Bangladeshis rebel against corporate rule

April 29 — In Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, nearly 400 workers, mostly women, have died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building on April 24. In addition to the appalling number of deaths, more than 1,200 were injured, many horribly, in the country’s worst industrial disaster.

Emergency teams have found more than 2,500 survivors trapped in the rubble. Anxious relatives wait to hear word of their loved ones, as hundreds of workers are still missing.

Infuriated workers and victims’ relatives took to Dhaka’s streets soon after the collapse. In and around the capital, they blocked highways and smashed store windows, clashing with police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets against them. Two garment buildings were burned down. Hundreds of thousands walked out of their factories to show solidarity with the dead and injured on the official Day of Mourning on April 25. Many attacked plants where employers refused to give employees that day off.

Outraged crowds marched on the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association, demanding capital punishment for Rana Plaza’s building owner and the factory bosses. For days, Dhaka factories were closed, as workers protested unsafe conditions and the terrible deaths. Militant protests spread to Chittagong.

Due to mass pressure, landlord Mohammed Sohel Rana, who was fleeing the country, was arrested, along with four factory owners and two engineers.

Workers warned of dangers; forced to work

On April 23, after deep cracks were found in Rana Plaza’s walls, evacuation orders were given. Other businesses sent their employees home, but the apparel factory owners ordered some 3,000 workers back to their workplaces in the building, disregarding workers’ warnings in their rush for profits. Employees informed police and government officials about the hazards, but no one shut the factories.

Bosses threatened to dock workers’ salaries or fire them if they didn’t comply with the “return to work” directive. An hour after they re-entered the factories, the building caved in.

Sohel Rana had maintained that the building would be safe for 100 years, even though he was told of the imminent danger. Moreover, he illegally built the top three floors of the eight-story building, which was erected on swampland.

Although the clothing factory owners must take their share of the blame for this catastrophe, so too must Western retail giants. Local bosses said they would lose income if they didn’t rush production to meet corporate customers’ deadlines.

The five Rana Plaza clothing makers annually produced millions of garments for U.S. and European corporations, including J.C. Penney, Britain’s Primark, Spain’s Mango and Italy’s Benetton. “Ether Tex [apparel maker] said Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer,” was a customer. (Al-Jazeera, April 25)

“The frontline 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 Inditex, Gap and others,” said Scott Nova, Workers Rights Consortium executive director. (New York Times, April 25) He explained that retail giants pressure prices down, making it harder for local employers to upgrade facilities with safeguards.

A systematic pattern of abuse

Therefore, in this corporate rush to maximize profits and produce goods as cheaply as possible, the workers suffer. Their lives are expendable. Existing safety measures are not enforced by the government, which placates local business owners and their U.S. and European corporate customers.

No factory owner has ever been found liable for a worker’s death. It’s no wonder, as these business owners have power; many are politicians. 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, local garment manufacturers, the government and Western companies were supposed to implement safety measures and address unsound plants. But nothing has changed.

Many retail giants deny they purchase Bangladeshi goods and blame subcontractors, in a scheme to avoid any responsibility for plant safety. A few Western retailers claim they’ll help fund safety efforts and building improvements, but say they are “waiting” for others to sign on. Walmart, H&M and the Gap have said “No” to financing safeguards.

The Rana Plaza disaster shows that no company, local or global, nor the government is serious about improving safety conditions for the workers. In fact, European business associations and Primark had approved the factories in “safety audits.”

Now, labor unions and workers’ rights groups in Bangladesh are urging companies to support an action plan to prevent more building collapses and fires. This Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement was written after the Tazreen Factory blaze. Western corporations are resisting.

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 other retail giants, to purchase clothing produced in the world’s second leading garment exporter.

There are 5,000 clothing factories there, 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 “super-exploitation.”

Some $18 billion to $20 billion a year comes into the economy from garment exports; that’s 80 percent of the country’s exports. The U.S. buys 23 percent of these goods, more than any other country. Western retailers make megaprofits from selling the clothing 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 aren’t protected. There are few in the garment industry. When workers organize, they are often beaten and fired. Last year, labor organizer Animul Islam was tortured and killed. No one has been arrested for his murder.

The struggle goes on

Yet, no matter what the government and companies do, they can’t stop the class struggle by the workers, who constantly demonstrate for higher wages, better working conditions and unionization — and who have been on the streets since April 24 protesting the horrific Rana Plaza deaths.

Mainstream opposition-alliance and leftist parties have called for a May 2 countrywide strike. These parties, including the Communist Party of Bangladesh, Socialist Party of Bangladesh and Ganatantrik Baam Morcha, demand that Rana Plaza building and apparel factory owners be tried and punished and that all injured workers receive compensation. They insist on trials of all owners of companies where industrial accidents have occurred — and complicit government officials.

Meanwhile, activists in the U.S. and England, including Bangladeshis, have rallied outside headquarters of corporations, that super-exploit Bangladeshi labor. These are important actions: Pressure should be escalated against the transnational companies, which escape culpability for these deaths and disasters — and to show solidarity with workers in Bangladesh.

Isn’t it time for an international outcry against this “profits before people” system? Isn’t it time to hit hard at capitalist 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 400 workers enough of a reason?