As Death Toll Rises Beyond 500, Garment Factory Disaster 'Worst in World History'
Calls to change the entire globalized garment industry follow a shameful pattern of 'disaster-outrage-no reforms-repeat'
The death toll from beneath a collapsed garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh was pushed beyond 500 people on Friday, according to officials, with the number expected to grow as more rubble is slowly removed.
The rising number, the Associated Press reports, makes the disaster the worst of its kind in 'world history' and as the sadness and outrage over the incredible unsafe conditions forced on the workers within the garment industry in Bangladesh (and other countries) intensifies, the familiar calls for systemic reform grows louder.
In addition to the owner of the factory being arrested on Thursday, the engineer who oversaw an expansion of the factory—which added three floors to the existing factory—was also detained by law enforcement officials and could face charges for the collapse.
Despite a strong desire to hold individuals responsible for the disaster, however, many labor and human rights experts are saying that such incidents are easy to predict—and occur frequently (albeit on a lesser scale) despite constant warnings from anti-sweatshop activists, organized labor, and safety advocates.
The real problem, many argue, is a globalized system of trade and a style of capitalism which itself is a form of "terrorism" that justifies and incentivizes factories like the one in Dhaka.
The April 24 collapse is likely the deadliest garment-factory accident in world history. It surpassed both long-ago disasters such as New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which killed 146 workers in 1911, and more recent tragedies such as a 2012 fire that killed about 260 people in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh that same year that killed 112.
At the site of the collapse, the official death toll reached 501 Friday and was expected to climb. Workers carefully used cranes to remove the concrete rubble and continue the slow task of recovering bodies. The official number of missing has been 149 since Wednesday, though unofficial estimates are higher.
“We are still proceeding cautiously so that we get the bodies intact,” said Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hassan Suhwardy, the commander of the area’s army garrison supervising the rescue operation.
A government investigator said Friday that substandard building materials, combined with the vibration of heavy machines used by the five garment factories inside the Rana Plaza building, led to the horrific collapse.
Mainuddin Khandkar, the head of a government committee investigating the disaster, said substandard rods, cement, bricks and other weak materials were used in the construction of the Rana Plaza building, which was not properly fortified to house the garment factories’ equipment.
Amid the aftermath and as the official casualty count continued to rise this week, many weighed in on the manner in which consumers in the developed world bear much responsibility for the situation.
Vijay Prishad, director of the school of international relations at Trinity College, argues that the history of the garment industry is a window into the rise of global capitalism.
Though intrinsically linked to the deaths and injuries suffered by workers in Dhaka, consumers in the developed countries—for whom low-cost clothing is assumed as a given—writes Prishad, "self-absorption over the wars on terror and on the downturn in the economy prevent any genuine introspection over the mode of life that relies upon debt-fueled consumerism at the expense of workers in Dhaka. Those who died in the Rana building are victims not only of the malfeasance of the sub-contractors, but also of twenty-first century globalization."
David Bacon, writing for The Progressive this week, makes this important, yet familiar argument about the responsibility of consumers:
As Bangladesh workers pull the bodies of their friends from ruin of Rana Plaza, people half a world away wearing the clothes they sew should not turn their faces away. They need real knowledge about how their shirts and blouses are produced, and who produces them. Rather than the image manipulation of Social Accountability International and its competitor, the Fair Labor Association, they should demand the truth, and then use their power as consumers.
They should drive companies guilty of industrial homicide out of the world’s markets.
But professors Ananya Mukherjee and Darryl Reed of York University argue that moving beyond standard market paradigms-—even the creation of "better" or more ethical consumers will not end the intrinsic harm of a top-down economic system in which workers are ultimately powerless. They write:
Huge struggles need to be waged to secure basic rights, which should have been guaranteed without a quibble. A more radical solution — that gets closer to the root problem of the lack of control — involves the development of co-operatives and worker-owned firms. Many countries have rich co-operative traditions, which need to be supported. For workers, they can mean the difference between life and death. Obviously, if the Bangladeshi workers were unionized, they could not have been forced back into a structurally unsound building. But if they could own their workplace, such a building would never have been built.
Exciting new experiments in co-operative ownership are being spawned in many countries. While the most well known of these are associated with food-related movements, others are also emerging in the manufacturing sector.
Building on co-operative principles, these initiatives involve brilliant organizational and legal innovations to adapt to local conditions. They are also trying to give voice to marginalized groups, such as women and indigenous communities. If we hope to contribute to their struggles for justice, we must support such initiatives by workers (and producers) that provide them greater decision-making power over the conditions of their work.
Calling for a "floor of decency" on which to build a more equitable, safe, and defensible garment industry, Common Dreams contributor Robert C. Koehler laments the cyclical nature of this story in which disaster begets outrage and calls for reform, but when the bodies are buried and the factory dismantled or rebuilt, little has been changed.
"Around and around and around it goes," Koehler writes. "No one has actual responsibility for worker safety. The best the victims and the public get are scapegoats. And so, when the building owner was brought to court this week, protesters chanted, “Hang him, hang him,” NBC News reported. As though that would solve anything."
And, as Michelle Chen concludes in her piece for In These Times:
While companies feign ignorance and puzzlement over “what went wrong” at Rana, they’ve already proven that they’re well aware of the root problem. They shipped their manufacturing overseas specifically to avoid protective regulations and thus keep overhead and labor costs unfathomably cheap. Conversely, corporations could reverse this vicious trade-off between rights and profits by investing heavily to improve working conditions and strengthen safety enforcement, as well as monitoring under a program like the Bangladesh safety agreement. But that would mean expending the very same resources that they’d worked so hard to hoard by contracting with the cheapest and most dangerous workplaces in the world.
So the market logic will continue as long as the cheap clothes keep flying off the rack. Whether or not the Rana incident ultimately shames multinationals to get serious about workplace safety, garment workers in Bangladesh are already wondering whether their factory will be the next disaster site. In an interview with Al Jazeera, one young worker said, "We are feeling shock and pain. We want to protect our colleagues, our brothers and sisters. Buildings should be made safer than they have been in the past, but this is not being done."
So far, the people who are most actively responding to the Rana disaster are, as usual, the workers who rallied in the streets to express outrage at the garment industry.
The cracks in the manufacturing system are showing. As workers grimly await the next tragedy, the world will ignore their warnings at its peril.