On April 28, Mohammad Sohel Rana was arrested near Bangladesh’s border with India after Rana Plaza, a facility he owned containing five factories, collapsed and killed over 1,100 workers. This collapse is now the most deadly garment factory accident in history. Wearing a bulletproof vest and police helmet, Rana was escorted through Dhaka streets filled with angry mobs for his initial appearance in court.
Officials say that substandard building materials and the vibration of heavy machines caused the April 24 collapse. The day before, significant cracks appeared in the building and Rana contacted an engineer, Abdur Razzak Khan, for an inspection. Khan has since said in a television interview that he proposed the evacuation of the building. Police also issued their own evacuation orders. Yet hours before the collapse, Rana told his workers and managers that the building was safe to enter. The Guardian quotes Dilara Begum, a survivor of the accident: “We didn’t want to go in but the supervisors threatened to dock pay if we didn’t return to work.” Khan has been arrested in connection with the unsafe and illegal addition of three extra floors to the five-story complex.
Nearly 1,000 people have been killed in Bangladeshi factories since 2006, including a factory fire that killed 112 people in November, prompting the Bangladeshi government to promise increased safety regulations for garment manufacturing.
The frequent factory disasters and the accusations cast toward owners and employers are the most recent iterations of a long history of labor tensions. Workers blame their employers and the government for forcing them to work long hours of difficult labor in unsafe conditions for very low wages. A graphic made by CNN using data from the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, shows that a denim shirt costs $13.22 to make in the United States, versus $3.72 in Bangladesh. American garment workers make $7.25 per hour; Bangladeshis make $0.21. Garment factory managers blame the retailers whose clothing they produce for demanding the cheapest products without concern for the conditions in which they are made.
Despite the blame levied, it appears that labor advocates do not actually want the companies to leave Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government and its people recognize that the garment industry constitutes 77 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, providing a much-needed $20 billion in revenue, and making it the second largest garment exporter in the world.
Instead, some are calling for Western consumer countries to pressure the Bangladeshi government to implement mandates for better working conditions and wages. The European Union is now considering trade restrictions if the Bangladeshi government does not address labor issues. Others believe that the companies that outsource to Bangladesh should be the ones demanding better working conditions, for it hurts their brands to be attached to these accidents. For example, some British brands are throwing support behind the Ethical Trading Initiative, a coalition of companies and unions dedicated to improving the lives of laborers worldwide. Disney announced that it is discontinuing all production in Bangladesh by March 2014. Other companies, such as Walmart, M&S, and Primark, one of the companies that purchased garments from Rana Plaza, are looking into improving minimum standards in factories and ensuring building safety.
Either way, it appears to some that this disaster may represent a turning point in the labor movement in Bangladesh. Human rights groups note that this is the first case in which a “factory owner was prosecuted over the deaths of workers.” Someone is actually being held accountable. Bangladesh’s Home Minister, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, has committed to pursuing further arrests, saying, “This is a case of sheer negligence and sheer arrogance,” both from the factory owners and the government. Yet the extent to which this collapse will affect labor in Bangladesh remains unclear. For now, enough time has passed that workers have given up on finding survivors who have been buried in the rubble. They have now shifted their focus to uncovering and identifying the bodies. Even on the eleventh day of rescue, 19 bodies were uncovered.
The danger is real and needs to be addressed as part of an unfolding tragedy. Earlier in May, a late-night sweater factory fire in Dhaka killed seven, including a police officer and the building manager. The factory was closed, meaning that no workers were injured; yet still this incident provides further evidence that factories need to be better regulated. Whether or not international leaders will address this human rights crisis will depend on the initiative of those most affected.
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