The first time I visited Bangladesh was a few months following the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy. The factory collapse was a story worthy of Charles Dickens, with villains and heroes and layer upon layer of human suffering. What struck me most at the time was the people of Bangladesh—how hopeful and kind they were, and how determined to overcome such an enormous tragedy. 

More than 1,100 people lost their lives in Rana Plaza by simply trying to make a living to provide for their families. They were threatened by factory managers who told them to go back into the crumbling building or else be fired on the spot.

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The result was the deadliest accidental structural failure in history. Unspeakable tragedies unfolded in the days following Rana Plaza’s collapse, as its physical and emotional toll impacted the lives of so many garment workers and their families.

But it was during this same time that the world witnessed the true spirit of Bangladesh: the heroic actions of everyday workers and first responders who worked tirelessly to pull their fellow workers to safety.

Some have made a political issue out of Rana Plaza and similar factory tragedies to drive a wedge between groups that have mobilized the human, financial and technical resources to catalyze change in Bangladesh’s garment factories. These efforts are misleading, and they distract from the very people that should be at the center of our conversations:  factory workers.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, comprised of 26 companies primarily from the United States and Canada, works to bring about lasting safety reforms in Bangladesh. We do so alongside the Accord for Fire and Building Safety (Accord), which is composed primarily of companies in Europe and other organizations spanning government, NGOs, labor unions and civil society. The two organizations are focused on creating a safe working environment for all workers by ensuring factories are fire-safe and structured soundly.

The Alliance has completed inspections of 100 percent of the factories from which our member companies source. We have worked closely with the Accord to exchange information on inspections and corrective action plans. And because we are determined that workers not bear the financial burden when factories are shut down for repairs, we provide 50 percent of their salary for up to four months—with the other 50 percent paid by the factory owner.

We are also ensuring that factory owners have access to low-cost, low-interest loans to help cover the cost of repairs.

People are right to question the role of the private sector in bringing about lasting change in garment factories. The members of the Alliance are proud of their efforts to ensure that factories are safe and workers are treated with dignity and respect. Our dedication is evident in the pledges we have kept, the financial commitments we have made and the progress we have achieved just two years into the effort.

The private sector cannot pass laws, implement regulations or enforce policies. Those are the responsibilities of the government. We also believe it is critical that the government of Bangladesh be held accountable for its role in promoting worker rights and safety -- ensuring that factory workers are protected and their legal rights are enforced.

Recently the Alliance and the Accord sent a joint letter to the Bangladesh Ministry of Labor asking it to expedite implementation of the regulations for the 2013 amendments to the Bangladesh Labor Act.  Implementing these actions will ensure Occupational, Safety and Health (OSH) committees are established in every factory, thereby providing a platform for worker trainings and empowerment. We look forward to swift implementation of the regulations.

Additionally, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina committed to specific reforms under the United States Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Action Plan and the Sustainability Compact. These reforms must be implemented so that all government ministries and agencies can work seamlessly to reform the ready-made-garment sector in Bangladesh.

The tragedies of the past need not set the course for the future. Honoring the victims of Rana Plaza means continuing our work with the same courage and humility that they demonstrated to the world two years ago.

Our shared goal should be to ensure that the future of Bangladesh is a bright one not overshadowed by the dark clouds of tragedies past.

Tauscher served in the House from 1997 to 2009. She is independent chair of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.