Still Rising from
Rana Plaza's Rubble

Article written by Maya Duckworth, Tearfund New Zealand
*Names changed for protection.

Survivors liken the event to experiencing an earthquake1.
There was a loud noise followed by a frightening cracking sound. The concrete floor rolled beneath their feet.
It only took 90 seconds for the entire building to be reduced to rubble.

Ten years ago, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, collapsed. The building housed five garment factories—suppliers of well-known fashion brands like Primark and Zara. That day, over 1,130 people died and 2,500 were injured. Ten years on, have any changes been made? And if so, what impact have they had? Read on to find out more.

Many of us will remember seeing photographs and videos of the Rana Plaza tragedy—family members clutching photos of their missing loved ones, bodies being pulled from the rubble. In that moment, there was collective horror as we, buyers of clothes, saw the bruised faces and battered bodies of the people who make them. There was also a collective realisation of the exploitation threaded into the stories of our garments. Slavery is alive and well in the fashion industry.

Long before Rana Plaza collapsed, Tearfund was working to address the massive global injustice of modern slavery. A core part of Tearfund’s international development work focuses on preventing atrocities like this, by working towards systemic change for some of the 27.6 million people in forced labour today2. We have also spent the last few years holding the world's (and New Zealand’s) largest fashion companies to account for the exploitation that occurs in the process of making the clothes they sell.

Unlike many disasters, the Rana Plaza collapse wasn't just a flash in the pan. It became the catalyst for a fashion revolution, with organisations like Tearfund and consumers around the world pushing for accountability and improvement in the fashion industry.

A decade on from this tragedy, we celebrate the efforts fashion companies have made and share with you the three biggest changes we’ve seen. But we also shine a spotlight on the aspects of the industry that still have a long way to go. Our research reveals two key areas where the fashion industry has still not made significant changes.

Of the 25 fashion companies we’ve been surveying for the last ten years:

Can now say they know all or almost all of their raw material suppliers.  

More now share a public list of the factories that manufacture their garments.

More have a comprehensive code of conduct.

None can tell us they pay a living wage at over half their garment factories.  

Despite the complexities and power dynamics in the fashion industry, we believe change is possible. We have a vision for a fashion industry that empowers rather than exploits—that is not only committed to justice but being a transformative force for good in the lives of its workers. We’ve worked alongside our supporters before to bring attention to the issue of modern slavery in the fashion industry and show fashion companies that these concerns are important to New Zealanders. We’re asking you to do it with us again.


An unethical industry

A garment worker carries fabric after drying it in the sun near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Shutterstock. 

The fashion industry has long been a poster child for poor working conditions and modern-day slavery. In an industry that employs one-in-eight workers globally3, it’s estimated the majority of its workers do not earn enough to meet their basic needs. Fashion is also one of the industries at most risk of modern slavery in its supply chain.

Cracks in the structure of the Rana Plaza building were found the day before. The bank and shops on the lower floors closed immediately and workers were sent home. The next day several thousand garment workers were ordered to return to work. Scared for their safety, many workers protested, but management threatened them with the loss of one month’s wages if they did not return to work. With no ability to forgo a month's wages without falling into poverty, workers were forced to go to work that day.

It was not only garment workers who died, but also their children who were being looked after in the building’s nursery facilities. Of the workers who survived, it’s estimated that half have been unable to continue working due to physical ailments and trauma4.

This tragedy was made even worse because it was entirely preventable. Investigations revealed a list of errors and factors that contributed to the building collapse: the building lay on swampy land, sub-standard materials had been used in its construction, the construction process was not supervised by engineers or architects, and the top three floors, where a large proportion of the garment workers worked, had been added illegally5.

The Rana Plaza disaster was certainly not the fashion industry’s first industrial incident, but its severity and preventability left a mark on consumers around the world. Never had the fashion industry witnessed such a catastrophic loss of life in a single event, particularly as it was a result of human negligence rather than a natural disaster. Rana Plaza serves as a reminder of the unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry and the need to address the full spectrum of human rights abuses workers face in the fashion industry.

