The Jamhoor Collective and Guest Editor Mihika Chatterjee

On April 24th 2013, the eight-storeyed Rana Plaza building housing multiple garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed to the ground. Over 1,000 workers, the majority of them women between the ages of 18 to 25, were trapped, burned, or crushed as the building turned to rubble. Thousands more, both factory workers and rescue personnel, experienced damaging injuries and trauma that devastated their lives irreversibly.

The catastrophic event shone a light on the vast underbelly of the global fast fashion industry  exposing its horrific and routine violence: a mass labour force of informalised, overworked and under-nourished, mostly young women, was toiling for inhumane hours on seasonal and casual contracts at a pittance. Factories and workshops were dilapidated and unsafe spaces. Fire exits were often locked to prevent workers leaving. Women’s toilets and toilet breaks were nearly absent; harassment and sexual abuse were rife. Indeed, just a day before it collapsed, the Rana Plaza building was “briefly evacuated” as cracks were observed in the walls — then the workers were sent back in.

These dangerous and life threatening conditions across the garments industry in Bangladesh, and indeed much of South Asia, were no secret. In Karachi, Pakistan, the large Ali Enterprises factory burst into flames on September 11, 2012, six months before the Rana Plaza incident, killing over 250 workers trapped behind barred windows and locked exits. In Britain’s garment hub of Leicester — run predominantly on the backs of South Asian migrant labour—an investigation three years before Rana Plaza revealed dangerous working conditions and violations of wage laws. Workers, activists, and labour organisers had been consistently struggling against these 21st-century realities for a long time before the fateful day at the factories in Rana Plaza.

The spectacular collapse of Rana Plaza, however, reverberated around the world. It implicated fashion houses in Europe and the US that stand at the top of global garments value chains. The response was swift. Bangladesh launched a nation-wide inquiry on the safety of garment factories. International labour and human rights groups sprung into action to develop new regulatory frameworks and policy prescriptions. The jolt to public consciousness in the West boosted ethical consumption campaigns, like Labour Behind the Label, urging consumers to boycott fast fashion, shop locally for more sustainable clothing, and question where (and in what conditions) their clothing is made. These developments culminated in the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between trade unions and nearly 200 garment brands “to work towards a safe and healthy garment industry”. The Accord mandates a workplace inspection program and mechanisms for workers’ complaints and remedial actions to “enable a working environment in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures”. It has been hailed as a historic development for garment labourers in Bangladesh. In subsequent years, it has also been championed in other countries in the Global South. Pakistan, for example, became a signatory in 2021. 

Ten years on, in remembering the 1,134 individuals whose lives were taken at Rana Plaza, and thousands others left devastated, this Jamhoor special issue (in collaboration with guest editor Mihika Chatterjee) takes a closer look at the aftermath of the tragedy, examining its political resonances within and beyond Bangladesh. We ask how the industry has changed, particularly if the celebrated legal and policy shifts at the national and international levels have led to real improvements for workers on the ground. We also examine whether the disaster, or subsequent calls for reform, enlarged political spaces for workers’ struggles against exploitation. At a broader level, our issue dissects what the 21st century textile and garments industry looks like across South Asia (and its diasporas), and the possibilities of emancipatory struggle and solidarity it offers today.

First, this collection shows that while the Rana Plaza incident may have stirred the conscience of fast fashion consumers and global brands at the time, the responses demanding accountability have been largely contained within Bangladesh, with few ripples in the rest of South Asia. Moreover, the measures taken for reform were largely inadequate as they were limited to improvements in factories’ built physical infrastructure (fire exits, safety procedures, etc) but failed to challenge the wider conditions of worker immiseration, such as the absence of decent wages or benefits, secure jobs, or labour rights.

In conversation with Jamhoor, Taslima Akhtar, founder and president of Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity presents a poignant examination of the impact of Rana Plaza and the complex roles of workers’ movements, trade unions, NGOs and international organisations in its aftermath. As she notes, “while progress has been made in building development, business growth, and increased profits, there hasn’t been proportional improvement in workers’ wages or benefits. Improving workers’ lives requires looking in the realm of livelihoods, not just in concrete structures.” This and other articles in the collection thus highlight the limitations of grand transnational policy frameworks in substantively improving working conditions by tackling the forces of neoliberal capitalism fueled by the super-exploitation of labour in the global South.

