In this article Ingrid discusses the Rana Plaza collapse, explores the history of industrial accidents and the concurrent rise of trade unionism and argues that the Rana Plaza collapse as well as being an awful tragedy is a unique opportunity to push for trade union rights in Bangladesh.
On the 24th April 2013 an 8 story building collapsed in Savar, Dhaka, killing 1,127 people and leaving 2,500 inured. This is one of the deadliest incidents in garment factory history, and the deadliest accidental structure failure. As investigations began to find out the causes of this fatal industrial disaster, it became all too clear that this could have been avoided.
The factory in question was located within the Rana Plaza complex, and manufactured clothing for popular brands like Mango, Primark and Walmart. The Plaza was originally built 4 stories tall, to house shops, banks and offices. The further four floors of the factory were added without a building permit, and were structurally unsound. In the days leading up to 24th of April, cracks emerged in the bottom floors of the building, leading many of the lower floors to close. However warnings were ignored by the owners of the garment factories, who instructed staff to work despite unsafe conditions, or have pay withdrawn. As it was nearing the end of the month, and many of the workers had already spent their meagre wages from their last pay packet, this threat was enough to ensure the majority worked.
At 9am the building collapsed, and a suspected 3,122 workers were thought to have been inside at the time. More than half of these workers were women, with children in the buildings nursery facilities. Following the building collapse the owner went into hiding, with many workers emphasizing his moral culpability and calling for the death penalty. Following this disaster a wave of protests have swept Bangladesh, with workers rioting, blocking motorways, shutting down other garment plants, and using May 1st (international workers day) to highlight the needlessness of these workers deaths. Leading brands have been urged to sign the Fire and Building Safety Accord in Bangladesh, which wants to ensure “no worker need to fear for fire, building collapse, or any other accident which could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures”. Only a small number have signed this, those who have not have claimed they believe there are better ways to help the cause. Irish brand Primark is in negotiation with trade unions to compensate the families of workers, yet they are offering a minuscule sum of money in comparison to the profits they make from these factories. Compensating families is a short term solution that does nothing to tackle the inherent flaws of the garment factory system in Bangladesh, and suggests that these brands believe money is an adequate compensation for the loss of a life. One of the most high profile companies refusing to sign the Fire Safety Accord is Walmart. Who are instead following a different safety initiative in Bangladesh. Yet this agreement does nothing to inspect building structure and safety, which is key to preventing similar events happening again.
A short history of factory disasters
Building collapses and mass tragedies within factories have always been a dark footnote on our industrial history. We tend to associate these disasters with places like China and Bangladesh, something that can lead to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. Yet these events, in which the health, well-being and lives of workers are sacrificed for profit, occur in both sweatshops and in advanced capitalist countries. Around the same time as the Dhaka factory collapse, a fertilization plant in Texas killed 17 people, and injured 180. Demonstrating that poor industrial conditions are a deadly issue around the world. They will continue to happen as long as the corporate profit making system continues.
If we look at similar, previous disasters we can see patterns emerge. The 1860 Pemberton Mill collapse in Massachusetts has been described as “one of the worst industrial calamities in American history” with 145 left dead and 160 injured. Many of the conditions leading to this factory collapse mirror Dhaka 2013. The building was structurally unsound. And due to a drive for profit, the factory was overfilled with heavy machinery, leading it to buckle under pressure. Just like in our garment factories in Bangladesh today, where 90% of workers are female, in 1860 most of the workers were women, who had migrated to work in the factory. Eye witness accounts of the event describe faces in the rubble “crushed beyond recognition” and emphasize the needless loss of human life.
In 1911 in New York the ‘Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire’ killed 146 garment workers; mostly Jewish and Italian migrant workers aged 16-23. Again many of the most horrifying details of this 1911 disaster were mirrored 102 years later in Bangladesh. Many of the fire escapes and windows in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were locked and barred, because manager’s believed that workers would be tempted to steal. Many of the workers on the 8th floor of the Rana Plaza could not utilize fire escapes, as they were locked for similar reasons. The New York building had no adequate fire alarms, and the accessible fire escapes were poorly built, and collapsed under the weight of the fleeing workers. There is a post-apocalyptic quality to the 1911 factory fire, as the majority of the workers on the 8th-10th floors jumped to their deaths. In factory fires in Bangladesh, many workers jump to from roofs, as opposed to burn, in the hope that their families will be able to identify their bodies. One reporter from the 1911 factory fire wrote “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture, the thud of a speeding body on a sidewalk”
These horrific events in America also resemble the modern Bangladeshi factory collapses in a more positive way. After the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed. Both events were used as a linchpin for unionization amongst factory workers. In Bangladesh now factory workers and the proletariat are feeling similar emotions of anger and fury at the conditions they have been subjected to. The working class of Bangladesh are fighting for fairer working rights, and unionization is key to their success in this struggle. In 1911 Trade Unionist Rose Schneiderman argued “I know from my experience it is up to the working class people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is a working class movement.” This is just as relevant now. After 1860 and after 1911, workers vowed that nothing similar would ever happen again. Yet in 2013 we are still experiencing similar horrors. Now we are presented with a fork in the road, and it is up to us to decide if we allow similar events to happen again.
The problem with garment factories
This 2013 factory collapse was not unique; a string of factory disasters has plagued South Asia in recent years. An eye witness to the 2012 Dhaka Factory Fire, which killed 117 and injured 200, wrote that “Deaths in modern garment factories tend to be different from plane crashes, or many other catastrophic traumas in the slow motion extravagance of their pain.” The blame for these events has been shuffled around, with a common scapegoat for these crises being the factory owners themselves. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh argued that the factory owner Sohel Rana was entirely responsible, and despite acknowledging that an estimated 90% of the buildings in the country were unsound, made no plans to tackle the issue.
The economic model enforced on the garment factories creates hostile and cruel working environments. Factory owners are not inherently evil, but are subjected to a system which forces them to cut corners. They are paid as little as possible from multinational corporations, and many have to divide a large chunk of this towards paying bribes from politicians and gangs. Many have little spare money to prevent the inhumane conditions in the factories; which leave many workers blinded or physically disabled. One worker in Dhaka described her day “the machine used for making sweaters has to be paddled with the right leg continuously for 12 hours a day, with a lunch break of 30 minutes, because of this my whole right side is in constant movement whilst my left side is idle, leaving me disabled.” Working in poorly lit factory floors to sew tiny, precise designs on garments can leave workers blind, and the majority of working class in Bangladesh have no medical insurance. With this we must consider the psychological effects of working 12-16 hours a day, most of the week.
Yet we must recognize that the problem is inherent to the garment industry in Bangladesh and the capitalist model it adheres to. The Western consumer industry has developed around a fast fashion model, which ensures clothing is being produced quickly and cheaply. This is great for shoppers in the West, but not so much for workers in South Asia. The fashion industry today has been shaped by short product cycles and flexible supply chains. This means that suppliers in the garment industry rarely have contracts for more than two seasons, and aim to create clothing as quickly and cheaply as possible in order to secure future work. One of the reasons the owners of the Rana Plaza garment factory would have been unwilling to close would have been the threat of ‘contract termination’. In our ‘fast fashion’ industry clothing brands drive to have new stock in store weekly, and factory workers recognized that two days in Rana Plaza without production would have been detrimental to this target.
It is clear that multi-national brands do not care about the conditions in the factories they are sourcing labour. Most of the source companies do not advocate independent monitoring of factory conditions. Other brands such as Walmart boast there ‘Social Corporate Responsibility’ by waving around the fact that they only use factories that have passed audits. Yet these audits are corrupt, recently Rana Plaza passed two.
This event will not be the last of its kind, as long as global corporations continue to push for profit. Multinational brands operate through a complex system of subcontractors, ensuring that they are adequately distanced from the production process, and also making it harder to directly blame them. Following the factory collapse, many of the companies expressed ‘shock’ and ‘sadness’ at the event, yet this cynical response did little to hide the fact that corporations knew what conditions were required to produce garments at their demanded price.
The Bangladeshi garment industry brings in American $20 billion a year to the country and the government fears that securing higher workers’ wages and better rights will drive companies to search for cheap labour elsewhere. Eighty per cent of its exports are from the garment industry, and the government is desperate to maintain the countries competitiveness. The average worker in a garment factory in Dhaka is paid US$38 a month. Yet studies held have demonstrated that better workers’ rights do not need to undermine company’s profit margins. Richard Locke, a political scientist of M.I.T recently studied two Nike suppliers, one which Nike worked with directly to ensure workers welfare, and one they employed a hands of approach. The one Nike worked directly with had better conditions and pay, but was also significantly more productive. We have seen before that positive change is possible within the garment industry. In Indonesia in the 1990s workers managed to improve conditions without increasing unemployment, whilst in the Dominican Republic, we have witnessed an overhaul of corrupt and incompetent labour systems, in order to secure better working conditions and productivity. Most significantly is the improvement of factory conditions in Cambodia, in which both workers’ rights and export numbers were increased. These reforms in Cambodia happened despite unstable governmental systems, if Cambodia can do it - why can’t Bangladesh?
The shift of cheap labour to increase profits is easy to trace. Once US workers in the garment industry for brands like Walmart were working for $10.20 per hour, now in Dhaka workers are paid as little as $14 a month, leaving a huge profit margin. Capitalists argue that it is futile to remove business from Bangladesh, as workers will be left unemployed, and corporations will simply go elsewhere. Already businesses are searching for alternatives locations for productions, with Burma and Sri Lanka being cited as suitable alternatives. Both have strong military presence and strict governmental regimes, ensuring that workers would have little opportunity to protest safety regulations. It is clear that capitalist corporations relentless drive for profit will undermine health, safety and living standards in whichever country they enter. The key to this issue is thus to push for a world with no alternatives. It is not a viable model for businesses to shift production from developing country to developing country in search of cheap labour, Capitalists can continue to look for ‘The Next China’ the ‘Next Bangladesh’ but we do not have an infinite supply of workers prepared to be exploited. Key to solving the immediate problem in Bangladesh is the atmosphere amongst the workers. Workers have been subjected to 72 hour weeks for very little pay, with few days of and no public holidays. What retailers have underestimated is the power of the Asian working class, which has proud revolutionary traditions. This awakening of workers is clearly worrying multinationals, over the last 10 years sporadic protests and strikes have given employers a taste of the proletariats power in Bangladesh. The sit ins across Dhaka in May 2006 had a negative effect on exports, whilst on 22nd of June 2010 hundreds of thousands of readymade garment workers closed key export processing zones in the city, which had a direct effect on the brands Walmart and H+M.
The 2013 factory collapse is evidently not going to stimulate multinational retail corporations to make much needed changes. Yet this cycle of exploitation and cheap clothing production can be broken if the Bangladeshi working class are effectively organised into unions. Lanca Compa writes in the Washington Post “a real trade union can provide the vigilance and voice that workers need for sustained decency at their place of employment, including a workplace that is not a death trap.” The problem workers in Bangladesh face here is immense. It is clear from local media that police will be employed to stop workers' unrest whenever possible. And with an estimated 80% of the local police corrupt, and an inherently corrupt political system, the unions titanic struggle is undeniable. Yet in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse workers in Bangladesh and those in solidarity around the planet are presented with a historic opportunity to press for an end to the suppression of trade unions in Bangladesh; and it is essential we do not let it disappear.
-Ingrid M. SA.