Ten years of ethical fashion research

It's poignant that the ten-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse also marks a decade of the Ethical Fashion Report. Shortly after the tragedy, Baptist World Aid Australia, another non-profit organisation, released the inaugural Ethical Fashion Report exposing the extent of exploitation in the industry, which was made all the more significant by the recent loss of life. Several years later, Tearfund joined Baptist World Aid in this work, bringing Kiwi’s and New Zealand companies with us.

Through the Ethical Fashion Report, we help to hold fashion companies to account for what is happening in their supply chains and hope to tangibly improve the lives of garment factory workers. As part of our research, we ask fashion companies questions about their policies and practices, analyse the evidence they provide, and publish findings publicly, to create accountability and greater consumer awareness of industry practices. What started with 41 fashion companies has grown to 120 companies, representing over 500 brands.

Let's celebrate the steps
fashion companies have taken

A woman processes fibre from pineapple leaves that is used to make garments, linens and handcrafts. Adobe.

In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, consumers, organisations, and authorities were eager to discover which fashion companies were potentially culpable. However, information about whose garments were manufactured in the building was unclear and difficult to trace. In the end, labour rights activists had to sift through the rubble to find clothing labels and documentation to prove certain fashion companies had clothing produced there.

This atrocious lack of knowledge about supply chains was the starting point for the industry, so we thought it would be interesting to look at the original 25 fashion companies included in the Ethical Fashion Report and trace their journey over the past decade. Our research reveals three key improvements. We’ve seen more of these companies begin working out their supply chain, be more open about it and apply standards to it. Much of what is now standard practice would have been revolutionary a decade ago—this is worth celebrating! Let's look at where we've seen the most improvement.

The fashion industry

still has a long way to go

Improvement One


Ten years on, these 25 fashion companies know more about their supply chains.

When companies don’t know where their garments, fabrics, and raw materials are produced, nor who makes them, they cannot know what human rights abuses may or may not be happening in their factories or farms. This means they can’t implement programmes to prevent and address these issues. This is precisely what Rana Plaza illustrated. Risk of modern slavery is greatest at the fringes of supply chains, where fashion companies have less knowledge and control over their suppliers. When fashion companies are tracing the extremities of their supply chains, it reduces the risk of human rights abuses and harmful environmental practices.

In the last ten years, we’ve seen a significant improvement in the number of companies that know who sews the final piece of clothing, and have insights into where their fabrics and raw materials are coming from. In 2013, only 28% of those 25 companies knew the majority of their fabric manufacturers, but by last year, 52% of these companies did!

When our research began, companies told us they didn’t believe it was their responsibility to know where their raw materials, such as cotton were sourced, or to influence working conditions that far down the supply chain. Our data reflected this too. In 2013, only 52% of these 25 companies were sharing some results of their audits—ten years later, THIS has risen to 76%!

Improvement Two


Open and transparent supply chains

Not only do fashion companies have increasing knowledge of their supply chain, but they are starting to share this knowledge with their consumers. When companies release information about who makes their garments and where, they can be held to account for any human rights concerns in their supply chain. Accountability is one of the best ways to create change, so this is really positive.

A good step towards transparency is for companies to publicly list the factories that make their products, complete with names and addresses on their websites. In 2013, only 24% of those 25 companies had a partially complete or full list like this, but in 2022, this has grown to 80%.

Knowing the location of a factory is step one for a company, the next is gaining insight into what life is like for workers at that factory and whether they are treated fairly. The most common tool companies use are audits. This is where an independent third-party company enters a factory and assesses various factors from health and safety to evidence of child labour. Over the past few years, we’ve seen fashion companies share the results of these audits publicly too. In 2013, only 52% of these 25 companies were sharing some results of their audits—ten years later, has risen to 76%!

Improvement Three


Stronger standards for suppliers

To ensure workers are being treated fairly, a company must clearly articulate the standard they expect of suppliers, as legal protections for workers are not always in place. The most common way companies do this is through a Code of Conduct—a document outlining the basic working standards their suppliers must follow. We believe these codes should be robust, meet internationally set standards and include strong statements against child labour, restrictions on overtime work, and assurances around workers’ health and safety. Whilst these documents do not ensure exploitation and poor working conditions are eliminated, it provides a common understanding across the supply chain of what practices are acceptable and unacceptable.

