A tragedy shows the need for a radical improvement of building standards
May 4th 2013 | DHAKA AND SAVAR
IT WAS South Asia’s worst industrial accident since the Bhopal disaster of 1984, when a gas leak killed at least 3,800 people. In a few terrifying moments on April 24th a building that included a shopping centre and five garment factories collapsed in Savar, an industrial corner near Dhaka, the capital. A week later the official toll of 427 looked like an underestimate. Some 2,400 people escaped or were rescued from the rubble. But long lists of the missing, pasted on walls in nearby schools and hospitals by weeping relatives, suggest that at least another 150 may have died.
Most were workers employed to stitch garments for export, mainly to Europe. They had been crammed into floors that were each the size of a football pitch. The building was called Rana Plaza after its owner, Sohel Rana, a strongman of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League. He fled but was arrested four days later in Benapole, on the border with India, and has been charged with criminal negligence. Planning approval had been given for only five of the building’s eight storeys. Clothing and documents in the rubble suggest that buyers included European and North American brands such as Primark, Joe Fresh, Kik and Benetton.
The rescue operation was a fiasco, with the area not even cordoned off. Tens of thousands of bystanders besieged the site, some entering the wreckage. Soldiers and firemen were present, but it was mostly left to locals to drag out survivors and corpses. At one point bystanders pelted volunteers with stones for making such slow progress, prompting police to use tear gas. Every day the stench of rotting bodies grew.
Foreign governments and the United Nations had offered help almost immediately. But Bangladesh’s rulers refused, prickly with national pride. The resulting lack of sniffer dogs or machinery may have cost lives. Worse, the calamity had been predicted. Cracks appeared in Rana Plaza the day before its collapse. Both the police and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), a powerful lobby, told the owner his building was unsafe but he ignored them and the factories stayed open. Workers said they had been pressed to show up because orders were overdue.
The structure first fell at the rear, where it had been built atop a pond filled with sand. Mohammad Bashirullah, whose home is 100 metres away, says that construction was flimsy. The walls and floors of his flat juddered when the factories ran generators, he says. Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, has said that 90% of Bangladesh’s buildings meet no building codes. That may be an underestimate.
Many other rickety factories have undoubtedly been built as Bangladesh scrambles to meet a boom in demand for its garments. The industry is worth some $20 billion, nearly double its size in January 2011 when the European Union relaxed its trade rules to allow the poorest countries to import fabric (rather than produce it domestically) to be stitched into garments that are sold duty-free in the EU.
As production shifts from China, Bangladesh expects to become the world’s largest exporter of clothing. Buyers are unlikely to abandon it. Some firms linked to the Savar disaster have promised compensation for victims. The EU says it will push for higher standards. America, which had also been negotiating duty-free access for Bangladeshi goods, had already insisted on better conditions.
Bangladesh’s main advantage is its low cost. Labour is desperately cheap: the monthly minimum wage of 3,000 taka ($38) is less than a fifth of the going rate in China. The lack of environmental protection is a licence to pollute. An adviser to one foreign buyer says there are “no rules whatsoever that cannot be bent”. As a result, retailers’ margins are generous: a pair of jeans is typically produced for a quarter of its €20 ($26) European shop-price.
Political fallout will probably be limited. Voters and the opposition soon forgot previous disasters. A fire at a Dhaka garment factory in November killed 112. Nor is Bangladesh alone in its wretched safety standards. In September a fire killed 289 in a factory in Karachi, Pakistan. In April dozens of Indians died when an illegally built residential tower tumbled in Mumbai.
Bangladesh’s garment business has growing clout. The BGMEA’s 4,000 members account for four of every five dollars earned from exports. And the industry is tied to the corrupt political system: at least 25 MPs have investments in the garment business. After the November fire, the BGMEA sent inspectors to some of its members’ factories. Four buildings had structural flaws or violated construction or labour laws. Who were the owners? The lobby group’s president, Atiqul Islam, his predecessor and a former vice-president of the association. None was prosecuted.
Without pressure from others—foreign buyers especially—little is likely to change. A test is due this month, following a court’s ruling that the BGMEA’s 15-storey headquarters in Dhaka is illegal. The court ruled that it must be demolished by June 16th. Nobody expects the association to comply. But if it fails to put its own house in order, why should anyone else?