First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: ILO/OIT Naymuzzaman Prince

The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 36
Occupational Safety and Health

After Rana Plaza: How has safety improved for garment workers?

24 April 2023

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in the outskirts of Dhaka on 24 April 2013 resulted in the deaths of over 1,100 people – mostly garment workers – and shone a global spotlight on workplace safety and labour rights in the Bangladesh garment industry.   

On the tenth anniversary of the disaster, ILO’s Country Director for Bangladesh Tuomo Poutiainen, shares his views on how safety in the sector has improved, the challenges that remain and what other garment-producing countries can learn from the Bangladesh experience.



Hello, and welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Steve Needham at the ILO regional office for Asia

and the Pacific in Bangkok.

On the morning of 24th of April 2013,

the nine-story Rana Plaza building in the outskirts

of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed.

Over 1,130 people, mostly garment workers,

lost their lives.

Many more were injured or faced a very uncertain future.

However, Rana Plaza was no local disaster.

It raised fundamental questions worldwide on workplace safety,

labour rights, and supply chain governance,

and through the clothes in our wardrobes,

it was a disaster we were all directly linked to.

In 2013,

the future for the Bangladesh garment industry and its 4 million workers

looked very bleak indeed.

10 years on, what's changed?

To talk about this,

I'm joined today from Dhaka by Tuomo Poutiainen,

the Director of ILO's country office in Bangladesh.

Tuomo, welcome to the Future of Work podcast.

You've been in Bangladesh for a large part of the last decade.

Is the garment sector today a safer place than it was 10 years ago?

Thank you, Steve, and first of all, thank you for having me.

Of course, the Rana Plaza 10 years ago was a tremendous shock

to the industry,

and I think it's fair to say that quite a lot of positive changes

have happened since,

particularly in relation to industrial safety and occupational safety.

What are the main differences now compared to 10 years ago?

First of all,

Rana Plaza resulted into a lot of reflection

in relation to should there be industrial production

amidst urban spaces and inside the city for Dhaka.

What in the first and foremost happened is that there’s reorganization

of the industry, and now you will find more and more and almost exclusively,

the garment and textile industry being operated in industrial zones

and industrial districts, and not anymore inside the city.

That’s one thing.

The second thing is that it really resulted

into quite a big effort

to look into industrial safety and occupational safety

in terms of particularly fire safety, structural issues of the buildings,

and also electrical safety.

That work has tremendously improved the general condition

of the facilities and factories where the production is done.

Thirdly, at the same time, issues around workers’ rights and workers’ voice,

why was it that the workers did not have

the ability to leave the facility when it was trembling?

Why was it that there is such a low trade union density

and such reluctance to have trade unions?

That issue of trade unions

and the issue of workers’ voice came also to sharp focus.

There has been good progress over the past decade on improving workplace safety,

and your progress on labour rights still appears to lag behind.

What are the challenges there?

What still needs to be done?

I think, first of all, the laws

are still lacking in terms of providing

the type of labour rights that the ILO prescribes

for the international conventions.

There is an amendment process going on where the government is looking into--

together with employers and workers, is looking into

how to amend the labour laws so that there can be

more modernized and more inclusive

and better quality laws that will allow for trade unions

to operate in the way that they should be allowed to operate.

That’s one thing.

The legal framework is being changed to accommodate

some of the current challenges.

The second issue is the issue of registering

trade unions and assisting the trade unions in terms

of their own organization and their own processes

so that they can also move

into become more modern and accommodate

not only the garment sector but also other emerging sectors

so that the worker's voice needs to be

organized and represented can increasingly be there

so that emerging sectors, for example, in Bangladesh such as IT

service sectors like manufacturing sectors and so forth,

that these workers also can have vehicles to express their interest and voice.

Thirdly, it’s about the issues around

having a seat in the table when things are negotiated.

It’s about the employers and the government

accepting that the trade unions need to be

a negotiating partner, and it’s to help the trade unions

to prepare for such negotiations and to become a meaningful

party to this what we call tripartite discussions and negotiations

and bargainings around improvement of

working conditions and general decent work in Bangladesh.

At the time of Rana Plaza,

it was clear the capacity of the Labour Inspectorate and other regulatory bodies

simply failed to keep pace with the massive growth of the garment industry.

How does that stand today?

Indeed, there was a limited capacity at the time,

and the government very quickly recognized that and stepped in together

with international organizations like ILO

to really improve and modernize

and start to build a completely different kind of labour inspection system.

Not only a labour inspection system but also other enforcement agencies

such as fire safety and civil defense who is, of course, responsible for

safety issues as well.

Boiler safety agencies

and other agencies who are responsible for keeping the workplaces safe,

they all have been under positive reform processes

in terms of human resources, in terms of tools,

in terms of enforcement mandate,

and in terms of their overall effectiveness.

This enforcement and proper industrial safety governance

has been a big focus

It’s the general role of the government of this improvement process.

It’s the general role of the government.

Government has to step in.