In 2013, the Ethical Fashion Report investigated companies’ codes to see how in-depth they were, and only 28% of the original 25 companies met the standard set by the International Labour Organization. But when we investigated in 2022, 84% of these companies were in line! What’s more, we’re seeing these codes being slowly applied to more of companies’ supply chains, meaning those involved in the production of fabrics and raw materials are also slowly being included.

What have these improvements meant for workers?

We sat down with *Rahela, a machine operator from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She explained how the industry had changed over her time working there.

“In the past, there was a lot of work pressure, salaries were poor, working hours were long and we had to work late nights. The working conditions were not good, no wide spaces and not clean.

Nowadays the government gives instructions on improving working conditions and some buyers are also strict. I have seen improvements like wide spaces, a clean environment, enough lighting, drinking water on all the floors and the washrooms are clean."

A woman works on a loom. Adobe.

Progress should rightly be celebrated, however, we can’t gloss over the change that still needs to take place in the fashion industry. What we’ve seen over the last decade is that the fashion industry has improved on the basics. Arguably, these are things that should have always been in place! What we are yet to see are meaningful outcomes for workers that allow the cycle of poverty to be broken. The reality is the fashion industry still exploits workers rather than empowering them.

The table below summarises some of the results from the 2022 Ethical Fashion Report research. Unfortunately, our research shows just how far the fashion industry still needs to go to protect and empower its workers. There are two areas in particular where there’s been minimal improvement over the last ten years: the provision of living wages for workers and the ability of workers to voice their concerns and demand for changes collectively. These are two areas where meaningful action by fashion companies is significantly needed, and where support from passionate New Zealanders can make a big difference.


View Full Table


*Survey results are based on public information only.
To see how all companies scored, on all 46 questions, read the Ethical Fashion Report Appendix.

Area of Minimal change One


Garment workers’ wages are still too low

Tragically, the majority of workers in the garment industry are still not paid wages high enough to cover their basic needs. That means, a garment worker can work overtime and still be unable to afford rent, food, healthcare and education for their family. Rahela described how even though her pay increased,

“This salary is not enough to support me and my family. You receive your salary from the factory and before even coming home it has been spent on rent, food and other basic expenses. With overtime you make a maximum of NZ$215, but it is still not enough. The price of every single thing has increased and is out of reach. In the past, if you shopped at the bazaar for food, NZ$1.50 would fill a bag, now $15 fills a quarter of a bag”.

This is not okay. Increasing wages would change workers’ lives. The threat of losing their wages was one of the big reasons many of the garment workers at Rana Plaza felt pressured to continue working. Higher wages give workers more options when they are being mistreated.

Tearfund advocates for a living wage that allows workers to live well. This solution is not simple to implement which is why we’ve seen such little progress over the last decade. However, complexity should not let fashion companies, governments, and factory owners off the hook. We need a strong, collaborative approach that delivers living wages for garment workers, and we need more fashion companies committed to seeing this done.

In 2013, we asked our 25 companies whether they could guarantee their workers were paid a living wage—only one company could say yes. Sadly, ten years later these same 25 companies could still not provide evidence they were paying living wages at more than half the factories that make their garments. And a lack of living wages continues to be the case for a vast majority of New Zealand’s big fashion companies. Our 2022 survey revealed only two New Zealand companies, AS Colour and Hallensteins Glassons, could provide evidence of any workers in their supply chains being paid a living wage.


area of Minimal change Two


Workers still can’t voice their concerns collectively

There is power in numbers. It's crucial garment workers can work as a group to voice their concerns and demand better working conditions and wages. Garment factories, and the industry, have significant power imbalances at play, as workers are easily dismissed and replaced. Initiatives like workers’ unions and collective bargaining agreements enable workers to push back against their factory managers and powerful fashion brands.

