Bangladesh: Who killed 1,135 garment workers?

April 24 is the first anniversary of the horrific Rana Plaza building collapse in Dakar, Bangladesh, when at least 1,135 garment workers died, mostly young women. Thousands more were injured.

This terrible tragedy focused world attention on the exploitative, dangerous conditions under which garment workers toil in Bangladesh. It revealed capitalist greed within the context of global imperialism, whereby superprofits take precedence over human life.

Some 4 million workers toil in 5,000 garment plants in Bangladesh. They are paid starvation wages so that big profits can be made by local factory owners, and even bigger profits by transnational corporations. About $20 billion a year comes into Bangladesh’s economy from clothing exports. Worldwide sales enhance the coffers of huge clothing brands like H&M, Primark, Loblaw, Walmart, The Gap, Mango and Benetton.

Who is to blame for the 2013 catastrophe? Rana Plaza’s owner, Sohel Rana, is in jail facing murder charges, say police investigators; his property was just seized. Another 40 people, including factory owners, are expected to be charged with complicity in negligence leading to the calamity. Despite severe cracks in the building’s walls and employees’ objections, workers were forced to return to their workstations, upon threats of losing wages or jobs.

It took a militant workers’ movement inside the country calling for justice for the dead and injured workers, with walkouts, strikes, demonstrations and street occupations — and a world outcry — to pressure the government into arresting Rana, and then to level serious charges against him and others responsible for this “industrial massacre.”

Who avoids blame for this disaster? Behind the scenes are the retail giants, which demand low labor and production costs and speedy turnaround of orders. These corporate owners and executives have no regard for employees’ safety or lives; they see them as expendable and replaceable.

U.S. and European governments have responsibility here, too, in that they do not insist on safe working conditions in factories making goods for Western companies or consumers.

After the Rana Plaza catastrophe, workers’ advocates in Bangladesh and elsewhere pushed for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. In response to garment workers’ insistence and international pressure, more than 150 brands signed this legally binding agreement, which compels them to fund factory safety upgrades. Engineers inspecting plants are finding them rife with dangers. Already, eight factories have been closed until structural changes are made.

U.S. retail giants, including Walmart and The Gap, refused to sign the accord and established a separate, weaker, non-legally-binding plan with little funding, report labor activists.

The U.N.-linked International Labour Organization established the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund. It aims to raise $40 million for the 4,000 disaster victims and relatives. Today, only half of the 28 brands tied to the Rana Plaza factories have contributed, and their contributions amount to a mere $15 million. Many retailers will not donate — unfortunately, they are not being compelled to support dead workers’ children or workers so disabled they cannot re-enter the workforce.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, gave such a pittance that the Clean Clothes Campaign insists the company give more, and so should Children’s Place and Loblaw. The Gap gave only $500,000, a shameful drop in the bucket for that retailer.

Struggle continues

Despite the horrific events of a year ago, workers are still paid starvation wages and forced to work 15-hour days. This is the truth about capitalist globalization; there is no concern for the workers’ well-being. They are just the means to produce megaprofits.

However, this past year has been marked by strong workers’ protests, strikes and more union organizing than ever. Some actions have been repressed by companies and police. Western brands and local bosses expect the government to stop “labor unrest,” and keep the workers in line.

Yet, no matter how hard they try, the bosses cannot stop the class struggle. They cannot stop the workers from protesting their exploitation nor from organizing unions, and they certainly can’t stop them from winning allies worldwide.

What our Bangladeshi sisters and brothers need is international solidarity from all workers and progressive movements. They especially need activists here to keep the pressure on U.S. retail giants and insist on fair wages and treatment for them.

On this May Day, it is time to redouble our commitment and work to support the workers of Bangladesh.