Rana Plaza disaster: The unholy alliance of business and government in Bangladesh, and around the world

Caption:A Bangladeshi mourner and relative of a victim of the Rana Plaza building collapse weeps as she takes part in a protest marking the first anniversary of the disaster at the site where the building once stood in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24, 2014. The Rana Plaza building collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing 1138 workers in the world’s worst garment factory disaster. Western fashion brands faced pressure to increase help for victims as mass protests marked the anniversary. Thousands of people, some wearing funeral shrouds, staged demonstrations at the site of the now-infamous Rana Plaza factory complex.AFP PHOTO / Munir uz ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

By Joe Westby, Corporate Campaigner at Amnesty International

Today is the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh, which left more than 1,100 workers dead and many more injured.  The disaster has become the most shocking recent example of business-related human rights abuse, and the images of dead workers in the debris of the collapsed factory have become powerful symbols of the pursuit of profit at the expense of people.

The Rana Plaza building housed numerous garment factories supplying international clothing companies. Over the past year, there have been various initiatives to provide compensation to the victims, involving government, global brands, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). However, these efforts have so far proved insufficient, and survivors continue to suffer and struggle to support themselves and their families. 

One of the most shocking claims that has subsequently come to light is that workers did not want to enter the building because of safety concerns – cracks had been seen in the walls the day before and the building had been shut down. Despite this, managers ordered workers to enter the building.

Naturally, there has been much debate on the causes of the disaster, who was responsible, and how such a catastrophe could be avoided in future. Discussion has focused on the nature of global supply chains, workers’ rights and safety standards, and the huge market for cheap fashion in the West.

But one particular systemic issue has been too neglected: corporate power and the relationship between business and government.

This is a topic extensively discussed in Amnesty International’s recently published book “Injustice Incorporated: Corporate Abuse and the Human Right to Remedy”, and is hugely relevant when trying to understand why 1,100 garment workers needlessly lost their lives a year ago.

The high degree of political influence by the garment industry in Bangladesh is apparent. Transparency International estimates that 10% of the country’s members of parliament are directly involved in the sector, including members of key committees.  A recent report by New York University highlighted how the garment industry’s close relationship with government is a primary reason for why labour laws are so badly enforced in Bangladesh. 

Amnesty International’s own research has highlighted the pervasive problem of undue corporate influence on governments. The private sector is of course entitled to engage with governments, and can legitimately influence State policy; however, all too often business interests and profits are prioritised over human rights and can prevent victims from obtaining justice.

This is of course not limited to Bangladesh – two other cases Amnesty International has campaigned on clearly illustrate the problem of undue business influence on States.

This year also marks a significant anniversary of another major industrial disaster: it is almost 30 years since the deadly gas leak from a former Union Carbide chemical factory in Bhopal, India, that has killed more than 20,000 people left more than 500,000 survivors suffering long-term injury and disability. In 2007, it was revealed that Dow Chemical, the US company that bought Union Carbide, had sought to interfere with judicial processes through extensive high-level lobbying of the Indian Government.  The company had used the promise of future investment in India to try to persuade the Government to intervene and halt ongoing legal actions against the company concerning the Bhopal legacy. 

Multinational corporations can also influence the governments of countries where they are headquartered. Documents recently obtained through Freedom of Information requests have shown that the UK government was heavily lobbied by two companies, Shell and Rio Tinto, in relation to two high-profile US human rights court cases. The UK government subsequently intervened in both cases in support of the companies’ position: effectively backing the interests of UK business in avoiding liability for human rights abuses over the right of victims to seek justice.

Corporate involvement in policy-making must be transparent and legitimate, and business influence must not be allowed to grow to the point that victims are powerless to claim their rights to effective remedy. Two ways of achieving this are to greatly improve disclosure of corporate lobbying efforts and to require that State efforts to shape foreign economic and investment policies are subject to a test of their potential impacts on human rights.

As long as business continues to have a disproportionate influence on States, another Rana Plaza is not far away. Governments will be far less likely to enforce laws or preventative measures that will protect workers from human rights abuses, and, like in Bangladesh, those who have suffered the worst will be left without justice and compensation.