Tragedy in Bangladesh

It has been two weeks since an eight storey commercial building collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24, trapping workers in what has now become South Asia’s worst industrial disaster. At last count the death toll surpassed 1000 people. It comes less than five months after 112 people were killed in a factory fire in the same town of Savar.

Savar, which lies 30 kilometres southwest of the capital Dhaka, was home to more than 3000 employees who worked in the Rana Plaza building’s five garment factories. They made clothes for Western retailers including Benetton, Mango and Primark.

At least 2,437 people were rescued from the rubble, with around 1,000 suffering serious injuries, including scores whose limbs had to be severed in order to be freed.

The deadly tragedy has shone the spotlight on Bangladesh’s garment industry, which is a $20-billion-a-year industry that accounts for 77% of the country’s exports. About 4 million people work in the industry, making it the world’s second-largest apparel exporter after China.

Preliminary findings of a government probe blamed vibrations by four giant generators on the compound’s upper floors for triggering the collapse. The poor standard of construction meant the building was unable to support the generators running inside, according to the Export Promotion Bureau, a wing of the Ministry of Commerce.

According to police, the upper four floors were built without a permit. Complaints by workers of cracks appearing in the walls went ignored, and garment workers were forced to return to work. The building owner Sohel Rana and five factory owners have now been charged with causing deaths due to negligence and violating construction laws, punishable with up to seven years in prison. Rana was arrested after a four day manhunt, apprehended as he was attempting to cross the border to India. He appeared in court last week dressed in a helmet and bulletproof jacket, as a crowd of protesters demanded he receive the death penalty. Local police chief Mohammed Asaduzzman is quoted as saying that the police are investigating adding possible murder charges, which can be a capital offence.

Masood Reza, an architect with Vastukalpa Consultants, who designed the initial floors of the building, said they designed the building in 2004 as a shopping mall and not for industrial purposes.

In the immediate aftermath of the April 24 collapse, garment workers across the country took to rioting in protest against unsafe working conditions. On May 7, hundreds of survivors blocked a main highway to demand their unpaid wages and compensation. Recenrlt, the government  finally started responding to their grievances, disbursing salaries and other benefits, although this process is slow.

The Savar tragedy led to international scrutiny of the relationship between multinational clothing retailers and the factories from whom they source their supplies.

Bangladesh recently closed down 18 garment factories temporarily as part of its efforts to allay fears of international buyers and rights groups over safety and labour standards in the country’s apparel sector.

The European Union is currently considering action under its trade rules to encourage changes in supply-chain operations. 60% of Bangladesh’s garment exports go to Europe. Retailers including Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney, along with labour activists, are considering an agreement to improve factory safety in Bangladesh for at least two years. In the light of recent incidents, it would be reasonable to expect that there will now be a much greater impetus to adopt these improved standards.

Walt Disney, the world’s largest entertainment company, removed Bangladesh in March from a list of countries where partners can produce clothing and merchandise. They left the door open to returning if factories begin cooperating with the Better Work Program jointly run by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation, which is connected to the World Bank.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufactures & Exporters Association (BGMEA), which is desperate to retain its global customers, recently met with representatives of 40 buyers, including H&M, JC Penny, Gap, Nike, Li & Fung and Tesco. It promised to carry out building inspections of all its members.

In a country that is notorious for corruption, bribery and a lack of regulation, whether the scale of this disaster will be sufficient to galvanise comprehensive change remains to be seen. Consider the fact that Sohel Rana, the building owner, was also a leader in the Jubo League, the youth wing of the ruling Awami League party. This was  a fact initially denied by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The government showed clearly that it is incapable of acting on its own initiative to protect its workers. When the United Nations offered to send expert rescue teams with dogs, micro-cameras and other equipment to the site to assist in recovery efforts, this offer was rejected by Dhaka authorities. To call this tragedy an accident would be a mistruth. This accident was the culmination of a culture where profits were placed ahead of the sanctity of life.

Only when foreign governments and multinational corporations exercise their significant leverage, can this provide a realistic path to ensuring that Bangladeshi garment workers aren’t stuck in the gauntlet of dangerous working conditions. Multinational companies cannot expect cheap labour if it comes at the expense of workers’ fundamental safety and well-being.