The economic geography of South Asian garment production is highly differentiated in terms of the scale of production, the types of products and production units, and their modes of integration in global value chains. With increasing neoliberalization and fragmentation of the industry, there are vast differences in “labour regimes” (labour relations and forms of exploitation) within and across countries. While every country has big capital-intensive factories, it also now contains large regions of small- and medium-scale production units specialising in certain textiles, garments, or embroidery. The forms of labour vary from unionised workers to migrant, casually hired, or home-based workers, as well as small self- or family-owned production units that collapse the distinctions between employers and workers. This differentiation germinates a range of localised labour issues (and diverse kinds of exploitation through the global value chain), while also impeding efforts for organising workers’ struggles across regional contexts. It also highlights the fact that new regulatory frameworks that focus mainly on factory infrastructure apply only to the large production units at the upper end of the value chain while an entire web of more labour-intensive units remains under the radar.

Indeed, a central theme of this  special issue is the facile demarcation of the spaces of work (production) and life (reproduction) in evaluating ‘working’ conditions. This echoes decades of feminist critiques of labour issues. The garments sector overwhelmingly employs temporary or seasonal migrant workers who circulate between industrial clusters and their homes in nearby towns or villages. For these workers, a combination of cheap wages, and the regime of control imposed by labour contractors, manifests in squalid living conditions in the city. 

Essays in this issue, particularly those on Sri Lanka and India, explain the implications of this compounding of poor working and living conditions. As Alessandra Mezzadri explains, physically depleting and hazardous work, along with poor housing and sanitation facilities, combine to produce a labour regime that is designed to entrench and perpetuate ‘working poverty’ across the sector. This idea is crystallised in her formulation of the ‘Sweatshop Regime’. The framework clearly brings to light why an evaluation of health and safety conditions across work- and life-spaces is essential for any political or policy intervention.

This idea is echoed by Kanchana Ruwanpura’s analysis of the garments and textiles sector in Sri Lanka. Here, the sector’s vocal claims of exceptionalism in terms of ethical labour practices were harshly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The imperative of absolute surplus value extraction meant that factories were operating during lockdowns (ironically to produce Personal Protective Equipment for global demand) with a reduced number of workers labouring over long hours. However, “no level of adherence to health and safety standards” on the factory floor would be sufficient to prevent the spread of the virus among workers in their cramped and poorly ventilated living spaces, the only ones they could afford on meagre wages. Thus Ruwanpura critiques efforts by international organisations for sticking to “technocratic tool kits” that fail to address the real threats to workers’ survival—pitiable wages compounded by a historic pandemic, hyperinflation, and national debt crisis. In short, the collection emphasises that policies and regulations that fail to acknowledge the class exploitation that structures labour relations, both on and beyond the factory floor, will inevitably fall short of improving working lives and confronting the issues that lead to disasters like Rana Plaza.

Another important thread that runs across the collection is the role of the state—either its hostile (India) and occasionally violent (Pakistan) stance against labour; or its pro-capital orientation cushioning profits through macroeconomic crises (Sri Lanka); as well as its more prosaic ‘constraints’ of compliance (UK). What is unequivocally clear across contexts, however, is the deliberate constriction of unionisation, whether through outright violence or bureaucratic legalese. This is doubly alarming as right-wing grassroots organisations are being enabled by the state to fill spaces of mobilisation and helm the politics of the working classes. In India, for example, the recent Labour 20 meetings (of unions from G20 countries) were chaired by the RSS-associated right-wing union, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. This not only represents a flagrant deviation from the norm of INTUC-member unions moderating G20-linked discussions, but marks a brazen move to filter all voices, including those on labour, through the ideological lens of Hindu nationalism, a trend that requires further research and discussion. It is equally important to point out that in certain contexts, the state alone is not responsible for the scant possibilities offered by trade unions to some groups of workers — marginalisation based on gender, caste, race and ethnicity persists within unions, cramping broad-based solidarity. The comprehensive essay by the UK-based labour organisation India Labour Solidarity, traces the historical trajectory of British garments unions and their racialized and gendered relationships with South Asian migrant workers in the garments hub of Leicester.

