A horror that shouldn’t have happened

April 29, 2013

Nicole Colson reports on the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed hundreds.

MORE THAN 375 people are dead and over 1,000 injured after a garment factory collapsed in a suburb outside of Dhaka in Bangladesh. This is already being considered the deadliest such disaster in the history of the garment industry.

The eight-story Rana Plaza building in Savar, which collapsed on the morning of April 24, housed five factories that made apparel for international companies, in addition to shops and a bank. More than 3,000 workers may have been in the building when it collapsed.

Pictures of the aftermath show hundreds of workers searching through the rubble with their bare hands for survivors. As this article was being written, at least 70 people had been pulled alive from the rubble, but some 900 are missing--and a fire had broken out in the building's remains, halting rescue efforts and dimming hopes of finding further victims alive.

"It felt like I was in hell," Marina Begum told Britain's Guardian from her hospital bed after spending three days in the rubble. "It was so hot, I could hardly breathe, there was no food and water. When I regained my senses, I found myself in this hospital bed."

The collapsed eight-story factory building where hundreds of people died
The collapsed eight-story factory building where hundreds of people died

Compounding the grief and horror is the fact that this was a preventable tragedy. According to National Public Radio, Anbarasan Ethirajan, a Bangladesh-based reporter for the BBC, said workers had reported cracks in the walls and floors the day before the collapse. While the banks and shops were closed, the garment factories stayed open:

Survivors and officials told Ethirajan that when the owner of the building was informed, "he said 'no need to worry about the safety,' [that] they can go back to work on the next day." One of the garment workers who survived the collapse told Ethirajan that they were told Tuesday "if they didn't go back to work, they might lose their wages."

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association had also called for the factories to close, just hours before the collapse.

"I wouldn't call it an accident," the government's information minister, Hasanul Haque Inu, told Bangladeshi journalists. "I would say it's a murder."

Thousands of Bangladeshi workers agree. In the days following the collapse, people took to the streets to vent their fury. Workers halted traffic and smashed 150 cars. At least five garment factories have been vandalized, with two set on fire. Police countered with teargas and rubber bullets.

THE OWNER of the Rana Plaza building had reportedly received a permit to build a five-story building, but illegally added three more stories.

So far, at least seven people have been arrested in connection with the collapse, including two factory owners and two engineers. Sohel Rana, the building's owner, was arrested while trying to flee across the border to India.

But beyond those who are immediately implicated in putting workers to work in a death trap, others are also guilty--the international garment industry, especially Western companies that insist on low-cost production, necessitating manufacturing in high-volume sweatshop conditions in countries with minimal health or safety oversight.

Bangladesh, the world's second-leading garment exporter, has the lowest labor costs in the world, according to the New York Times, with garment workers making as little as $37 a month. As labor costs in China have risen, Western companies have increasingly looked to Bangladesh. The country now has 5,000 garment factories employing 3.2 million workers--and virtually no unions.

Reports suggest the factories in the collapsed building made clothes for Dress Barn, The Children's Place, Benetton, Primark and other Western manufacturers. Benetton, however, claims it had no idea its clothing was being made there--it hid behind its Bangladeshi subcontractors to make the claim. Wal-Mart, which has a history of selling clothing made in sweatshops, admits it formerly contracted with a company located in the collapsed building, but it denies its clothing was currently being manufactured there.

Disasters like this expose the rot at the heart of the apparel manufacturing industry. As Vijay Prashad wrote following the collapse:

These Bangladesh factories are a part of the landscape of globalization that is mimicked in the factories along the U.S.-Mexico border, in Haiti, in Sri Lanka, and in other places that opened their doors to the garment industry's savvy use of the new manufacturing and trade order of the 1990s...

The big garment producers no longer wanted to invest in factories--they turned to sub-contractors, offering them very narrow margins for profit and thereby forcing them to run their factories like prison-houses of labor. The sub-contracting regime allowed these firms to deny any culpability for what was done by the actual owners of these small factories, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of the cheap products without having their consciences stained with the sweat and blood of the workers.

INCREDIBLY, SLATE'S Matthew Yglesias argued that lower safety standards were just fine for Bangladeshi workers in a revolting areticle responding to calls for the U.S. to impose tighter safety standards for important goods:

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That's true whether you're talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus...The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.

Among the many things Yglesias fails to mention is the fact that those making a profit in Bangadesh aren't ordinary garment workers, who remain impoverished and subject to such workplace disasters. These workers aren't "making a choice"--instead, that choice was made for them out of economic necessity and a government and garment industry that acts as though workers' lives are expendable.

As Scott Nova, executive director of the anti-sweatshop Worker Rights Consortium, told the New York Times:

The front-line responsibility is the government's, but the real power lies with Western brands and retailers, beginning with the biggest players: Wal-Mart, H&M, Inditex, Gap and others. The price pressure these buyers put on factories undermines any prospect that factories will undertake the costly repairs and renovations that are necessary to make these buildings safe.

The factory collapse was the third major industrial accident in Bangladesh in the past five months. It follows on the heels of a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in November that killed 112 people. As Britain's Guardian reported at the time, "Rooms full of female workers were cut off as piles of yarn and fabric filling corridors ignited. Reports also suggested fire exits at the site had locks on, which had to be broken in order for staff to escape."

A factory collapse in 2005 killed 68 workers. Although the owner was arrested, he was never convicted. Factory owners in the country wield political clout that frequently guarantees that authorities will overlook labor and other violations.

Sohel Rana, the owner of the building that collapsed last week, is a prominent local member of Bangladesh's ruling Awami League. He was reportedly was able to skirt mandatory permits by appealing directly to a local politician, who gave the go-ahead after complaining that the permit process was taking too long.

According to the New York Times, the amount of money needed to make Bangladesh's garment factories safer and prevent another such tragedy would be a drop in the bucket compared to Western retailers' bottom line:

Activists say that spending about $600 million a year for five years could bankroll sweeping improvements to the country's 5,000 garment factories--noting that global brands could finance such a program by agreeing to pay an additional 10 cents per garment for the more than 6 billion articles of clothing exported each year.

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