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Rana Plaza - One Year Later

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Last year’s collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh was the worst disaster in the history of the apparel industry. More than 1,100 lives were lost, over 2,000 additional workers were injured, and it left both Bangladeshis and the global garment community appalled and saddened at the senseless and unnecessary loss of life. But from this horrific tragedy has come a universal resolve among private companies, governments, labor groups and Bangladeshi citizens to end these kinds of preventable disasters from happening again.

Industrialized nations, like the United States, didn’t get where they are overnight — it took time, decades, in fact, and a lot of learning along the way for everyone involved. True change won’t happen without a strong commitment from all stakeholders, from all backgrounds. After the collapse, retailers and brands from around the world came together. From the formation of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the industry shares a common goal of making safe workplaces not the exception, but the norm. And in the last year, there has been progress.

The Alliance, the Bangladesh government, the International Labor Organization, and the Accord have all agreed on a set of standards to guide factory inspections and improvements and that effort is well underway. Last week the Alliance announced that inspections have been completed in more than 50 percent of the nearly 700 factories from which its members source, with the goal of inspecting all factories by summer’s end. It has also trained more than 400,000 factory managers, with the intent of training more than one million workers by July 2014. And later this month it will stand up a worker helpline in 50 factories, with plans to expand to 150 by the end of the year. On a parallel track, the Accord has inspected 300 factories, with 1500 total inspections expected this year. The continued focus should be on how all three groups can continue to work together to make real change on the ground in Bangladesh, not political bickering over which effort is better.

But retail alone isn’t the panacea. Much of the responsibility lies with the Bangladeshi government. In the United States, when people go to work every day, they’re confident in their working conditions – because there are laws and regulations that ensure safety. Bangladeshis don’t have that luxury. U.S. retailers can do their due diligence to work with the safest factories and conduct regular inspections, but if the government doesn’t address key labor reforms, retailers’ efforts aren’t enough for long-term improvement. It’s going to take the commitment of retailers, government, factory owners, labor organizations, and even the workers themselves.

In Bangladesh the ready-made garment industry accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings. The industry is paramount to the livelihood and upward mobility of its people – particularly women. It’s up to us, all of us, to ensure this important source of economic security not just continues, but improves. No worker should fear for their life as a result of where they work and what they do to provide for themselves and their families. By working together, we can make a difference in their lives. It’s not a question of when or why, it’s a commitment to now and never again.