These initiatives also play an important role in preventing workplace disasters. Without a collective voice, garment workers at Rana Plaza couldn’t push back against the demands of management. Nazma Akter, a Bangladeshi labour leader, said at the time: “If garment workers don’t get this, Rana Plaza will happen time and time again.”6 However, our research reveals little improvement in this area by fashion companies.

In 2013, 68% of our 25 companies could tell us they had a policy that means they don’t interfere with workers’ efforts to organise collectively. However, as best practice advanced over the last decade, so too did our questions. In 2022 we asked companies not just about their policies but if they could provide evidence of unions or collective bargaining agreements in place at the majority of their garment factories, and none of these companies could say yes. And only 6.7% of all the 120 companies included in our 2022 research, could say yes to this. This demonstrates the weakness of relying only on paper policies, and that’s why we’re asking for action that will make a material difference in the lives of workers.

What could our

fashion industry look like 

in ten years?

A worker sews a piece of cloth. Adobe.

As we reflect on the past ten years in the fashion industry, we also have our eyes set on the future.

We asked Rahela what change she would like to see in the fashion industry in the next ten years. This is what she shared,

“I dream of a good salary and a better life. My main concern is getting paid on time—it is very important that workers are paid on time.”

We’ve seen big improvements in fashion companies knowing and sharing about what’s happening in their supply chains. However, like Rahela, we’ll continue asking and advocating for a fashion industry that upholds the fair treatment of all people, pays a living wage on time, includes and listens to workers’ voices, and does not perpetuate injustice.


Nilufa Yasmin, a Rana Plaza survivor, visiting a recent photography exhibition marking the event's anniversary. Shutterstock.

So how will we get there?

As consumers, we have an important role to play in the fashion industry. Just like garment workers, we have power in numbers. When we collectively demand change or tell fashion companies or the New Zealand government about the issues we care about, they listen. Tearfund has a history of working with fashion companies to improve their business practices—but a key reason these companies are willing to engage is that people have let them know the issues are important to them. We couldn’t count the number of times that we’ve sat down with a company and heard them share that the reason they have made changes in a particular area is that consumers have been asking about it. Your voice truly can bring about change.

Ten years on from Rana Plaza, we want to use this opportunity to thank fashion companies for the efforts they have already made and encourage them to do more to ensure their workers have a decent quality of life and work. We are asking you to join us.

While the majority of fashion companies cannot tell us they pay their workers a living wage, some fashion companies are further behind in their efforts than others. Some companies have still not made a public commitment to pay their workers a living wage. We’re asking companies to rectify this.

It’s been ten years of pressure on the fashion industry. While we celebrate the changes, let’s not lose sight of our commitment to a fashion industry that empowers rather than exploits and works as a transformative power for good in the lives of its workers.

The Rana Plaza disaster was not only a wakeup call, but it was, and remains, a sombre call to action.

“This event and its anniversary tether us to the ongoing conversation about changing fashion for the better”

– Jacqueline Goodwin, sustainability educator7.

Thanks so much for reading!

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Airing the Dirty Laundry on Donated Clothes

Interested in learning about how to dispose of our garments well? Check out our article where we learn about Aotearoa’s problem with clothing waste.






Fashion: Still Rising from Rana Plaza’s Rubble is a summary of ten years of research into the fashion industry. It incorporates findings from an analysis of survey results from Australian and New Zealand clothing companies, as well as stories from garment workers.

The research behind Fashion: Still Rising from Rana Plaza’s Rubble comes from the results of ten years of Ethical Fashion Reports. We focus on the results of an original group of 25 clothing companies who have been surveyed for the last ten years. With our partners at Baptist World Aid, we compared existing datasets from the Ethical Fashion Reports in 2013 and 2022. Although the surveys from these two years largely covered the same themes and questions, the two surveys were not identical. Over the last decade, our survey process has evolved. We’ve included more companies, clarified some of our questions to ensure it remains in line with international best practices, asked new questions about environmental sustainability efforts, and even added footwear as an entirely new industry. All data comparisons used in Fashion: Still Rising from Rana Plaza’s Rubble compare questions that are either unchanged from 2013 or have been reworded but validated using the same criteria and evidence.

For Fashion: Still Rising from Rana Plaza’s Rubble we’ve predominantly focused on a cohort of 25 clothing companies that have been assessed in 2013 and have continued to be assessed in each subsequent Ethical Fashion Report. This cohort includes: Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Big W (Woolworths), Cotton On Group, Cue Clothing Co., David Jones, Forever 21, Fruit of the Loom, Gap INC, H&M, Hanesbrands, Inditex, Just Group, Kathmandu, Kmart Group, Lacoste, Levi Strauss and Co, Lululemon Athletica, Myer, New Balance, Nike, Patagonia, Puma, Sussan Group, and VF Corp.

At Tearfund, we believe that sustainability is crucial to a truly ethical fashion industry, that’s why we started including questions about environmental risk assessments, sustainable fibres, and efforts to address overproduction into our surveys from 2018 onwards. In Fashion: Still Rising from Rana Plaza’s Rubble, we’ve chosen to focus specifically on concerns related to workers’ rights and empowerment, as it is these issues the Rana Plaza disaster brought to light, and it is also what we’ve been measuring for the last decade. If you are interested in hearing more of what our research has revealed about the environmental crises of the fashion industry, we recommend checking out our article, Footwear: An Industry Laced with Exploitation.

The fashion industry has made billions of dollars in profit from exploiting workers and failing to pay the price for its environmental impact. It’s estimated that one-in-eight individuals around the world are employed in the global fashion industry. The industry has had positive impact; it has fuelled the growth of economies and facilitated millions of people migrating from lives of subsistence rural agriculture into factory work with hope of a better life.

However, the industry is facing some serious challenges. It is responsible for a significant amount of global greenhouse gas emissions and the majority of workers in fashion supply chains do not earn enough to meet their basic needs. The recent estimates show there are almost 28 million people trapped in forced labour, a form of Modern Slavery. Fashion is one of the industries at most risk of having modern slavery occurring in its supply chain.

One of our main causes at Tearfund is addressing and preventing Modern Slavery. We do this through our programmatic work in Asia-Pacific, lobbying the New Zealand Government for legislative change, the most recent being for a New Zealand Modern Slavery Act, and through this research, where we work with companies to reduce the risk of worker exploitation and environmental damage in their supply chains. We believe every human has inherent dignity and should be treated as such. Through our advocacy, we work to hold those in power accountable and create systems level change to see this vision become a reality. We believe that together, we can create a fashion industry that empowers and doesn't exploit; that preserves and doesn't destroy.

The Ethical Fashion Project aims to improve the lives of workers in fashion supply chains and promote environmental sustainability. One of the main ways to achieve these aims is through building relationships with fashion companies and influencing action from the inside out. We provide fashion companies with a range of resources, webinars and advice to improve their ethical sourcing capacity and their business practices. But a key reason fashion companies are willing to engage with us is that people tell them these issues are important to them! When passionate supporters contact brands or share a post on their social media, this contributes to a social movement that values the way brands treat their workers and the environment.

In New Zealand, all companies estimated to have a revenue in excess of NZ$30 million have been automatically included in the 2022 Report, as were Australian and global companies estimated to have an annual revenue in excess of AU$50 million. This selection process ensures the largest companies with the greatest consumer reach and market share, and subsequent impact on workers, are included.

Each survey question has a set of stringent validation criteria which must be met to obtain credit. While these evidentiary requirements vary from question to question, wherever possible we request third-party documentary evidence, such as audits. Since our research team assesses over 100 companies throughout the survey process, they are able to clearly identify areas of weakness in evidence documents provided and request further validation to meet requirements. For companies whose surveys have been completed using ‘Public Information Only’, the same evidence requirements and substance assessments apply.

It is important to note that the research team do not conduct site inspections as part of this process. Therefore, company grades are not an assessment of actual conditions in factories and farms, but rather an analysis of the strength of a company’s labour rights and environmental management systems. This research relies on data that is publicly available, alongside evidence of systems and practices provided by companies themselves. Wherever possible, the research team and company representatives work through the survey questions, allowing both parties to be satisfied that the data presented is an accurate representation of the company’s policies and processes.