Government needs to continue to improve and maintain its processes

to keep workers safe, but also to influence

and improve on the working conditions.

At the end of the day, it is the government’s responsibility

to enforce laws and standards, minimum standards,

but it also has to be translated into these other industrial sectors

that are growing, the local industries so that, generally,

the country continues to maintain,

further develop,

and provide the kind of both enforcement and also private sector incentives

to retain industrial safety and occupational safety in Bangladesh.

Tuomo, turning to the role of brands and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh,

how has their approach changed over the past decade?

There has, of course, been a lot of attention

by the international brands and buyers, particularly in the garment industry.

That has been, typically, around

compliance of individual brand to an individual supplier

or a group of suppliers.

That’s something that actually changed quite a lot after Rana Plaza.

Now there was a collective need of the buying organization

and brands to come together

and to ensure that there is a more democratized and more broader

improvement process going on in Bangladesh.

That’s really what happened,

and in many ways, the private sector came together

through organizations such as Alliance and Accord at the time,

and now there is also some new news organizations such as Nirapon,

and such as RMG Sustainability Council

to act as a conduit and as a help organization

to continue to pursue safety in Bangladesh and maintain safety in Bangladesh.

Quite a lot has changed.

Basically, transforming individual compliance

initiatives more to collective

industrial safety initiatives, and I think that’s very positive

and good.

Just last year, a pilot employment injury insurance scheme

for the garment industry was launched in Bangladesh.

Why is this important?

This is tremendously important,

first of all, and it’s something which is extremely tangible

in terms of modernizing and improving accident protection.

If there’s one thing that really resonates

in terms of Rana Plaza,

it’s the fact that when such accidents happen,

there was not really a solid compensation scheme

to make sure that those who were hurt or their families would be properly

provided with care and properly compensated

for a longer term.

This employment injury scheme

is really to, overall, over vamp and to improve

on the whole of the employment

injury protection in Bangladesh.

First covering the government sector

and then potentially moving to other sectors.

What is remarkable about it is that it is based on a loss of earnings principle.

When you’re hurt, you don’t get just a compensation

for one time and then nothing,

but you get a compensation for a longer term

depending on your employment prospects, and also,

depending on the nature of the accident

and the disability.

That really changes everything for those who are affected by accidents.

The other thing that is remarkable about it,

is that it’s nationally owned, nationally governed,

and in an equal measure,

the government, the employers, and the workers are part

of governing the system, and so that’s also extremely important

and positive.

Tuomo, what can other garment-producing countries

learn from the Bangladesh experience?

I think what they could possibly learn

is that the improvement processes, first of all, they do take time.

That’s one thing.

One has to be very clear in terms of what kind of reforms

one is working on and organizing, and that those reforms

they need to be predicated on three very important things.

One of them is building better governance and enforcement capability and laws.

The second is that the private sector and the employers have

a tremendously important role to play because they are really closest

to the workers and to the work.

In order for the industries to remain competitive

but also to provide the decent working conditions that workers and employers

both deserve, they need to step up, and they need to establish

the right management systems for human resource management,

safety management, quality management, environmental management, and so forth

and for that exercise, not to cut corners

but to actually increasingly work towards better standards,

better competitiveness,

and better sustainable business practices.

The third area is the workers themselves and the workers’ voice.

The enabling environment should be there for workers,

unionized or not unionized, to be able to raise issues,

to discuss, and to play their part in terms

of keeping workplaces safe

and keeping Bangladesh productivity at work.

Trade unions play a very important role in this

but there’s also the general environment of workers being able

to discuss, to raise, and to partner in

realization of decent work.

Those three things are extremely important going forward.

10 years on, what do you see as the legacy of Rana Plaza,

and what will the next 10 years bring?

I believe that 10 years from now not only the garment industry,

but many of the other export industries in Bangladesh have truly internalized

some of these change processes and are also effectively applying them.

There is increasing

global pressure through due diligence, legislation,

and responsible business practices

to ensure that if you want to sell things, particularly to certain trading partners,

you need to continue to improve and apply

good labour standards

and also good sustainable environmental practices.

I think the 10 years have really prepared,

in many ways, Bangladesh and its industries to take advantage

in a way of the improvements that have been made

and prepare themselves for the next 10 years.

In 10 years’ time, I hope to see a very modern and capable

industrial sector that is socially compliant

and is predicated on sustainability

in a competitive way.

I also expect to see governance system and enforcement systems

that are increasingly effective,

increasingly results-oriented, and delivering protections

and remedies for workers and employers alike.

I expect to see a trade union movement that is extended

and invigorated and covers not only the garment industry

but also other industrial sectors and other service sectors

for the benefit of everybody.

Tuomo, thank you very much for joining us today.

It’s been great speaking with you.

If you’d like to find out more about ILO’s work in the Bangladesh garment sector

or more generally,

you can find links on the web page of this podcast,

which is on the ILO website.

That’s all for now.

Thank you for listening, and goodbye.