Updated: 04/24/2014 11:41 | By Agence France-Presse

Rana Plaza one year on: brands and buyers make few changes

One year on from the tragedy at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh's worst ever industrial disaster in which more than 1,000 factory workers died, has anything really changed in the fast-fashion brands on Western high streets?

Rana Plaza one year on: brands and buyers make few changes

Finished garments are seen after they were retrieved from the rubble following the collapse of the Rana Plaza industrial building in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on May 4, 2013 - by Munir Uz Zaman

Despite a raft of announcements, initiatives and mea culpas, experts say companies have made few material changes to the appalling safety conditions in their garment factories, bowing instead to consumer demands for cheaper clothes.

On Paris's Boulevard Haussmann, shoppers said the wave of international outrage caused when the nine-story Rana Plaza collapsed on April 24 last year, killing 1,138 people and injuring more than 2,000, had hardly changed shopping habits.

"One of my girls was very upset by it when it happened, trying not to buy in the places where things like that were made," said Sheila Sagar, a retired nurse out shopping on the famous Parisian shopping street, where high-end stores like Galeries Lafayette and Printemps  rub shoulders with faster-fashion brands like H&M and Zara. 

"It's a shame, but unfortunately people go for the cheapest things. It tends to go to the back of the mind in this financial climate."

Her friend Pat Dumon said that it is hard to buy clothes made closer to home and, as they are often more expensive, they are a luxury.

"We are not rich and not poor so we can go for the middle of the road. If you are unemployed and have three children, you are going to go for the cheapest no matter what," she said.

- 'Nothing has really changed' -

In the aftermath of the tragedy, many of the world's largest high-street fashion brands vowed to reform conditions for workers in Bangladesh's $22-billion garment industry, the world's second largest after China.

Companies such as Spain's Inditex, which owns fashion brand Zara, American brands Gap and Walmart and French international retailer Auchan signed up to a new fire and safety agreement for their factories.

Walmart said it has spent $13 million so far on its Bangladesh factories, which has increased electrical safety for workers by nearly half and building safety by nearly 30 percent.

Gap said factory owners have started installing life-saving measures such as fire safe doors, sprinkler systems and fire detection systems in their buildings as a result of its initiatives.

Sweden-based H&M has even launched a "fair wages" scheme for an estimated 850,000 textile workers in three factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia, which is expected to come into force by 2018.

Auchan has launched an action plan against non-declared subcontracting by putting in place a code of ethics and starting unannounced inspections, which has already resulted in the delisting of two suppliers since the end of March.

Retailers also vowed to set up a $40-million trust fund to compensate victims and their families that would be overseen by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which made its first payment on Tuesday.

But according to Yves Marin, a senior manager with global consultancy Kurt Salmon, customer demand for cheap clothes is still the main reason companies want to cut costs.

"Nothing has really changed," said Marin.

"It's this spiral of always producing cheaper clothes further away that has driven the rise of purchasing power in developed countries. That won't change, above all in a period of (economic) crisis, when the question of price is at the centre of everything."

- 'Crisis of conscience' -

Even the ILO-managed fund has fallen short of expectations.

By Tuesday, when the first payments were handed out at a ceremony in Dhaka, retailers had only pledged $15 million in a response that was branded "woefully inadequate" by global labour group IndustriALL.

Jeff Powell, campaigns and policy director at the War on Want charity, said companies may be withholding payments due to concerns they could open themselves up to future compensation claims, in Bangladesh and other countries that they source from. 

Nayla Ajaltouni, coordinator of human rights group collective Ethics on the label, said most of the initiatives announced in response to the crisis are just posturing for the media. 

"As contractors will not be made legally responsible for their chain of subcontracting, enforced by legal and financial penalties, multinationals will still have an interest in developing a model of production that is socially irresponsible but brings them a lot of money," she said. 

"The disaster at Rana Plaza caused a crisis of conscience at the time, but in the clothing industry, the perception of price has been totally distorted by years of bargain prices."

But back on Boulevard Haussmann, some consumers question whether those prices are such a bargain.

One tourist, called Gan, visiting France with his family from Malaysia, said seeing the prices in the shops had made him wonder where all the money is going.

"In Europe maybe people have a different perspective, but our first thought is the companies are making a lot of profit by putting their factories in these cheap labour nations," he said.

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