400 Garment Workers Die in Building Collapse
What Created the Concrete Tombs in Bangladesh?
Revolution Online, May 1, 2013
Wails and cries rend the air in Savar on the outskirts of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka on Thursday, as rescuers pulled out survivors or bodies almost every few minutes from a mountain of jumbled concrete debris.
News reports, CRI (English), April 25, 2013
We didn’t want to go up in the factory this morning, but the management forced us to go up and said there was no problem with the building. Just after that, I sat at my table to work, and the building just collapsed. I couldn’t even leave. I was trapped at my table.
Ria Begum, one of the survivors, Democracy Now!, April 25, 2013
It looked like an earthquake had hit on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. But this disaster wasn’t an act of nature. It was man-made: A shoddily built eight-story building now flattened, reduced to rubble with many, many people trapped inside.
More than 3,000 women had worked in the Rana Plaza complex that housed five garment factories in the Savar district of Bangladesh. When the building collapsed, hundreds died instantly. Others lived a few, last horrifying hours in a concrete tomb. Some 400 were crushed to death. Bodies shrouded in white cloth were laid out in rows in the front yard of a nearby school as relatives gathered, holding photos of their loved ones. More than 2,500 have been rescued, in some cases pulled out after days beneath the rubble. Many will be maimed for life. Many hundreds are still missing. As late as Sunday, survivors were still being found in the wreckage. Tragically, a fire broke out after army engineers tried to cut through a column to gain access to an air pocket where four people were believed to be trapped and a woman who the rescue team had been talking to since the morning died in the fire.
None of these deaths, none of these injuries needed to happen. This was not an unpredictable, unavoidable accident. In fact, these workers were forced to stay in the building which was known to be in danger of collapsing.
The day before, workers had reported massive cracks in the walls. They refused to work and left the factory in the afternoon. The local news reported the story and the police ordered the building evacuated.
The next day, on Wednesday, other businesses in the building closed down. But the owners of the garment factories made a cold-blooded calculation: The clothes to be sewn that day, the deadlines to meet, the profits to be made—all this was much more important than the safety of the thousands of women who keep the factory churning out products 24 hours a day.
The workers didn’t want to go back into the building. But, as one worker who survived recounted, supervisors told them the building had been inspected and declared safe and ordered them back into the building. Some workers said they were told that if they didn’t return to work they would have their pay cut.
Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, said, “The workers were told that if they didn’t go in on Wednesday to work, that they would not be paid for the month, because the owners said, ‘We won’t have the money to pay for the whole month, and therefore, if you don’t go to work, you will not receive any pay for a full month.’ Nobody in Bangladesh, no worker in Bangladesh could ever go for a full month without wages. They go from hand to mouth. So, the workers were literally put in a trap.” (Democracy Now!, April 25, 2013)
Shortly after this, less than an hour into the morning shift, the top floors of the building slammed into the bottom floors, setting off a deathly chain reaction.
Anger and Protests
In the wake of this tragedy there has been intense grief and agony. For days, many families did not know if their loved ones were dead or still alive, trapped in the ruins. Relatives of buried victims and others joined the rescue teams, using their bare hands and basic tools to dig out the pieces of concrete, trying to reach people who had managed to find pockets of space and air to stay alive.
But there has also been intense rage that has erupted in massive protests. There were reports of relatives at the site, angry at the factory owners and the lack of information, getting into clashes with the police. And protests have spread to the capital city of Dhaka, 20 miles away.
On Thursday hundreds of thousands of garment workers from areas around Dhaka went on strike to protest poor safety standards, bringing production to a virtual standstill. (Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2013) And the New York Times reported that “Thousands of garment workers rampaged through industrial areas of the capital of Bangladesh on Friday, smashing vehicles with bamboo poles and setting fire to at least two factories in violent protests.” (April 26, 2013) Demonstrators have blocked highways, marched on factories and rallied outside the headquarters of Bangladesh’s main manufacturers group.
Protests continued on Saturday, with reports of demonstrators smashing and burning cars and the police attacking people with tear gas and rubber bullets. Dozens of people are said to have been injured in these latest clashes.
On Sunday, the owner of the factory was arrested and charged with criminal negligence and illegal construction. Two clothing company owners have also been arrested. But the fact is, there is a whole criminal system responsible for the deaths and injuries of the workers in Savar.
A Deadly Pattern
The 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh and the 3.6 million garment workers in Bangladesh who are mostly women, are part of a $1 trillion global clothing industry.
Garment manufacturing in Bangladesh, which is still expanding, is a $20 billion industry. It is the mainstay of the country’s economy, employing 40 percent of the country's industrial workforce. Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of garments in the world (after China)—garments account for 80 percent of the country’s exports. The bulk of these exports, 60 percent, go to Europe; 23 percent go to the United States—more than any other individual nation.
The hundreds of thousands of pants, blouses, shirts and dresses being shipped across land and sea from Bangladesh everyday—that end up in stores like Wal-Mart, Children’s Place, and The Gap—come at a very HIGH COST. Not in terms of the money paid to the millions of workers sewing these garments, but in terms of the horror and misery of their working conditions, including the fact that many, many workers die in these factories every year.
The building collapse in Savar was the third major industrial incident in five months in Bangladesh. In November, 112 people died in a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory, which is near Savar. In the last six years (not counting the building collapse in Savar), there have been 700 reported fire and building violation deaths in Bangladesh. (Reuters, April 26, 2013) According to the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, a total of 600 workers have died in factory accidents in the last decade.
Bangladesh’s garment industry has grown rapidly over the past decade. Why? Because it has become increasingly competitive on the world market. And a key thing in being competitive here is that in the garment industry, Bangladesh has the lowest cost of labor in the world. The national minimum wage in Bangladesh stands at 21 cents an hour or $38 per month. (Only three years ago, it was $20 a month, but was raised after huge protests.)
Charles Kernaghan told Democracy Now!, “The Chinese garment factories are moving to Bangladesh because of the low wages, 14 cents an hour up to about 24 cents an hour. The workers are hard-working; they work 14 hours a day. They’ll work often seven days a week. Bangladesh is sacrificing all of these young women, who are just being brutalized, starvation wages. There is no right to organize in Bangladesh. There are no unions with collective contracts. Every time the workers try... to organize, they’re beaten. They bring in gang members. They threaten them.”
Nearly all of the 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh are non-union. In fact, there are just 11 collective bargaining agreements in the entire country of 150 million people, and there are only a few unions in the clothing industry. There are special police who patrol industrial areas to watch out for labor organizers. When workers try to form unions they are often fired, beaten and sometimes killed. Just last year a young garment worker, Aminul Islam, was tortured and killed, most likely because he was trying to organize garment workers.
Bangladesh and the Rules of Capitalism
The garment industry in Bangladesh operates within the system of capitalism which has certain rules:
First of all, the #1 RULE is that: Everything is a commodity and everything must be done for profit.
In other words, the owners of the garment factories in Bangladesh didn’t go into business because they care about providing people with pants and shirts and dresses. Everything under capitalism is produced in order to be exchanged, to be sold. And things must be useful to be exchanged. But under capitalism, the measure and motivation of what is produced and how it is produced is profit—whether we are talking about the food we eat or the clothes we wear.
Profit comes from exploiting people's labor power. Exploitation means that the capitalists take what workers create each day through their labor and pay them in return enough to survive (and sometimes barely that). This exploitation is where the capitalists get their profit. So in order to make maximum profits a capitalist has to exploit to the maximum—working people harder, paying them less. For those factory owners in Savar, the lives of the garment workers meant nothing; the safety of the building meant nothing. It was more important to keep the workers churning out the clothes for them to keep making a profit.
The #2 RULE is that: If you are a capitalist and you don't grow bigger, then your competitor will and drive you under—therefore, you must expand or die.
So, for example, in the business of making clothes, there are all the different clothing manufacturers producing clothes and trying to get a bigger and bigger share of the market. Each one has to keep fighting to outdo their competitors or go under—and they have to continually cheapen costs in order to stay alive. This means seeking out the lowest, most exploitative wages. This means cutting costs wherever possible—even if it means shoddy and dangerous working conditions. This means denying workers any kind of organizing rights. This means violating safety codes that if followed would require spending money. The owner of the Tazreen factory that burned down said only three floors of the eight-story building were legally built and it didn’t have any emergency exits. The owner of the building in Savar had a permit to only build five stories but added three more floors illegally. The whole building was built on swampland.
This is not neglect. This is a cold calculation. Case in point: Wal-Mart is the second largest buyer of clothing from Bangladesh—it buys more than $1 billion worth of apparel a year. In April of 2011, Wal-Mart attended a meeting in Dhaka, along with more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers. Bangladeshi and international unions presented a proposal to improve safety conditions in the factories which included shutting down unsafe facilities and having inspections funded by contributions from the companies. Wal-Mart, which had a net income last year of $17 billion, rejected the proposal. According to the minutes of the meeting, the Wal-Mart representative said, “We are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken... It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.” The Gap also refused to sign this agreement. (Washington Post, April 26, 2013)
In Bangladesh, every three minutes, a family from the rural areas moves to the capital city of Dhaka. (Al Jazeera, October 3, 2012) Conditions in the countryside are increasingly difficult and people come looking for a better life, searching for jobs, a way to feed their children and provide them with clothes. Most of them end up in the growing slums around Dhaka. The women come to work in the garment factories, where they know the work will be hard and long, but there is hope this will lead to something better; a simple desire to break free from a poverty that threatens to crush one’s spirit. There are dreams and hopes.
Instead there is the reality of a system of capitalism that cares nothing for these dreams and hopes. A system that cares nothing about whether those they exploit live or die—that knows there is an “endless supply” of others to take their place.
This criminal system is responsible for the mangled bodies inside the concrete tombs in Savar; the survivors with no arms and legs, who will now be “useless” to the capitalists because they cannot work. The fact is, this disaster is not the first—nor will it be the last. And the reality is that such factory deaths are not something unique to Bangladesh, but happen all over the world, because of the way this global system of capitalism-imperialism operates and can only operate—according to the rules of maximizing profit over everything else.
The hundreds of thousands in Bangladesh protesting this tragedy are sending a message to the rest of the world that this is intolerable. And indeed, this human disaster cries out for revolution, and nothing less, a revolution to get rid of the whole system responsible for the death of the workers in Savar—and the misery of millions of people all over the world.