Six years ago today, the Rana Plaza commercial building in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, collapsed killing 1134 people and injuring many others. Many of them were garment workers (disproportionately women) making clothes for wealthy customers in the West. They were paid as little as 38 Euros a month. It was among the worst such disasters in history. Even the survivors paid a heavy cost – just 21% of them could be categorised as “fully recovered” and over half are still unable to work.
But this was much more than a tragic accident. It was a result of criminal negligence. The owners of the building had been warned the day before that the building was unsafe after cracks appeared. The bosses ordered their workers in anyway with fatal consequences.
This was a crime with many perpetrators. In the aftermath of the tragedy, there were worldwide calls for responsibility to be taken by the multinationals that turned a blind eye to the terrible conditions in order the maximise profit. Global brands producing clothes in the Rana Plaza sweatshops included Benetton, Primark and Walmart.
But currently just one person is in jail for the crime. The owner of the building was charged with murder and sentenced to three years in prison for corruption. The other local bosses are to this day either out on bail or on the run. As for the companies that allowed the tragedy to happen – even less justice has been served. The global outcry prompted a minority of the companies to offer insufficient amounts of compensation to the families of the dead.
But by and large, the multinationals got away with allowing the deaths of over a thousand people to occur. Some of the giants, like the US supermarket chain Walmart, refused to sign up to the compensation fund at all. The situation is so bad that some survivors say they wish they had died. Others have received little or nothing at all.
Rana Plaza was a tragedy of global importance that attracted media attention to prompt at least some of the companies to take voluntary action. In other cases, multinationals can refuse to take any responsibility at all for their supply chains.
There is a growing realisation that this is a horrific state of affairs. Justice for victims should not depend on eliciting charity from the perpetrators.
This is why activists and communities across the world are uniting around the idea of a new global system that will force corporations to take responsibility for their actions.
At a national level this would be more laws like the French Duty of Vigilance legislation. This means that companies have a duty to perform due diligence on what is happening in their supply chains. It is no longer acceptable for companies to say “we didn’t know” when tragedies like Rana Plaza happen. A similar system implemented at EU level would be truly transformative and set a new global standard for the behaviour of multinationals.
But ultimately, national or even EU level action is not enough. This is why our campaign is pushing for a UN Binding Treaty that will put global rules in place to hold corporations to account for abuses happening in their supply chains. And it needs to endow victims with the right to pursue multinationals in their home jurisdictions. This means that victims of a crime perpetrated by a corporation’s supplier or subsidiary in Bangladesh will be able to go to court in countries France, Germany and UK to win justice.
It is a difficult battle but it is one where victory is possible. Negotiations have been ongoing in Geneva for a couple of years now on the UN Binding Treaty. And campaigners are hoping that other countries will follow France in adopting legislation like the Duty of Vigilance law.
But most EU countries are more part of the problem than the solution so far. The EU has even indicated that it will pull out of the negotiations on the UN Binding Treaty. This needs to change.
The European elections are our opportunity to get the message to MEP candidates that they need to back serious action against corporate impunity. As citizens of Europe, fighting for a better system is the least we should do for the victims of tragedies like Rana Plaza.