accord, which covers factories producing ready-made garments, has been successful in large part because it is a legally binding agreement. Accord inspectors have conducted more than 40,000 inspections and required 513 factories to comply with remediation.

Yet with more than 4,000 garment factories and more than 4 million workers, 58 percent of them women, safety hazards remain. A series of developments have weakened implementation of the Accord, including the ejection of the Accord Foundation from its office in Bangladesh and its replacement with an employer- and brand-dominated process in which worker voice is limited. And workers seeking to form unions to improve safety and health increasingly are facing employer and government harassment and even violence. Democratic unions encounter stiff resistance from authorities when they apply for the registration required to operate legally.

“The greatest challenges exercising freedom of association is the adverse mindset of employers,” says Rashadul Alam Raju, general secretary of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF). “Whenever workers organize, the employers try different means, including harassing and using violence against the workers, filing false legal cases against them and terminating them to prevent them from organizing. The reluctance of government bodies to address the problems is the second challenge.”

Roadblocks to Forming Unions

In 2022, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) ranked Bangladesh among the 10 worst countries in the world for working people. In the garment sector, the country’s largest industry, industrial police have obstructed and brutally attacked striking workers seeking to form unions. In 2021, police fired live rounds and used batons and tear gas to disperse workers, killing six workers and severely injuring others.

Without unions, millions of garment workers who produce clothing imported by the United States and Europe are afraid to say “No” when asked to work in unsafe jobs—the same conditions that existed at Rana Plaza. Unable to collectively negotiate higher wages, garment workers often live in poverty conditions, even as the clothing they make accounts for nearly 82 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, making the ready-made garment industry vital to the national economy.


Bangladesh, Rana Plaza, garment workers, Solidarity Center

Thousands of garment workers, like Mosammat Mukti Khatun (above, looking at the Rana Plaza rubble) who survived the Rana Plaza disaster, remain too injured or ill to work and support their families. Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim

The day before Rana Plaza collapsed on April 24, 2013, structural engineers found cracks so severe in the building they advised that no one enter it. Yet factory managers threatened workers with the loss of a month’s pay if they did not return to work. Ultimately, building owner Mohammed Sohel Rana was arrested after trying to flee the country.

But for many of the workers who survived, the injuries they sustained were so debilitating they were unable to work again and support their families. Moriom Begum, a sewing operator at New Wave Style, one of five factories in Rana Plaza, was among many survivors whose stories the Solidarity Center chronicled over the years. Moriom remained pinned beneath furniture for two days before she was rescued. She lost her right hand, suffered constant pain and could not return to work. Yet survivors and the families of the deceased in most cases waited for years after the collapse to receive compensation.

“If there was a trade union, this incident would never have happened,” says Srity Akter, general secretary of the Garment Workers Solidarity Federation (GWSF), who spent days at the Rana Plaza site digging through rubble to rescue trapped workers. Garment workers like Srity long ago vowed #RanaPlazaNeverAgain, a phrase activists for safe factory conditions have adopted across social media and the name of site memorializing Rana Plaza workers.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the preventable Rana Plaza tragedy this month, hundreds of garment workers, trade union leaders and their allies in Bangladesh marched through the streets, and held a workers’ conference to demand an end to harassment in workplaces when workers seek to form a union, and called for reforming laws that allow systematic oppression of workers.

Brands, Bangladesh Government Must Do More

Bangladesh, Rana Plaza 2022 graphic, Solidarity CenterWhen Halima joined with her co-workers at Hop Lun Apparels Ltd., they experienced many obstacles before they successfully formed a union. Now general secretary of the Hop Lun Apparels Ltd. workers’ union and a member of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), Halima says workers have one of the most successful unions in the garment sector and have signed several collective bargaining agreements that have raised wages and improved safety. The contrast between working conditions at Hop Lun and Rana Plaza is stark.

