Interview: Gen Woo Reflects on the 10th Anniversary of the Rana Plaza Disaster

The 10th Anniversary of the Rana Plaza Disaster

Around 2,000 injured workers survived the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013. They live with its aftermath every day alongside families of the 1,135 people killed in the global garment industry's deadliest-ever factory accident. (Dhaka Tribune / MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU)

Ten years on, the Rana Plaza tragedy still haunts both Bangladesh and the textile industry. Despite incremental progress and the creation of one of the world's toughest factory safety agreements, the fight against fashion industry labour issues continues.

Gen Woo is the designer behind the Singapore-based fashion brand. Part of a family-run business with a factory in Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza collapse remains close to her heart.

We sat down with Gen Woo to reflect on the Rana Plaza disaster, discussing safety regulations for factory workers, the Accord, the RSC and the true scope of human and environmental issues within the textile industry.

What did the industry learn from Rana Plaza?

I think the disaster gave the Western public a picture of textile production in developing countries. What can happen when safety is compromised due to pressure to meet retailer demands. When retailers are not strict enough with their factory audits and who they are placing orders with.

It also showed staff who work in the industry. If you think of all the jobs that make up a fashion brand, only a small section of staff would ever be involved in selecting a factory to work with, auditing that factory and overseeing the production there. 

It was also a changing point for garment workers and knowing their rights to a safe environment.

Garment worker at Gen Woo PTE in Gazipur Bangladesh

Do you think enough has been done since the disaster?

I like to think the disaster brought about real change, for example, the creation of one of the world's toughest factory safety agreements, the International Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The Accord forced retail brands and manufacturers to really look at their current practices and set a better standard.

I was living in Bangladesh, and hearing about families affected by that disaster was very hard on a local level. There were aid and education programs that re-trained staff that were injured to work in other industries. In a country like Bangladesh, the scale of everything is huge and reaching people is hard. I know people inside and outside of Bangladesh who take matters into their own hands and do their best to deliver all kinds of aid because you have to help where you can.

Factory workers at Gen Woo PTE in Gazipur Bangladesh

One of the world's toughest factory safety agreements, the International Accord on Fire and Building Safety, was replaced in June 2020 by the Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council. Do you feel this is a positive step forward in protecting factory workers?

I feel the RSC is a blow to garment workers in Bangladesh. There is no legal obligation to fast fashion retail brands; the rules aren't as stringent, audits are less frequent, and I think we will now see a slow decline in standards.

Does the 10-year anniversary remind us of the scope of human and environmental issues yet to be addressed in the global fashion industry?

I try not to think about the true scope that faces us in the textile industry. Thinking about just Bangladesh is huge, and I focus on what we as a company can do better with our resources and hope that it contributes to the bigger picture.

Factory worker in a spinning mill in Gazipur Bangladesh for Gen Woo PTE

At Gen Woo, your garments are produced in factories that have passed audits by ACCORD and RSC. How closely do you work with the factory?

I visit twice a year, normally at the RND and sampling stage and then the production stage. For our last season, we had a merchandiser that would travel more often to track production more closely. 

As a designer and brand owner, is social compliance a significant factor when selecting factories for your designs? 

At the moment, I have only made clothes in our family-run factories. If I were to produce with another factory, I would need to provide my own Quality, Safety and Testing manuals and choose an independent auditor like BSCI to verify compliance and working conditions.

Garment worker in printing section in Gazipur Bangladesh for Gen Woo PTE

How do you ensure social compliance and safety regulations in your factories?

When visiting the factory, I usually do a tour, review requested documents and certifications, and speak to the staff. 

Should more weight and responsibility be put on the brands that continue to use cheap labour and unsafe factories? 

I think brands should be made accountable for the pressure they put manufacturers under, be it by time or prices, and it all contributes towards unattainable deadlines that compromise standards. 


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