‘Guest blog from John Hilary, Executive Director of War On Want’

The fashion industry has failed to respect workers’ rights to safe conditions and decent pay throughout its history. From the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911 that killed 146 workers to the poverty pay of the sweatshops of old East London, the history of the fashion industry is littered with examples of exploitation of the people that make our clothes. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in April 2013 was yet another example, but it proved to be the worst disaster in the history of workers’ rights.

Over 1,100 people were killed and 2,500 people were injured in the Rana Plaza disaster. The majority of the victims were young female garment workers. Under enormous pressure, from ordinary people mobilised by organisations like War on Want and People Tree, over 190 companies have taken the unprecedented step of signing a legally-binding agreement with trade unions to make their supplier factories safe through the Bangladesh Safety Accord. This comprehensive agreement should change the fashion industry forever, moving beyond the corporate-controlled voluntary codes of conduct and supplier audits that have so clearly failed to deliver real changes to the lives of millions of garment workers.

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There have been major developments in the years since the disaster. The National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), the Union federation which War on Want has worked closes with for decades, and friend of People Tree, has registered 45 trade unions, opening up space for trade unions to organise openly in factories employing tens of thousands of NGWF members. Despite procrastination from the authorities and fierce attempts from factory owners to prevent official recognition, the pressure from the international campaign following the Rana Plaza disaster has forced them to allow trade unions, such as NGWF, to operate.

Amirul Haque Amin, President of NGWF, has been awarded the prestigious city of Nurember Human Rights Award in recognition of his and NGWF’s struggle to improve the rights of garment workers in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Safety Accord has reached a pivotal moment. From this year NGWF and other Bangladeshi garment workers unions are given the right, by the agreement, to establish Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) committees inside 1,000 factories covered by the accord. These committees will give unions a foothold inside factories enabling them to monitor the OHS situation and help avoid another disaster. Although the legislation enabling this to happen is still to be enacted, the Bangladesh Government, factory employers and big international brands were forced to sit down with the NGWF at the beginning of this year, which is a major step forward. There is no doubt that international pressure and the support of organisations such as War on Want and friends such as People Tree have begun the transformation of the Bangladesh garment sector towards better rights for workers and safer conditions.

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