Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Exposes Cracks in the System

Michelle Chen April 26, 2013

A Bangladeshi volunteer carries an injured garment worker from the Rana factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh, after the 8-story building collapsed Wednesday.

There are few ways to make a decent liv­ing in Bangladesh, but there are many ways to die try­ing. The cru­el weight of that real­i­ty bore down on a Dha­ka fac­to­ry com­plex on Wednes­day as it crashed to the ground and instant­ly extin­guished hun­dreds of lives and livelihoods.

As of this writ­ing, the body count at Rana Plaza is about 300 and ris­ing, with hun­dreds more work­ers still unac­count­ed for, and the 72-hour emer­gency win­dow for recov­er­ing trapped peo­ple alive almost gone.

Mean­while, hun­dreds of thou­sands of enraged work­ers in the area have gone on strike and ral­lied to demand jus­tice for the vic­tims.

While fam­i­lies strug­gle to iden­ti­fy the dead, activists have begun to inves­ti­gate the after­math and uncov­ered a slew of multi­na­tion­al labels asso­ci­at­ed with Rana: They include U.S.-based The Children’s Place and Cato Fash­ions, France’s Tex (Car­refour brand), Benet­ton, Spain’s Man­go, and Canada’s Joe Fresh, Ger­many’s NKD and oth­ers. Wal­mart says it had no autho­rized” sup­pli­er at Rana but one of the fac­to­ries list­ed Wal­mart as a client, reports the Asso­ci­at­ed Press, and oth­er com­pa­nies have scram­bled to dis­tance them­selves from the facility.

Some work­ers had report­ed­ly noticed a crack in the building’s edi­fice short­ly before the inci­dent, but their warn­ings went ignored. Some were told to report to work any­way or risk los­ing a month’s wages. With min­i­mum pay set below $40 per month (about the retail price of a typ­i­cal sweater they might pro­duce), work­ers could ill afford to be con­cerned about their safe­ty, and so they fol­lowed orders and report­ed to what would be for many their last day of work. Kalpona Atk­er of the Bangladesh Cen­ter for Work­er Sol­i­dar­i­ty told Democ­ra­cy Now! on Thurs­day:

On Tues­day, when work­ers saw the crack in the build­ing, they denied to work, so they left the fac­to­ry in the after­noon. But on the Wednes­day morn­ing, they were forced to go inside the fac­to­ry, and some­one with a hand mic said, One crack doesn’t mat­ter. The fac­to­ry will be — there will be noth­ing hap­pen.” And they were forced to keep work­ing. And after this announce­ment, with­in 30 min­utes the build­ing collapsed.

Fam­i­ly mem­bers scoured for any sign of loved ones amid the rub­ble, while res­cue work­ers used a strip of fab­ric as a makeshift slide” for bod­ies. The scene of car­nage cap­tured the pecu­liar­ly dehu­man­iz­ing nature of the glob­al man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tem: Work­ers and their com­mu­ni­ties are reduced to anony­mous bod­ies while prof­it con­tin­ues to flow smooth­ly to Benet­ton, The Children’s Place and Joe Fresh. Cat­a­stro­phes like the build­ing col­lapse or fac­to­ry fires or the every­day, low-grade dis­as­ters of pover­ty and attacks on union lead­ersall that suf­fer­ing is weld­ed to the prof­it struc­ture, occa­sion­al­ly papered over with token cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty” and eth­i­cal sourc­ing” programs.

The inci­dent at Rana (a prop­er­ty report­ed­ly owned by an influ­en­tial local politi­cian) was in a way, sad­ly pre­dictable, com­ing five months after a hor­ri­ble fac­to­ry blaze that killed at least 112 work­ers who had sup­plied clothes for Wal­mart, Sears and oth­er big brands. Yet, while the fac­to­ry and build­ing own­ers at Rana face charges of neg­li­gence, the West­ern com­pa­nies that reap the prof­its face a mere pub­lic-rela­tions embarrassment.