Solidarity Center, working alongside partner organizations in many key garment exporting countries, are calling on governments and brands to take steps to establish an environment where all workers in the garment sector have safe, decent working conditions and earn a living wage. To attain that:

  • All fashion brands should sign the International Accord and take responsibility for the safety of workers in their supply chain.
  • The government of Bangladesh should remove barriers to trade union registration, amend the labor law to come into compliance with international standards.
  • The Bangladesh Department of Labor should uphold its responsibility to protect workers’ rights by rigorously investigating cases of unfair labor practices. It should act swiftly to prosecute employers who violate the rights of workers to freely organize, join and participate in labor organizations of their choosing and to collectively bargain. 

Says Anju, president of Jesus Fashion Shramik Union: “No organization ensures dignity like a trade union does.”

African Union Leaders Join Forces in Historic Democracy Summit

African Union Leaders Join Forces in Historic Democracy Summit

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
African Union Leaders Join Forces in Historic Democracy Summit


Dozens of union leaders from across Africa took part in the first-ever Summit for Democracy event on the continent March 30, where they discussed the essential role of unions in strengthening democracy and shared strategies on how unions can step up efforts to advance democracy through one of its most essential components—worker rights. Co-hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER) and the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the day-long conference included interactive sessions focused on strengthening democracy and opening rapidly closing civic space in Africa.

“Amplifying the Voices of Workers to Safeguard Democracy in Africa” was an official side event of the second Summit for Democracy, a global democracy initiative co-hosted by Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United States and Zambia March 28–30, 2023. The second Summit showcased progress made by Summit partners on their commitments in the first year of the global initiative—M-POWER is one of the largest commitments made by Summit partners.

Said Joy Beene, secretary general of the Zambia Confederation of Trade Unions: “There’s no democracy without workers.”

See conference highlights in this photo essay.

Podcast: Workers Speak Out: Unions Are Essential for Democracy

Podcast: Workers Speak Out: Unions Are Essential for Democracy

Workers from around the world, including those exiled from Belarus, Eswatini and Myanmar for forming unions, striking and trying to speak freely, describe why democracy is important—and why unions are key to democracy—in a special episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast.

This week, high-level policy makers, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, are gathering for Summit on Democracy events in Washington, D.C., and in Zambia, where the spotlight will be on how to amplify worker voices to safeguard democracy in Africa and globally. (Register for an official Summit side event in Zambia focused on worker rights.)

“Workers know the importance of unions to democracy—and what democracy means in their lives,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director and Podcast host Shawna Bader-Blau. “The union movement is the strongest voice for democracy.”

One of the workers the episode highlights is Lizaveta Merliak, a union leader exiled from Belarus, who speaks out from Germany, where she and other union leaders were forced into exile.

“I’m one of a few trade unionists who escaped from Belarus after the liquidation and repression of democratic trade unions—unlike my comrades, leaders, and activists of democratic trade unions who are jailed and tortured in prisons.

“We must support the aspirations for democracy in every way we can and, at the same time, preserve and develop the idea of grassroots democracy at workplace. We will revive the independent trade union movement in Belarus, with the aim of creating a democratic society based on the principles of social justice and decent work.”

Listen to the full episode here.

Follow the Summit for Democracy events on Twitter @SolidarityCntr and on Facebook at Solidarity Center.



Brazil: Communities & Unions Win Victory for Livelihoods, Democracy

Brazil: Communities & Unions Win Victory for Livelihoods, Democracy

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Brazil: Communities & Unions Win Victory for Livelihoods, Democracy


Brazilian communities along a river near the Amazon are celebrating the government’s decision to halt a blasting and dredging project that could destroy their livelihoods and severely damage the environment. Earlier this month, the Public Prosecutor’s Office recommended that the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) suspend its preliminary license for the Araguaia-Tocantins waterway project in the state of Pará.

In suspending the license, the government cited the absence of prior consultation with residents who would be impacted, especially Indigenous communities and quilombolas, and the lack of information on the effects of the project on the communities.

The victory “has impacts not just for the local community, but also for the state and even further,” says Carmen Foro, speaking through an interpreter. Foro, a rural activist from the area, is former secretary-general of the Unity Worker Center in Brazil (CUT). “I feel that I and other community members are being heard, that we have opened a dialogue that this project can’t happen without our participation.” (Foro described her community’s fight for survival in a Solidarity Center Podcast episode last year.)