Ultimately, this collection illustrates that instead of Rana Plaza serving as the watershed moment for greater self-accountability and reform in the South Asian garments industry, the ‘race to the bottom’ in attracting footloose capital has continued. As Kanchana Ruwanpura notes, the Sri Lankan garments sector “had often perversely benefited… from rising wages or adversities in neighbouring countries”. Thus, manufacturers outside of Bangladesh, notably India and Sri Lanka, largely stayed away from the Accord or other accountability and regulatory frameworks in the hope that more business opportunities would be redirected to them in the aftermath of Rana Plaza. Indeed, the collection lucidly demonstrates how the pervasive threat of capital flight ‘cheapens’ labour and serves as an obstacle to building worker solidarity across borders.

What then of labour struggles in the last decade? Local events and local histories are undoubtedly instrumental in mobilising and sustaining labour struggles. The #JusticeforJeyasre campaign in India, and the struggles in Pakistan led by the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM) power loom workers’ union and the Home-Based Women Workers’ Federation (HBWWF) illustrate this well. Under the LQM, informal power loom workers, kept precarious through institutionalised sub-contracting, coalesced formidably to form a radical workers’ union that now negotiates and establishes wages across the sector every year. The possibilities offered by unionisation, as LQM shows, are not those of corporate negotiation alone but the ability to wield collective power against the violence of capital, acting in collaboration with the state. Umair Rasheed writes an inspiring account of LQM’s twenty years of struggle to become a leading trade union federation in Pakistan, their leaders having even survived imprisonment on false charges of terrorism by the state.

With the growing atomisation of the labour force, the collection underscores the fact that living spaces (rather than the factory floor) offer the best opportunities to reach and organise workers. This strategy has been deployed successfully by HBWWF. While organising women in working-class neighbourhoods of Karachi, activist Zehra Khan observed their exploitation by a regime of home-based work on meagre wages, compounded by them having no recourse against abuse as they did not legally qualify as workers. Khan and her colleagues thus organised thousands of home-based women workers across Karachi and other parts of Sindh to form Pakistan’s first women workers’ trade union. They have since secured formal legal recognition for home-based work along with wage guarantees. Khan also details how the federation supported members against patriarchal structures at home and in society at large, illustrating further the inseparability of ‘domestic’ and ‘work’ lives. In fact, working in these spaces offers Left projects the opportunity to weld together a holistic emancipatory politics that truly addresses the conditions of worker exploitation in the global South.

An emerging facet of the industry highlighted in the issue has been the widening gap between big and small capital. There are growing differences in the economic position and power of large conglomerates with access to international markets, versus smaller firms which primarily serve domestic big capital and domestic consumer demand. In key moments of economic crises, this distinction becomes salient in the potential for realignment of interests between big industrialists, on one hand, and petty capital owners and labour on the other, as highlighted by the work of LQM. In this case, the compounding threats posed by neoliberalism, global economic turbulence, and automation have in fact united the interests of workers with small- and medium-size capitalists (many of whom are worker-owners themselves) against top-tier industrialists in the sector and the state. As one union leader put it, “there will be no workers to protect if the industry itself collapses”. This growing differentiation, notwithstanding its variation across South Asia, needs to be further examined for its varied implications on the labour movement at large. 

Tragedies such as Rana Plaza shine a spotlight on the ravaging conditions under which textile and garment workers toil away at the bottom of the value chains, but they also reinforce how forces of supply-chain capitalism reinvent and circumvent regulation to ensure access to cheap raw materials and finished products. Profits are preserved while work is kept differently pernicious for a large mass of workers spread across sweatshops in the global South and North. 

“Remember the dead, fight for living” is the rallying cry for those who have been fighting for justice for the Rana Plaza victims and their families. For Taslima Akhtar, “Struggle, unity, and solidarity at the local and global levels are essential to defend workers’ dignity, transform grief into strength, and fight for their rights”. It is this idea that forms the spirit of this special issue, and one we carry forward in our fight for justice and emancipation for workers across South Asia. Jamhoor extends our solidarity to all those engaged in this fight and we hope this issue contributes fruitfully to their efforts.
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