Seven years after a factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed over a thousand garment makers, both union organizing and legal reforms are changing the fashion industry and worker safety worldwide.
But substantial challenges remain, including the repression of union organizing in Bangladesh, and a legal battle that may pull the teeth of a French worker-safety law.
Positive changes — and slow progress
The 2013 Rana Plaza fire and building collapse in Bangladesh was the modern fashion world’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire — the 1911 tragedy in New York City that took the lives of 146 people, and revealed the garment industry’s horrendous working conditions.
That historic disaster went on to inspire the labor movement and empowered union organizing in the United States and around the world.
The Dhaka fire has similarly revealed the unsafe buildings, low wages and inhumane working conditions faced by employees of companies that supply multinational fashion corporations.
And in Bangladesh, as in the United States a century before, the sweeping reforms that were implemented in the wake of the fire and its staggering death toll are inspiring similar changes worldwide.
One such reform is renewed union organizing in low-wage garment factories in developing nations.
Some 1.4 million workers in Indonesia’s infamous sweatshops have made substantial gains in their right to organize.
In Honduras, laborers for Fruit of the Loom have also successfully unionized and won better working conditions.
But the battle against poverty wages has not been successful in Bangladesh, which has some of the lowest wages in the world.
Despite the outrage and reforms that followed the Rana Plaza fire, recent wildcat strikes in the Bangladeshi garment industry have been violently suppressed.
But Bangladesh has seen one major success in reforming its dangerous clothing factories.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza fire, several hundred global fashion companies signed on to Bangladesh’s Accord on Fire and Safety.
The agreement makes these companies liable for worker safety in their suppliers’ facilities.
The immediate result in Bangladesh is that the country’s “death trap” factories got extreme safety makeovers in short order.
Activist Kalpona Akter, who started as a child garment worker, told The Nation that this is “a phenomenal change, and it should get recognition, and it should be continued.”
Yet beyond Bangladesh’s major reforms, only France has stepped up with its own duty-of-care law to ensure worker safety beyond its borders.
The landmark legislation establishes criminal liability for corporations in the event that their suppliers — which are usually independent companies — violate national or international human rights and environmental laws.
In the European Union, Germany and Switzerland are the only nations making an effort to follow in France’s footsteps.
The United Nations is also on board — but a global commitment to worker safety is a long way away.
In fact, the United States, China, Russia and Brazil are actively opposed to any effort to make corporations liable for the actions of their suppliers.
Testing the law
The real test for France’s “duty of care” law is playing out beyond the fashion industry, in the form of a lawsuit against the French oil giant Total, which is backing a huge pipeline and drilling project in Uganda.
The lawsuit, brought in 2019 by Friends of the Earth France and several other activist groups in Uganda, is on behalf of the thousands of Ugandan farmers who, the suit claims, have been removed from their lands without compensation to make way for an almost 900-mile-long oil pipeline, along with 419 oil wells.
A national park is also in the oil project’s path, and the biodiversity stakes are high.
Total has denied that the farmers had not received recompense, and claims that all the potential damages were known when the project was initially approved.
In January 2020, a French high court declared itself incompetent to rule on the case, and passed the buck to the French Commercial Court.
The Commercial Court is dominated by justices from within the corporate world, so the case is a crucial test that will determine whether France’s duty-of-care law has any teeth — or even a future.