Workers protest in Bangladesh, need solidarity

The death toll is more than 1050 in the calamitous factory cave-in on April 24 at Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh. Those who perished were mainly young women. Many had traveled from poor, rural regions to find jobs in the garment industry.

It is reportedly the deadliest disaster in clothing industry history. Anguished relatives have gathered around the building’s rubble, gripping photographs of their daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, mothers, fathers and spouses, even as it became clear there were no more survivors.

More than a thousand of the 2,437 workers found alive have horrific injuries, several requiring amputations. Many families have lost their primary wage earners, through either death or injury.

Immediately after the cave-in, workers erupted, marching angrily for days around Dhaka, the country’s capital, as police confronted them with tear gas and rubber bullets. The protesters demanded the death penalty for the building’s landlord and clothing factory owners.

May Day: workers demand justice

On May Day, tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in Dhaka to demand higher wages, safe working conditions — and justice for their fallen and injured co-workers.

Due to the workers’ uproar, authorities arrested 12 people, including landlord Mohammed Sohel Rana, plant owners, managers and engineers. The day before the cave-in, Sohel Rana asserted the structure was safe, defying evacuation orders, after huge cracks appeared in the walls. Apparel bosses ordered employees back to their workstations, despite knowing the dangers. Engineers erected the structurally unsound facility. Savar’s mayor was suspended for approving the illegal construction plans.

The country’s High Court ordered the government to seize Sohel Rana’s property and freeze the Rana Plaza factory owners’ assets to pay the workers’ salaries.

Whether the culprits are tried and punished for their crimes against the workers remains to be seen. No garment bosses there have ever been found culpable for employees’ deaths or injuries in an industrial disaster.

Officials bemoan the “production disruptions” and “labor unrest,” while minimizing the severe devastation created by this “industrial massacre.” It’s not surprising, given the Bangladesh’s government’s alliance with local bosses to keep labor and production costs low, while suppressing union activity — to enable Western companies to maximize their profits.

Retail giants refuse safety plan

Since November’s Tazreen Fashions factory fire, which killed 112 workers, labor activists in Bangladesh and abroad have sought agreement from Western retailers for independent inspections and funding safeguards for the country’s 4 million garment workers. Only a few Western companies have signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. The Gap and the biggest buyers of their clothing, Walmart and H&M, have not.

U.S. and European companies quickly distanced themselves from Rana Plaza clothing makers after the collapse, concerned their reputations — and sales — would be affected by association. The May 3 New York Times cited a Canadian executive who pointed out that only two of the 30 Western brands that purchased goods made there commented on the disaster.

The German Agency for International Cooperation met with 24 major Western brands on April 29 near Frankfurt to discuss the Bangladesh crisis. The eruption of the class struggle must have rattled retailers, which don’t want higher production and labor costs or a rebelling workforce. They won’t take responsibility for the workers’ safety, but want the Bangladesh government to fix the problems. Above all else, they seek to protect their super-profits.

Ineke Zeldenrust, of the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign, called on corporations to sign the fire and safety agreement by May 15. She admitted nothing concrete came out of Germany’s gathering. “Brands can no longer justify any further delay. … The lack of action demonstrated by brands amounts to criminal negligence,” she said. (Los Angeles Times, April 30)

Some labor organizations say retailers’ contributions of $3 billion over five years would pay for new safeguards in Bangladesh’s 5,000 apparel plants. Walmart alone could pay this in one year and still have $30 billion left in profits — but they’re solidly opposed.

Meanwhile, the Walt Disney Company threatened to end production in Bangladesh, fearing the workers’ uprising would increase labor costs and deciding that it’s better to exploit another poor country’s working class than to spend money on safety measures for Bangladeshi workers — and risk losing even a bit of their earnings.

Garment workers need unions, solidarity

Companies should be penalized for paying this country’s 4 million garment workers starvation wages of $38 a month, which many workers must stretch to support children. And it took a struggle to win that wage.

With union protection, Bangladesh’s workers could have refused to enter Rana Plaza on April 24 without losing pay or their jobs. Without it, they’re treated only as the vehicle for making profits for the big brands; they are replaceable, their lives expendable.

Blame can also be placed on Washington, London, Paris and Madrid for not insisting on safe working conditions in plants producing goods for Western companies. The Obama administration is privately collaborating with U.S. corporations on new trade agreements with Asian countries — without labor representatives’ input.

International solidarity with Bangladesh’s workers is vital, and so is pressuring the Western brands that purchase clothing they make. However, it’s not just that corporate policies must be protested. It’s beyond that. Super-exploitation of labor is the essence of capitalist globalization; it is what creates the enormous profits, the wealth.

That is the ugly face of capitalist globalization, of imperialism. For the sake of our fallen Bangladeshi sisters and brothers, let’s oppose the whole rotten system.