As they arrived to work the morning of April 24, 2013, employees at the Rana Plaza factory had a bad feeling something was going to happen.
At the heart of the expanding manufacturing industry in Savar, Bangladesh, the concrete factory was growing upward, with its ninth floor under construction. Rehana Khatun worked on the seventh floor, sewing jeans for a major Canadian grocery and clothing chain. She was 20 at the time and part of the factory's mostly female workforce, working six days a week for about 37 cents an hour in today's Canadian dollars.
But that morning, she and her fellow employees didn't want to go inside the factory.
Workers on the lower floors had told Rehana there was a problem with the building. Cracks had developed on the third floor, they said.
Their managers assured them everything was fine.
Despite their reluctance, the workers went into the building, but everyone was in a bad mood, Rehana remembers.
They hadn't done much work when the power went out. Then the power generators turned on, adding to the vibrations of hundreds of heavy industrial sewing machines that were already shaking the fragile building. Around 9 a.m., Rehana felt a large tremor and the concrete began to collapse around her.
It was total chaos, she remembers. Everyone was running. As she describes what happened, her eyes well up and dimples appear in her chin. She blinks a few times and doesn't cry. She fixes her magenta headscarf.
Rehana joined the crowd as they rushed down the stairs. She got caught in the stampede and fell down. A factory wall collapsed on top of her, pinning her legs under the rubble.
She and two other women were trapped together under the rubble. One of them died. Rehana screamed for someone to help but everyone was gone.
It was 20 hours before she was finally rescued. After she was pulled out, both of her legs had to be amputated.
The Rana Plaza factory collapse. (Photo by A.M.Ahad/AP)
Three years ago this week, the collapse of Rana Plaza sent a shockwave around the world as the bodies of more than 1,130 dead workers were pulled from the rubble alongside clothing tags bearing the name of a major Canadian brand: Joe Fresh.
Not only was it an unprecedented tragedy in the clothing industry — the collapse has also been called the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern history, precipitated by weak construction materials, lack of proper building permits and the improper use of the office building as a factory.
As the death count skyrocketed, the tragedy drew attention to a bigger problem. Joe Fresh wasn't alone — countless fast-fashion brands worldwide were making their clothes in similar conditions, and with its rapid manufacturing growth and poor construction standards, the Bangladesh garment industry was ground zero. Twenty-nine brands had their clothes stitched at Rana Plaza alone.
Rehana sits in a wheelchair with her baby on her lap. She now lives at a rehabilitation centre in Savar with her husband and child.
According to court documents, Rehana struggles with depression, anxiety and separation from her family since she moved to the rehabilitation centre, and has had additional surgery on her legs since they were first amputated. Since she can't work, her husband is the family's only breadwinner.
'It would have been better for us if we had died.'
She spoke to VICE News via Skype. A VICE News staff reporter who speaks Bengali translated her words.
"I talk to some people," she said, when asked if she knows any other survivors. "There's a guy like me who lost both of his legs. There's a girl who doesn't have arms or legs and I talk to them."
"It's really hard. It would have been better for us if we had died. We can't do anything for anybody. It's just struggle after struggle."
Rehana is now one of the key complainants in a Canadian lawsuit targeting the company she once sewed jeans for.
That company, Loblaws, says it has paid a total of $5 million in compensation and donations to Rehana and other victims and families through various aid organizations on the ground, including the International Labor Office-led Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund.
But Rehana wants additional compensation. If she had more money from Loblaws, she says she would use it to take care of her brothers and her mom. Her job at Rana Plaza allowed her to take care of her family, but now she can't work anymore.
The goal of the lawsuit, one of the lawyers behind it explains, is twofold: to clinch fair compensation from Loblaws for survivors and their families, and to scare other companies into doing better.
Joel Rochon's firm launched the lawsuit almost exactly a year ago, timed with the second anniversary of the factory collapse. It came just days after a similar action was filed in the US against retailers Walmart, The Children's Place and J.C. Penney, which also had their clothes made at Rana.
