Rana Plaza disaster: how human rights education could have prevented it

Underneath the rubble of the Rana Plaza disaster

You wake up suddenly. Everything is pitch black. You can’t get up. You can’t even move your arms. Your legs are pinned down by a two tonne slab of concrete. Every part of your body seem to hurt. You gasp and struggle to breathe, when you realize the air is filled with dust and debris. You can’t even remember how you got here, or why you can’t move, to escape.


Rana Plaza


You are a victim of the Rana Plaza building collapse in April of 2013: one of the worst industrial disasters in history, which claimed the lives of 1,100 people and wounded 2,500 more.

It could all have been prevented. If only the workers – mostly women – were allowed to say “no.”

“None of the factories operating in Rana Plaza had trade unions,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “If their workers had more of a voice, they might have been able to resist managers who ordered them to work in the doomed building a day after large cracks appeared in it.”

Despite the Sustainability Compact that the Bangladeshi government signed with the European Union in July of 2013, which pledged to reform labour laws and allow the existence of trade and labour unions, only about 10 percent of Bangladesh’s more than 4,500 garment factories have registered unions now, three years after Rana Plaza. Labour laws and procedures continue to be barriers to founding and operating a union in Bangladesh. The government still requires 30 percent of workers in a factory to agree to form a union and mandates excessive registration procedures. Furthermore, the government maintains vaguely defined powers to cancel a union’s registration. According to Human Rights Watch, factories also threaten and attack unions and their members with impunity. Physical assault, intimidation, illegal dismissal of union leaders and false criminal complaints by factory officials are all tactics used by factory management against workers and unions.

Rana Plaza workers protest

Rana Plaza workers protest. Photo: Nicola Bailey/ActionAid

But slowly, this situation is changing. More and more women are mobilizing into unions and labour movements and are braving threats, violence, social oppression and powerful capitalist forces in order to defend their rights. Organizations such as ActionAid are now supporting nearly 200,000 female workers in garment factories around Bangladesh, helping them get together and claim their rights by setting up Rights Cafés next to factories. Rights Cafés provide safe places for women workers to go and to learn about their legal rights under the country’s labour laws. Trainers at the cafés help women learn how to negotiate with their male supervisors and managers and how to calculate their working hours and overtime wages, annual leave and maternity leave so that they won’t be cheated out of their entitlements.

And there is evidence that this activism-driven education is having definitive impact on the treatment of garment workers in Bangladesh: in a testimonial provided by ActionAid, a young 28 year-old woman called Shilpy said two years after she has started attending the ActionAid Rights Café, the managers no longer delay paying the workers their salary and no longer skimp on overtime pay either. 

“There is also no abuse on the garment floor anymore. The line manager used to shout at us all the time and we would get beaten. There were also cases of sexual harassment. But now this can’t happen because we know it is wrong.”

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