Who’s to blame as hundreds die in Bangladeshi factory collapse

In Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, at least 300 workers, mostly women, died at the Rana Plaza garment factory building collapse on April 24.   In addition to the appalling number of deaths, more than 1,200 were injured there in the worst industrial disaster ever to befall this country.

The search continues to find survivors trapped in the rubble.  Emergency crews have heard cries of workers pleading to be rescued, many crying out that their children need them.

Infuriated by these needless deaths, workers and victims’ relatives took to the streets of Dhaka.  They blocked highways, smashed windows and fought with police in the capital and in Ashulia, an industrial zone. They attacked plants where the employers refused to give their employees the day off on the official Day of Mourning for this disaster.

Huge numbers of workers walked out of their factories to show solidarity with the dead and injured.  “There were hundreds of thousands of them.  They occupied roads for a while and then dispersed,” said Abdul Baten, district police chief of Gaziput, the site of hundreds of large clothing factories.  (ibtimes.co.uk, April 25)

Outraged, more huge crowds marched to the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association in Dhaka, demanding that all clothing factories be closed, and that the Rana Plaza factory owners be punished.  They chanted, “We want the execution of the garment factory owners!” (Al-Jazeera, April 25.)  They demanded the same punishment for Mohammed Sohel Rana, the building’s owner.

As of April 26, most Dhaka factories are closed, as workers have gone on strike to protest the unsafe conditions and preventable deaths.  Militant protests continue.  A strike has been called for April 28 by several labor organizations.

Workers warned of dangers; forced to work

On April 24, deep cracks were found in Rana Plaza’s walls.  Evacuation orders were given. Other businesses sent their employees home, but the five garment factory owners ordered some 3,000 workers back to work, disregarding the workers’ warnings and concerns in their rush for profits.  Employees informed police and government officials about the hazards but no one shut the plants.

Threats were made to dock salaries if the workers didn’t comply with the order to return to work.  An hour after they went into the factories, the cave-in happened.

Sohel Rana maintained the building would be safe for 100 years, even though he’d been told the opposite.  Moreover, he is culpable for building the top three floors of the eight-story building illegally, without permits.  Serious flaws also existed in its foundation, which was built on swampy land.

Although the clothing factory owners must take their share of the blame for this catastrophe, so too must Western retail giants.  The Bangladeshi bosses say that they were rushing to fill orders within customers’ tight deadlines.  They also say these corporations pay low prices, so the local employers claim they can’t raise wages or upgrade facilities.  The workers’ health and safety is not even a consideration in this profit-seeking arrangement.

The five operating clothing makers in Rana Plaza made millions of garments a year for U.S. and European corporations, including The Children’s Place, Dress Barn, Britain’s Primark, Spain’s Mango and Italy’s Benetton. “Ether Tex [one of the clothing makers] said Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, was one of its customers,” reported Al-Jazeera on April 25.

“The front-line responsibility [for safety] is the government’s, but the real power lies with Western brands and retailers, beginning with the biggest players: Walmart, H & M Industries, Gap and others,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium.  “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.” (New York Times, April 25)

A systematic pattern of abuse

So, in this corporate rush to maximize profits and produce goods as cheaply as possible, it is the workers who suffer.  There are few, if any, safety measures. Those that exist are not enforced by the government, which seeks to placate local business owners and the U.S. and European companies which purchase goods from their country.

No factory owner has ever been charged for a worker’s death.  It’s no wonder, as these business owners have power; many are politicians and they hold 10 percent of Parliament’s seats.

Factory fires have killed hundreds of clothing workers in recent years.  After the horrific inferno that killed 112 workers last November at Tazreen Fashion factory, the local factory owners, the government and Western companies were supposed to improve safety measures, and also address the many structurally unsound plants. Despite lip service, there’s no concrete evidence that anything has changed.

Many companies deny they purchase Bangladeshi goods and blame subcontractors in an elaborate scheme to avoid responsibility for making the plants safe.  A few Western retailers that order these goods have agreed to help finance safety efforts and building improvements but are waiting for others to sign on. However, Walmart, H&M and the Gap have said “No” to this plan.

The Rana Plaza cave-in showed that no companies, local or global, nor the government are serious about improving safety conditions for the workers.  In fact, Primark, a British company which was supplied by a factory in the fallen building, had approved the health and safety conditions there.  The facilities had also passed international safety audits.

Now, labor unions and workers’ rights groups in Bangladesh are trying to get companies to sign on to an action plan to prevent more building collapses and fires.  Called the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement, it was written after the Tazreen Factory blaze.  There is some resistance by Western corporations.

Slave wages attract Western companies

According to the April 25 New York Times, “Bangladesh has the lowest labor costs in the world.”  The cheap labor and production costs draw Western companies, like Walmart, Sears, the Gap and many other retail giants, to purchase clothing from the country, which is the world’s second leading garment exporter.

There are 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, employing about 4 million workers, mostly women. They are paid $37 a month for 15-hour workdays in sweatshop conditions.  In Marxist terms, this is known as “superexploitation.”   Some $18 billion to $20 billion a year comes into the economy from garment exports — 80 percent of the country’s exports.  The U.S. buys 23 percent of these goods, more than any other country.  The clothing retail giants then make megaprofits from selling the apparel internationally.

Within the country, there is opposition from business owners and the government to raising wages or funding safety improvements.  Western companies demand the lowest labor and production costs, which translate into no safety upgrades.  They also expect the workers to be kept in line, without union interference.

The government works hard for the garment bosses and Western retailers to suppress the working-class movement and union organizing.  Unions are allowed but are not protected.  There are few in the garment industry.  When workers do organize, they are frequently beaten and fired.  Last year, Animul Islam, a labor organizer, was tortured and murdered. No one has ever been charged for the crime.

Yet, no matter what the government and companies do, they can’t stop the class struggle by the workers, who are constantly demonstrating for higher wages, better working conditions and unionization — and who are now on strike protesting the needless deaths at Rana Plaza.

Isn’t it time for an international outcry against this “profits before people” system? Isn’t it time to hit hard at capitalists’ exploitation of these workers and the lack of concern for their lives?  Isn’t it time to blame the capitalist system and work to get rid of it? Aren’t the lives of 300 workers enough of a reason?