The project would have involved heavy dredging of the Tocantins River and require removing miles of the rocky Pedral do Lourenço river bed to increase navigability during the dry season and facilitate commodity export. IBAMA approved the preliminary license to begin the project in October 2022, ignoring several government agency recommendations.

Key to Success: Mobilizing a Diverse Coalition

Brazil, Caravan in Defense of the Tocantins River meeting along the Amazon River

Members of the Caravan in Defense of the River Tocantins meet with residents of Nova Ipixuna to discuss a proposed waterway project that threatened livelihoods and the environment. Credit: Amazon Community

“This time in world history, it is really important to connect to the diversity around us,” Foro said. The campaign was victorious because “we created a grand alliance between the unions and with other movements, like quilombos, the Catholic Church, young people, women, fishers. And that alliance is what gave us strength.

“It was a collective struggle.”

These diverse groups, with support from the Solidarity Center, formed the Caravan in Defense of the Tocantins River to raise awareness about the negative impacts of the waterway construction and demand that the government honor international treaties respecting Indigenous and Tribal People’s right to safeguard and manage the natural resources on their lands. They reached thousands of people, through riverside meetings and in online forums.

With its strength in workers’ collective voice, the Brazilian labor movement was well-positioned to respond to the needs of workers and their communities, including the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on jobs and communities. “The unions in those cities are kind of seen as the principal organization in the social movements,” she said. “Along with the CUT, was able to be an umbrella organization and give us support.”

The Struggle for Democracy Cannot Rest

Foro, who recently was selected by the new administration of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva to serve in the Ministry of Women, says “many women will be impacted by this project, and through my role now at the Ministry of Women, I plan to be alongside the women who are going to be impacted by this project.”

The license suspension is a huge victory, but the process is not over. “Everyone knows that this recommendation doesn’t resolve the issue,” she says. “The problem is still there and it will be a long journey. There still will be something in the middle between this recommendation.”

While she is hopeful about working with the new administration, whose election with the support of union and community groups opened dialogue with historically marginalized communities along the Amazon, Foro is keenly aware they must work to ensure the democratic process thrives.

“It’s important that we continue the fight, continue the struggle. Even with a democratically elected government that is representative now, there is still pressure that is coming from all different sides. The workers are part of that, but also there is the pressure from large companies, and agro-business as well. We have to continue to fight.”

Exiled Union Leader: Workers ‘Demanding Democracy’ in Eswatini

Exiled Union Leader: Workers ‘Demanding Democracy’ in Eswatini

In Eswatini, a landlocked country in southern Africa, union workers are routinely harassed, attacked and even killed for going on strike or holding rallies. In 2021, dozens of workers were killed by security forces in what Amnesty International called “a full-frontal assault on human rights” by the government in response to ongoing pro-democracy protests. In January, prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was shot dead, hours after a speech by the king warning those calling for democratic reforms that mercenaries would deal with them.

Graphi of exiled SWATCAWU leader Sticks Nkambule who is receiving support from SCAWU and other unions in Eswatini.

Exiled SWATCAWU leader Sticks Nkambule is receiving support from SCAWU and other unions in Eswatini. Credit: SCAWU

Most recently, Sticks Nkambule, general secretary of the Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU), was targeted by the government for leading a strike to improve working conditions. Forced to flee Eswatini, formerly called Swaziland, Nkambule described the interconnected struggle for worker rights, human rights and democracy on the latest Solidarity Center Podcast.

“We are just demanding the basics of what could be defined as democracy. A government that is formed by the people and serving their interests,” Nkambule told Podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.

“By bringing together the collective voice of all workers, unions fight for decent working conditions but also for the freedoms fundamental to all democratic societies,” Bader-Blau told Nkambule.

Despite the brutality and repression, Nkambule finds hope in the support from labor and human rights organizations around the world—and in workers themselves.

“What is quite inspiring is that the people of Swaziland are determined to be part of the conversation that is going to change their discourse. It is a reality, activists and, not just labor, beyond labor.”

Listen to this episode and all Solidarity Center episodes here or at SpotifyAmazonStitcher, or wherever you subscribe to your favorite podcasts.

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