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Five years on from the Rana Plaza tragedy. Has anything changed?

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Five years on from the Rana Plaza tragedy that claimed over 1,100 lives, Bangladesh is still caught between a safer future and dangerous old habits.

Khadiza was eleven when she started working in a textiles factory. By the time she was sixteen, she was sufficiently angry at what had happened to her and those around her that she decided to start a union in her factory. Faced with a slightly-built 16-year old, the factory followed local tradition and sent thugs to attack her and chase her off the premises where she’d worked throughout her late childhood.

Welcome to Bangladesh, where founding a union often ends badly for those that start them, but often much better for those that follow.

For Khadiza, there’s a happy side to the story. Her next factory already had a union, so she joined, became a rep and is now Vice-President of the SGSF federation, representing almost 50 factory unions in the garment sector.

Bangladesh’s garment sector is renowned for its predominantly female workforce, so it should be no surprise that more and more senior positions are held by women. But in fact, unions here have had to work hard to change their own structures and ways of working to make sure women could not only join, but also take part fully as reps and officers. The emergence of women-led federations like SGSF is reflective of the development of unions in the wake the collapse of Rana Plaza five years ago today, unions that are now better equipped than ever to represent the whole workforce and play an effective role in protecting workers.

Rana Plaza killed 1,136 people, many of them knowing they were working in an unsafe factory but – without unions to guarantee their rights - powerless to do anything about it. The huge upheaval that followed, with impacts felt by Bangladesh factory owners, western brands and even the United Nations, set Bangladesh on a path to potential redemption. From fewer than 100 unions in 2013, that number has increased to 500. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire & Safety, set up by the global union federations IndustriALL and Uni Global, inverted the responsibility-free assumptions of the garment sector supply chains and invited western companies to make legally binding commitments to worker safety.

But for all the progress there is a constant risk that Bangladesh could turn away from progress. In late 2016, strikes over minimum wages led to a widespread crack-down against union leaders. The Guardian today reports that this has had a “chilling effect” on the growth of new unions, even though protests from global unions and western brands saw the union leaders released and concessions from the government.

Khasim, a member of one union federation, the National Garment Workers’ Federation, told us that setting up unions in factories remains a dangerous business. Like many leaders of new unions, Khasim supplied a list of members to the Labour Ministry to prove they’d met the requirement for 25% of the factory workforce to join before the union could be registered. But somehow the list, which only the union and the Labour Ministry possessed, found its way into the hands of factory management. In a purge the NGWF says is replicated across many factories, many on the list were fired, including Khasim, sending the union back to square one. Although his union eventually regrouped and won its fight for registration, the pioneer union members were not reinstated. Khasim at least is now a full-time organiser for the NGWF - other leaders are not always so fortunate.

Redemption, clearly, is still a long way off.

Despite this, Bangladesh remains a clear example of how the will to change a desperate situation can bring real progress. From the bravery of trade unionists like Khadiza and Khazim, and financial support and political solidarity from unions around the world, through the leadership of the global union federations to the willingness of western brands to accept their responsibilities and sign up to the Accord, Bangladesh is a very different place for workers now than five years ago. With continued commitment, a safer future is within reach.