Liana Foxvog of Inter­na­tion­al Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) not­ed that the Tazreen fire was the dead­liest gar­ment fac­to­ry dis­as­ter Bangladesh had seenuntil this week:

Now the death toll in the col­lapse of the Rana Plaza gar­ment fac­to­ries has sur­passed Tazreen. My hope is that all the media atten­tion and expres­sions of con­cern and out­rage by con­sumers will trans­late into fac­to­ry own­ers, brands and gov­ern­ment tak­ing mean­ing­ful action to put an end to the killing of Bangladesh’s gar­ment workers.

ILRF, the Work­er Rights Con­sor­tium and oth­er advo­ca­cy groups have cam­paigned for the Bangladesh Fire and Build­ing Safe­ty Agree­ment, which would place par­tic­i­pat­ing brands in a legal­ly bind­ing pro­gram to address work­place haz­ards — more rig­or­ous than cur­rent vol­un­tary safe­ty pro­grams — and sub­ject all con­trac­tors in the pro­duc­tion chain to tighter inde­pen­dent over­sight. So far, just two multi­na­tion­al brands, PVH and Tchi­bo, have signed on.

Per­haps the most trag­ic aspect of the build­ing col­lapse is that the fac­to­ry work­ers could have been heroes had they had the pow­er to act on the warn­ing signs they had spot­ted ear­li­er on. If they had the sup­port of a union, they might have col­lec­tive­ly refused to report to work until the haz­ard was addressed. But since Bangladesh’s gar­ment sec­tor has vir­u­lent­ly block­ad­ed and squelched union orga­niz­ing, Human Rights Watch explains, their vig­i­lance could not pro­tect against, but mere­ly por­tend, their sealed fate:

Accord­ing to labor orga­niz­ers in Dha­ka, none of the fac­to­ries locat­ed in the Rana Plaza build­ing were union­ized. Weak enforce­ment of labor laws in Bangladesh con­tributes to impuni­ty for employ­ers to harass and intim­i­date both work­ers and local trade union­ists seek­ing to exer­cise their right to orga­nize and col­lec­tive­ly bargain.

The anti-union envi­ron­ment girds the bru­tal man­u­fac­tur­ing struc­ture that impos­es a fever­ish pace of pro­duc­tion on work­ers, many of them impov­er­ished young women. The pro­duc­tion chain is fur­ther lubri­cat­ed by the geo­graph­ic dis­tance of the com­pa­nies plac­ing the order, which gives U.S.- and Europe-based brands plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty” when these man-made acci­dents erupt in the glob­al South.

While com­pa­nies feign igno­rance and puz­zle­ment over what went wrong” at Rana, they’ve already proven that they’re well aware of the root prob­lem. They shipped their man­u­fac­tur­ing over­seas specif­i­cal­ly to avoid pro­tec­tive reg­u­la­tions and thus keep over­head and labor costs unfath­omably cheap. Con­verse­ly, cor­po­ra­tions could reverse this vicious trade-off between rights and prof­its by invest­ing heav­i­ly to improve work­ing con­di­tions and strength­en safe­ty enforce­ment, as well as mon­i­tor­ing under a pro­gram like the Bangladesh safe­ty agree­ment. But that would mean expend­ing the very same resources that they’d worked so hard to hoard by con­tract­ing with the cheap­est and most dan­ger­ous work­places in the world.

So the mar­ket log­ic will con­tin­ue as long as the cheap clothes keep fly­ing off the rack. Whether or not the Rana inci­dent ulti­mate­ly shames multi­na­tion­als to get seri­ous about work­place safe­ty, gar­ment work­ers in Bangladesh are already won­der­ing whether their fac­to­ry will be the next dis­as­ter site. In an inter­view with Al Jazeera, one young work­er said, We are feel­ing shock and pain. We want to pro­tect our col­leagues, our broth­ers and sis­ters. Build­ings should be made safer than they have been in the past, but this is not being done.”

So far, the peo­ple who are most active­ly respond­ing to the Rana dis­as­ter are, as usu­al, the work­ers who ral­lied in the streets to express out­rage at the gar­ment industry.

The cracks in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tem are show­ing. As work­ers grim­ly await the next tragedy, the world will ignore their warn­ings at its peril.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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