Tens of thousands of workers marched through central Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, on May Day to demand the death penalty for the owner of the Rana Plaza building that collapsed April 24 killing more than 525 workers, most of them young women, and injuring 2,500 more who were found trapped in the rubble. Hundreds of young workers are still unaccounted for and believed dead under the factory’s ruins.
Solidarity actions with Bangladeshi workers were also held in Cambodia and in New York, Los Angeles and London, among many other places across the globe.
The May Day marchers called for many Bangladeshi capitalists to be brought to justice — and said that they are responsible for this crime that has brought tragedy to Bangladesh’s working class. Yet the bigger corporate criminals are located not in Bangladesh, but in the imperialist centers in Europe, Canada and especially in the United States.
There, big-brand retailers — Walmart, H & M and Gap, for example — set the demands for low prices and speedy deliveries that are the basic causes for the murder of so many workers and for the slave-wages paid to the 4 million Bangladeshis forced to eke out a living in the garment sweatshops.
The march in Dhaka was not a silent one. On foot, in pickup trucks and on motorcycles, the workers wound their way through the central city, waving the Bangladeshi flag and banners, beating drums and chanting, “Direct action!” and “Death penalty!” A spokesperson for the march spoke from the back of a truck over a loudspeaker: “My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless.” (Associated Press, May 1)
“Enough is enough,” said Liakot Khan, another protester, who stressed:”The government should hang the proprietor and the factory owners. We want justice for these murders.” (France 24, May 1)
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 to meet production deadlines. 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.
The building’s owner, 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 had the top three floors of the eight-story building added to the original structure. To top off the utter disregard for safety, the building was erected on swampland in the first place.
Rana is now being questioned by police while under arrest. According to the AP story, “He is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail.”
“I want the death penalty for the owner of the building. We want regular salaries, raises and absolutely we want better safety in our factories,” said Mongidul Islam Rana, 18, no relative, who works in a different garment factory.
In reaction to the mass uprising of the workers, the Bangladesh High Court ordered the government to confiscate Rana’s property and to freeze the assets of the Rana Plaza factory owners so the money can be used to pay the salaries of their workers.
On the other hand, the government ordered its police to fire rubber bullets at the protesting workers when they rebelled against the factory owners in response to the building’s collapse. Up to now, no factory owner had 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.
So far, the reaction of the big-brand retailers, as, for example, Disney, has been to threaten to move their manufacture sources from Bangladesh to other oppressed countries. These retailers have refused to take responsibility for the costs of ensuring safety in the workplace. Their threat to move is motivated by their fear that the justified worker uprising in Bangladesh will increase the costs of production — and that the class struggle will escalate even further.