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10 years after the deadliest garment factory accident

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Rana Plaza was a pretty typical commercial building in Bangladesh. At eight stories tall, it housed five garment factories near the capital city of Dhaka. And in April 2013, it collapsed in a matter of minutes. More than 1,100 people died, sending shockwaves throughout the world and the fashion industry, in particular. The Rana Plaza collapse is considered the deadliest accident in the modern history of the garment industry and one of the deadliest industrial accidents ever. Elizabeth Paton covers fashion for The New York Times. She wrote about the 10-year anniversary of the disaster and talked to several survivors. She joins us now. Welcome.

ELIZABETH PATON: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Bangladesh - I mean, it's a major hub for the fashion industry. In recent decades, it's become one of the biggest exporters of garments in the world. Can you just start by telling us a little about what Rana Plaza was and the scale of the operation at the time?

PATON: Well, as you touched on in your introduction, there are many, many buildings just like Rana Plaza all over Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the second-largest garment exporter in the world after China. It's become a huge sourcing hub for all the household fashion brands that are in your local stores. So, you know, whether it's the Gap or it's Target, Walmart, Amazon - all of these brands source their low-priced clothes from Bangladesh. And so there were five factories that day powering out thousands of garments - T-shirts, sweatpants, children's clothes - that would later be shipped around the world.

CHANG: Well, after this devastating disaster, there were some reforms implemented throughout the fashion industry. Can you tell us about some of the most notable reforms and how much of a difference they actually made in the last 10 years?

PATON: So before Rana Plaza, there were no, or very little, formal agreements between brands that sourced their clothing from the developing world and the clothing suppliers themselves that would guarantee the safety conditions that these clothes were made in. So Western brands didn't necessarily have to take a responsibility in the state of the environment that their clothes were being made. I think the degree of public outrage and horror at the number of people who were killed or injured really forced a lot of brands to think about the way that they had been doing business in these countries.

So the same year of the collapse, 2013, there were two agreements that were signed between brands, worker unions and factory owners. And what this did was created a framework by which brands would have to play a role in the fire and safety conditions that were in place in those factories.

CHANG: Would you say that these kinds of agreements have substantially - visibly - improved conditions in garment factories over the last decade?

PATON: Oh, absolutely. I think that nobody would dispute that there's been huge progress made in the safety of workers in these factories from a fire perspective and a building safety perspective. But I think it's also important to remind listeners that there are still major issues - things like low wages, harassment in the workplace, union busting. These remain major issues for workers both in Bangladesh and in other countries in the world.

CHANG: Well, I know that you have spoken with several survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse. What did you hear from them? How are their lives right now?

PATON: The survivors of Rana Plaza have the most tragic stories to tell. The vast majority of these workers were women. And beyond the obvious traumatic nature of their physical injuries, many of them - I think up to half - have never been able to work since or earn an independent income.

Some of the women that I spoke to last week as part of my reporting talked about the fact that they had been abandoned by their husbands or that their families saw them as a financial burden because they could no longer work anymore. Lots of them spoke about the fact they still, 10 years on, have terrible nightmares or sleeping pill addictions that really hamper their everyday life. And there has been some efforts to compensate workers, both through charitable initiatives or by the Bangladeshi government, but the amount of money that most of them had been offered is very, very little, and the average wage in Bangladesh remains around $75 a month. So many of them are not just haunted by what happened to them 10 years ago, they still have huge fears about what the future holds for them.

CHANG: That is Elizabeth Paton of The New York Times. Thank you so much for your reporting.

PATON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee