Manik, Greenhouse, and Yardley win the May Sidney Award for their coverage of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh
Julfikar Ali Manik, Steven Greenhouse, and Jim Yardley of the New York Times won the May Sidney Award for their extensive coverage of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. The seven-story factory complex crumbled on April 24, burying over 1100 people. Most of the victims were garment workers who died sewing clothes for Western companies like Walmart and Benetton.
The Times’ coverage began in the immediate aftermath of the collapse and continues to chronicle the economic, social, and political repercussions of the world’s worst industrial disaster. The winners have published well over a dozen stories since the accident, including a moving account of the race to save a survivor trapped in the rubble, a profile exposing the criminal past of the owner of Rana Plaza, and regular updates on the negotiations that led up to the historic worker safety accord.
The team’s work stood out because it focused not only on the human tragedy, but on the systemic factors that make fires and building collapses a recurring hazard for Bangladeshi garment workers.
Consumers who had never given any thought to the “Made in Bangladesh” tags on their clothes learned that Bangladesh is the cheapest place in the world to make clothing, that millions of garment workers work in structurally unsound factories, and that the current system of self-policing by Western companies fails to prevent tragedies, such as the factory collapse and the many factory fires.
Now that the truth is out, Western brands are facing overwhelming pressure to bring the Bangladeshi factories that make their clothes up to code. In the wake of the tragedy, Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M, Bangladesh’s biggest clothing customer, signed a legally binding agreement to dramatically upgrade its factories. In addition to H&M, 37 other companies have signed the accord. But they are overwhelmingly European. In the U.S., only PVH and Abercrombie & Fitch have signed on to date.
“The winners’ coverage thrust safety conditions in Bangladesh into the international spotlight and helped put pressure on Western brands to improve conditions for workers,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.
Julfikar Ali Manik works for the New York Times in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He was a 2011 Dart Asia Fellow. He is the author of two books.
Steven Greenhouse has been a reporter with the New York Times since 1983 and is the newspaper’s labor and workplace correspondent. He is author of “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” which won the Hillman Book Prize in 2009.
Jim Yardley is the New York Times bureau chief in New Delhi. He shared a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the rule of law in China.
Q. The three of you were in three different countries when Rana Plaza collapsed. Tell me how the three of you worked together to cover the story.
A: When the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed on April 24, Julfikar was in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and Jim was in New Delhi. In the first days after the collapse, Julfikar and Jim worked closely together, reporting and writing story after story. By April 29, Jim had obtained a visa, arrived in Dhaka and begun on-the-ground reporting, helped by Julfikar, who served as his translator. Jim was devastated by what he witnessed there - scores of bodies being pulled out of the rubble, hundreds of Bangladeshis desperate to find their loved ones, the squalid condition of other factories in Savar, the Dhaka suburb where Rana Plaza had been located.
Meanwhile, I helped out from New York, reporting on which American and European retailers and apparel brands had been buying apparel from factories inside Rana Plaza and how Western companies were responding to this huge disaster.
Q: Since the factory collapse, several major retailers, including fast-fashion giant H&M, have signed on to a legally binding plan to improve safety. Who proposed this plan and how will it work?
A: Starting with two horrible factory fires in Bangladesh in 2010 - one in which 21 workers died and another in which 29 died - consumer, labor and human rights groups have been pushing Western retailers and apparel brands to do far more to ensure factory safety in Bangladesh. That effort gathered little momentum until the Tazreen fire in Bangladesh last November, in which at least 112 workers died, many of them because of locked doors and windows. Finally, after that fire, Western retailers began serious discussions about what more they could do to prevent such deadly fires. The talks dragged on for months, again with little progress. Two retailers, PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and Tchibo, a German retailer, agreed to a plan to help finance safety improvements in Bangladeshi factories, but they said that plan, backed by labor and consumer groups, would take effect only if a few more companies signed on.
Then on April 24, the eight-story Rana Plaza building collapsed in a suburb of Dhaka, killing at least 1,127 workers. It was by far the worst disaster in the history of the world’s garment industry; the death toll was more than seven times that of the Triangle Fire of 1911, in which 146 workers died. After the Rana Plaza collapse, there was a huge public outcry for the Western retailers and apparel brands to end their foot-dragging and to sign a binding agreement that would guarantee improved conditions in the apparel factories of Bangladesh. On May 13, facing huge pressures from consumers and labor unions, H&M, the Swedish company that is the world’s biggest buyer of clothes from Bangladesh, agreed to sign onto a plan that called for rigorous, independent factory inspections and for the signatories to help finance needed safety improvements, such as adding fire escapes to factories that lacked them. Within days of H&M’s announcement, three dozen other companies signed on, almost all of them European, including Marks & Spencer, Benetton and Inditex of Spain, the world’s largest apparel company and the owner of the huge Zara apparel chain. Only two United States companies have signed onto the plan, PVH and Abercrombie & Fitch, while one Canadian company, Loblaw, has joined.
Q: What kinds of pressure are being brought to bear on companies, such as Wal-Mart and Gap, that refuse to sign on to the plan?
A: U.S. retailers face considerable pressure to sign on to the plan. More than 900,000 signatures have been collected to urge Gap to join, and protests have been held in front of Gap stores in a half dozen cities as well as at Gap’s annual shareholders’ meeting on May 21 in San Francisco. Many consumers have written letters and posted Facebook comments urging WalMart, Gap, Target, J.C. Penney, the Children’s Place and other companies to join the Bangladesh factory safety accord. The U.S. companies have resisted, arguing that they would face undue liability from potential lawsuits if they sign onto the plan.
Q: Bangladesh is an unfriendly climate for union organizing. What is the state of labor unions in the country’s apparel industry?
Bangladesh has roughly 2.5 million apparel workers, 80 percent of them women. Hardly any of these apparel workers are unionized. Labor advocates in Bangladesh say the country’s government and garment manufacturers have worked arm in arm to suppress unions - to send a signal to Western retailers and apparel brands that Bangladesh is friendly to business (and not just because it has the world’s lowest minimum wage, $37 a month). A prominent union organizer, Aminul Islam, was found murdered last year, his body showing signs of torture.
Under pressure from international organizations, foreign governments and labor unions, the Bangladeshi government is moving to adopt new laws that make it easier for unions to organize and harder for garment companies to suppress them. The Bangladeshi government has promised to take such steps before, but did not follow through.
Q: How does the U.S. consumer’s appetite for fast fashion shape working conditions in Bangladesh?
A: In recent years, fast fashion has become the rage, with apparel retailers and brands rushing to get the hottest new styles into stores as soon as they can. This means that some retailers and brands demand that no more than 60 or 90 days elapse between the time they place an order and when it arrives in stores. This puts immense pressure on Bangladeshi factories to produce apparel quickly; many of them know that if they miss the deadline, they will have to pay penalties to the Western retailers and brands. It is often the garment workers who suffer most from the production stresses of fast fashions. To meet their deadlines, some factories force their workers to toil long hours, sometimes seven days a week.
The day before the Rana Plaza building collapsed, some workers saw cracks on the walls, and many fled the building that afternoon, fearing it would collapse. But the next morning, notwithstanding these worrisome cracks, managers of factories inside the building, concerned that they would miss their production deadlines, told the workers that they would be fired or docked months of pay unless they reported to work. And many workers reluctantly reported to work. That morning, the building collapsed, with more than 3,000 workers inside, many of them never to return to their families.