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Mahinur Akter doesn’t remember much from last year’s infamous Bangladesh factory building collapse. But the 18-year-old says losing her right leg and one of her fingers serves as a permanent reminder of the trauma she endured and the dreams she left behind in the rubble.
All she recalls from the morning of April 24, 2013, is “two sewing machines falling on me, and I wasn’t rescued until 8 p.m.” Akter was one of the lucky survivors. At least 1,129 people were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka. Thousands more were injured, many worse than she was.
Akter had sewn clothes in the garment industry for several years before the accident. She had no choice. “I was forced to work to help take care of my sick mother and two brothers,” she told Al Jazeera. Her father was killed in a road accident a few months after the disaster.
On Thursday, exactly one year after the tragedy changed Akter’s life forever, a wide range of participants — apparel brands, retailers and nongovernment organizations — will observe the first annual Fashion Revolution Day.
In solidarity with the Rana Plaza workers, people in more than 50 countries will wear their clothes inside out, hold vigils for the victims and stage events to raise awareness — including a “human chain” at the site where the factory once stood, and a memorial at New York City’s Union Square.
Together they will demand justice for victims of the building collapse, as well as greater transparency in the retail supply chain. They will also prompt onlookers to think about workers’ conditions by asking, “Who made your clothes?”
Atoning for the past — and present
Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum in Washington, D.C., told Al Jazeera that more than 150 apparel brands and retailers have signed on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The accord is a legally binding agreement with two global unions and 10 Bangladeshi unions, and is backed by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO).
Some retailers have also paid compensation to victims of the building collapse and their families. Akter says she received 45,000 taka, or $579, from Primark, which has been the biggest contributor to a compensation fund for the victims and their families.
But the fund, which is overseen by the ILO, has only been able to raise $15 million out of a $40 million goal for victims’ families. According to The Guardian, half of the 28 brands that manufactured clothing at the Rana Plaza factory at the time of its collapse have not contributed to the fund at all.
Some companies have moved independently to improve their business practices. Walmart, which told Al Jazeera it did not produce any products at the collapsed factory, said it is "actively working to bring significant and sustainable reform" anyway, spending $13 million so far to improve factory safety in Bangladesh in a program that includes skills training for women and factory inspections.
However, a broader trend of companies setting a higher bar for worker safety remains to be seen. Deloitte, one of the largest business consulting firms, found in its 2013 Fashion Sustainability Report (PDF) that only four out of 10 businesses are looking beyond conventional approaches, such as managing their relationships with contractors, to deeper attempts at oversight within supply chains, such as forcing factories to send reports of their safety standards.
What will it take?
In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City left 146 people — mostly women — dead. Following the tragedy, a public outcry for workers’ rights and improved labor conditions, known as “The Uprising of 20,000,” led to some of the first state and national laws to protect workers and promote corporate accountability.
Positive change can come out of tragedy, as in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — but according to Orsola de Castro, cofounder of Fashion Revolution Day, those changes must start at a grassroots level.
“The public needs to start a journey of personal investigation and really begin to demand and expect change, better lives, better working conditions and a safer environment,” she said.
Still, de Castro admits that raising awareness among ordinary consumers could prove challenging.
Al Jazeera asked shoppers on New York’s Fifth Avenue what they thought about the Rana Plaza disaster, and found that most consumers only vaguely remembered the tragedy — though some said they wanted to know more.
Daniel Mendoza, 22, from Brooklyn, said he interned at a nonprofit organization where he learned about labor conditions. “I barely remember hearing about the collapse,” he said. “But now that I’m thinking about it, we could all do better in making more conscious decisions — even taking small steps like asking questions or looking at the tags.”
Donna Fleischer, a 24-year-old visiting from Israel, said, “Having a list of companies and knowing where our clothes are made from would be really helpful to make better [consumer] decisions.”
Educating consumers about where products come from may seem daunting given the complexity of global sourcing, but the development of products such as Sourcemap, which uses social networking to map supply chains, could help surface information. Sourcemap connects the dots along a supply chain by connecting with companies, collecting data and pushing information out on social networks.
Leo Bonanni, founder of Sourcemap, said transparency and technology could help change the system and find solutions to many consumers’ unanswered questions.
“It's only after Rana Plaza collapsed that many brands discovered their clothes were being made there. Mobile phones and the Internet are everywhere — there are no remaining technical barriers to supply chain traceability,” Bonanni said.
“The tragedy was so devastating that brands came together to implement and enforce new regulations like never before,” he said.
But more still needs to be done to ensure that the public keeps pressure on fashion companies. The technology, Bonnani said, is there; companies and the public just need to supply the will.
He is optimistic. “In less than 10 years, it will be possible to scan any product on a store shelf and be instantly connected to the people who made it,” he said.
Back in Dhaka, Akter also said there are signs of positive change: “There are changes slowly being made in other factories.”
While Akter survived the disaster, she can never forget the life she had once imagined. “My dreams were to get an education and enter the medical field,” she said. “Now I can’t even work.
“I never want anyone to experience what I had to.”