IT LOOKS like the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history. Thirty-six hours after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, dead bodies kept emerging from a pile of concrete rubble that was, until Wednesday morning, a complex that included a shopping centre and six garment factories.
At least 250 people were killed when this squat tower block in the heart of Bangladesh’s garment-industrial belt, north of the capital Dhaka, tumbled down like a house of cards on the morning of April 24th. Hundreds more were injured, some pulled from the rubble. Police have said that hundreds of people are still missing.
The army and the fire brigade are jointly leading the rescue effort, joined by hundreds of volunteers, at a scene of utter devastation—surrounded by wailing relatives and tens of thousands of bystanders. If police estimates prove to be even vaguely accurate, this may turn out to be the second-deadliest industrial disaster in South Asia after the Bhopal disaster in 1984. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people, most of them female garment workers, are believed to have been in the complex when it suddenly came down.
The catastrophe is the latest manifestation of a flourishing and corrupt system of workplace practices that has the effect of keeping prices low on Western high streets at the cost of putting faraway lives at risk. The people who bear those risks live and work in a country where their deaths carry pitifully small consequences for employers or, it would seem, for the state. The government says it will pay the equivalent of $250 in compensation to each family who lost a relative in the collapse at Savar.
The building was called “Rana Plaza”, for its owner, Sohel Rana, a local politician of the ruling Awami League. Its builders had won approval for only a five-storey structure. Six of its floors contained garment factories. Most of those produced clothing for retailers in America and the European Union.
Bangladesh’s home minister, Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, has said the building violated applicable building codes. According to reports in the local media, its foundation was unstable; part of the complex had been built on a pond filled with sand. Despite this, each of the garment companies with operations in Rana Plaza should have held a factory licence issued by the government.
When visible cracks appeared in the building on April 23rd, both the police and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), a powerful industry lobby group, warned the owner that the building was unsafe. They were ignored and the complex stayed open for business. The accident’s survivors say their employers had pressed them to turn up for work as usual on Wednesday. Even well before Rana Plaza collapsed, some of the workers claim, the building would vibrate whenever its diesel generator was running.
As frantic rescue efforts continued the day after the collapse, angry workers took to the streets and started smashing other garment factories in Dhaka. By midday almost all of the capital’s garment factories in the capital had been shuttered. Workers armed with sticks roamed the streets in parts of the city. About 1,500 of them laid siege temporarily to the headquarters of the BGMEA, which represents 4,500 companies and has ties to top cronies in Bangladesh’s duelling political dynasties (at least 25 MPs have a direct stake in the garment business).
The tragedy is the latest in a string of disasters to befall Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment sector, which is projected to overtake China’s. Bangladesh is set to become the world’s largest apparel exporter over the next few years. Only five months earlier at least 112 workers died in a hellish blaze in the Tazreen garment factory. That fire also shocked many onlookers, but it surprised few.
Foreign retailers place orders with these Bangladeshi factories. And the vast majority of them do comply with safety regulations, broadly, such as their buyers demand. But manufacturers’ margins stay thin. Many of the exporters accept prices on orders at which they find it hard to make a profit. Too often their profit depends on sub-contracting out to the shadow economy, where wages are even lower than in Bangladesh’s formal sector, regulations don’t apply and the licence to pollute is presumed.
As it happens, however, the companies that rented workspace at Rana Plaza seem not to have been from the shady side of the garment industry. Instead most of them were among the country’s 1,500 regular exporters. The EU and others say they are investigating this case, with the government. They should. After all, it is their “trade aid”—Bangladesh’s duty-free access to European and American markets—that created this industry in the first place.
For now, all of the paying parties—the producers, buyers and consumers—are shirking the task of protecting workers’ lives in Bangladesh’s garment sector. Until that changes, too many workers are likely to die on the job.
(Picture credit: AFP)
Source: The Economist