In January, Rochon flew to Bangladesh with a team of lawyers. They set up a desk and chairs with a pink canopy at the site of the Rana Plaza disaster. With the help of local volunteers, they convinced 3,850 victims and their families to sign forms that said they wanted to be part of a class action in Canada.
Right now, the civil claim is waiting for its day in court a year from now, when Rochon plans to argue it should be certified as a class action lawsuit and should be heard in Ontario.
But Loblaws is putting up a fight, arguing in a court motion that Canada isn't the appropriate jurisdiction for this case, and stating to VICE News that it did not own or operate Rana Plaza.
Rochon says the company "effectively exerted control over the entire factory through their very strong presence there," and knew or should have known the workers were in danger.
"By any standard the Rana Plaza was a death trap — with many warning signs that the risk of serious personal injury and death to Class Members was ever present," the statement of claim says.
Rochon, who was also the lead counsel on the Lac Megantic derailment lawsuit that eventually pulled a settlement of $450 million, says the Rana Plaza workers and their families are entitled to much more than what the company has already paid.
"It hasn't been a complete zero in terms of their contribution, but we believe Loblaws contribution to the Donors Trust Fund was very, very minimal, and really amounted to nothing more than a drop in the bucket. And an outstanding, large corporation like Loblaws and Weston Foods, we believe they should step up and do the right thing and make a very, very meaningful contribution to these people."
A wall pasted with flyers in Savar, Bangladesh, on April 29, 2013, showing some of the missing from the Rana collapse (Photo by Wong Maye-E/AP)
On Wednesday evening, booming, high-BPM music fills a Joe Fresh store in downtown Toronto. Employees dressed in black carry trays of cupcakes with on-brand orange icing and glasses of wine. Shoppers collect clothing on their arms and line up for the change rooms. The brand is celebrating the launch of its summer line with Flare Magazine.
A label on a pair of jeans folded on a table reads "Made in Bangladesh." One of the employees said he was hired five months ago, but no one had ever asked him about Bangladesh or the factory collapse.
Joe Fresh still makes some of its clothes in Bangladesh, and was open about that fact when asked.
"The ready-made garment industry is an important part of the Bangladesh economy and a major catalyst for the development of that country," an unnamed Loblaws spokesperson said in an email.
"We still source from factories in Bangladesh, and we believe that the economy and manufacturing communities benefit from our presence, attention and long-term commitment. [The company] continues to work with individuals, industry, government, NGOs and the International Labour Organization to improve the standards that will define and protect the safety of the workers going forward."
Loblaws said they had increased the level of standards and inspections at all factories where the company "is the importer of record."
It said it has 16 representatives on the ground, working locally in six countries, including Bangladesh.
'We still source from factories in Bangladesh, and we believe that the economy and manufacturing communities benefit from our presence attention, and long-term commitment.'
When asked how the company tracks its supply chain, Loblaws said it receives information from its vendors on sourcing ingredients and materials. The company sets out its standards in two documents, its Supplier Code of Conduct and its Standard Terms and Conditions. The former is public, but the company declined to send VICE News the latter, saying it was confidential and competitively sensitive.
The company also said it controls the release of shipments once they have passed "rigorous on-the-ground controls."
However, when asked specifically how its audits have changed since the Rana collapse, Loblaws did not send that information.
And when asked whether wages at the factories Loblaws sources from have changed since then, the company said, "We are not the appropriate person to answer [that question]. We do not operate factories, and therefore do not determine the wages of the workers there."
The company's Supplier Code of Conduct requires wages to be "at least minimum wage in the applicable jurisdiction or an agreed-to wage that is enough to meet basic needs and provide some discretionary income." The company also requires paid, voluntary overtime.
"I'm shaken by the events that took place in Bangladesh last week," Loblaws chairman Galen Weston said in a statement a week after the factory collapse, and ahead of a shareholders meeting. "I'm troubled that despite a clear commitment to the highest standards of ethical sourcing, our company can still be part of such an unspeakable tragedy."
Following the collapse, Loblaws joined over 200 other clothing companies who signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The legally-binding agreement closely tracks factory safety upgrades in the country and issues quarterly reports. Accord inspectors regularly audit factories and share the reports with the factory owners, workers, and the clothing company signatories.
Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News
In its most recent report, released in February, the Accord says it has inspected a total of 1,676 active ready-made garment factories. Overall, these factories are continuing to make progress, but the report cites concerns with delays, with more than 1,182 factories behind schedule in mandatory safety upgrades.
Three years after Rana Plaza collapsed, Accord inspectors are still finding weakly-constructed buildings that aren't built according to their structural design drawings. And almost all of the factories inspected by the Accord lacked adequate fire doors and lack of fire separations between floors, the report states. Other common problems included lack of adequate emergency exits and unsafe electrical installations.
While the Accord was legally binding and supported mostly by companies outside North America, many US companies opted to sign onto the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is not legally binding. In its February 2016 report, the Alliance says it has inspected 700 factories. Of those, it has suspended 77 due to structural problems and lack of upgrades, and has recommended 36 for closure. Only 24 factories have been "fully remediated" and 49.5 percent of repairs have been completed.
On the other hand, the number of fires at garment factories in Bangladesh are down by almost 90 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to the Alliance report, which received its information from the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence.
And there is cause for optimism, according to an auditor with years of experience in Bangladesh garment factories.
Avedis Seferian, president and CEO of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, has visited Bangladesh factories including Rana Plaza frequently since 2008. His last visit to Bangladesh was last month.
"This event was really an unprecedented tragedy, the largest industrial accident in this industry, and we paid a heavy price for it — over 1,100 lives lost in a single day. However dark that cloud was on Bangladesh, and it still continues to cast a long shadow, if there was a silver lining to it, it was that it really brought to the forefront this issue of the importance of worker safety."
"For an industry that is so labor-intensive, the outsized effect this has on the employees is significant. This is an industry in Bangladesh that is the source of employment for four million people in an economy where jobs are very important to economic growth, and that three-quarters of these jobs go to women, it's really an extremely important industry for them."
He has noticed a slight shift in safety culture in the last three years, with not only clothing companies signing onto the Alliance and the Accord, which drove through inspections and established minimum safety standards, but also the factory workers and managers changing their views.
Before April 24, 2013, Seferian says managers were more likely to view the pressure of production to be all-important, but after losing so many lives, the factory bosses now realize safety is an integral part of the process.
"Factory owners along with the whole industry have made this front and center," he says.
Previously the management mindset was "if there's a problem, we'll fix it." Now the mindset is, "How can we make sure we don't have problems?"
Workers have also changed their approach to safety. Now, if a worker sees a crack on a beam, they will report it, he says. It's something they take seriously now, and there are now mechanisms to report safety problems.
"That's a wonderful thing, that's what we want to see happening," he says.
Rehana Khatun (Photo by Probal Rashid)
On the other hand, he said there are still issues that need to be addressed. For example, because there's such a high population density, and everyone wants factory jobs, workers may not feel they can speak out as freely for fear of losing their job. Individual workers need to be more aware of their rights, he said.
Ultimately, Rochon believes a successful lawsuit against Loblaws would change how companies make their clothes.
"Really through the class action, this is an example of private enforcement for a public purpose, and if the class action is successful, there will be consequences for these major brands, including Loblaws. If they have to pay a substantial sum, that will hopefully change their behavior, there will be an element of behaviour modification, and they will go the extra mile to ensure that these factories are safe before they set up their facilities there."
Rochon is not against companies sourcing products from Bangladesh, but he wants sourcing to be done in a responsible way.
"The reason it hasn't happened so far is because there is no regulation in Bangladesh and the Canadian government turns a blind eye to it," he says. "Same thing in the United States."
Rehana wants people in the western world to know that if they were willing to pay more for their clothes, it could mean more stringent safety conditions and higher wages for workers in Bangladesh.
Those workers sacrifice a lot, she says, often leaving their homes in rural areas to work in factories in the cities to support their families.
But speaking to consumers in developed countries, she adds, "If they didn't buy the clothes, we wouldn't have jobs."
With files from Tamara Khandaker
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont