Who’s to blame in Bangladesh?

Rana Plaza was a deathtrap. The eight-story building that will be remembered as the site of the worst garment factory disaster — if not the worst industrial accident — in history was the product of willful disregard of building codes by the owners; negligence, if not corruption, by local government officials and inspectors; and indifference on the part of the companies whose products were made there.

When the building collapsed April 24, more than 1,000 workers, mostly women, paid with their lives because of the callous disregard of others who saw them only as sources of profit.

Five garment factories operated in the Rana Plaza building, employing more than 3,400 people. They are part of a manufacturing industry that has turned Bangladesh into the second-largest garment exporter in the world, employs 3.6 million workers, most of them women, earns the country $20 billion a year and accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s exports.

Bangladesh’s main competitive advantage is low labor costs: The minimum wage is $38 a month, an amount that has been doubled in the last year.

Yet even after that increase, garment workers’ wages remain substantially below per capita income in Bangladesh, which the World Bank estimates at $64 a month in 2011.

And even if the workers appreciated how hard they would have to work, they did not anticipate occupying a factory that was destined for disaster. The facts behind Rana Plaza make it clear that an accident was only a matter of time.

The building was built on spongy ground, a pond that had been filled in with sand and earth, rendering the foundations unstable. The owners received permission to build from a municipal authority that did not have the power to grant such a permit; they then added three additional floors illegally.

Cracks were found in the building the day before the disaster, but factory owners dismissed engineers’ concerns about safety and sent the workers back to their factories. When a blackout hit, backup generators were turned on. After 15 minutes, vibrations from the generators and more than 1,000 sewing machines, in combination with the substandard building materials, triggered the collapse.

Thus far, more than 1,000 bodies have been pulled from the wreckage; more than 2,400 workers were injured. Incredibly survivors continued to be pulled from the site even days after the collapse, but hopes for still more have dwindled.

Arrests have quickly followed, nine in total. In addition to factory owners, the building owner, Mr. Mohammed Sohel Rana, was tracked down and captured as he attempted to flee across the Indian border; he was expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and conscription of workers — crimes punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail.

Mr. Abdur Razzak Khan, an engineer who consulted for Mr. Rana, was also arrested and charged with negligence. The mayor who approved the building permits, Mr. Mohammad Refatullah, was also arrested for alleged negligence. But if Mr. Rana is immediately responsible for the conditions at Rana Plaza, others, and not just local officials who abetted his greed, are too.

This is the third deadly incident in six months in Bangladesh. Just five months ago, a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory near the Rana Plaza building killed 112 people. After that accident, the government pledged to inspect factories for safety and pull the licenses of those that failed. No such actions have yet to be taken.

Indeed, the immediate reaction of national authorities in Dhaka has been disgraceful. First, they have tried to distance themselves from the accident. Then they urged the European Union, the destination for some 60 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports, not to take punitive measures against the textile industry. Finally, in a particularly tin-eared comment, Bangladesh Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith downplayed the impact of the disaster, dismissing it as something that is not “really serious — it’s an accident. It happens everywhere.”

Human rights groups argue that no factory owner has ever been prosecuted for the deaths of workers in Bangladesh. Also complicit are the international brands that outsource their work to Bangladesh factories. It is as yet unclear how many international brand labels were made in Rana Plaza, but it is reckoned that the number exceeds two dozen.

Many of those labels profess to be surprised and appalled by conditions in the factories, but it looks like international supply chains have been designed with numerous links precisely to provide deniability for retailers. Recognizing that their brand integrity is being threatened, those groups are now discussing standards to ensure that workers are safe and secure in their jobs.

Standards are a first step, but they are just that — a start. In the absence of enforcement, they are merely empty words. Consumers must read labels and buy only goods that indicate compliance with worker safety standards.

Retailers must demand that manufacturers comply and be prepared to pull their business if they do not. Only then will national authorities crack down against men like Mr. Rana, who put the pursuit of profit above all else, including the lives of their workers.

  • johnny cassidy

    Consumers can share the blame and they can also prevent tragedies like those that have occurred in Ashulia (and elsewhere as documented by organizations like the International Labor Rights Forum) from ever happening again. This editorial is spot on in suggesting that we “must read labels and buy only goods that indicate compliance with worker safety standards.” The one and only label that can assure both those standards is the one that bears the imprint of the workers themselves – the “union made” label. In the aftermath of the 2012 Tazreen Fashions factory fire, Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya of Bangladesh’s Centre for Policy Dialogue’s (CPD) was quoted as saying that “Trade unions should be allowed since other institutions seem to have failed to protect the workers’ safety and interests.” When you view your wardrobe in light of the abuses that occur in the garment industry, wearing “union made” apparel is the only clothing that makes real fashion sense because “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

  • “…was the product of willful disregard of building codes by the owners; negligence, if not corruption, by local government officials and inspectors; and indifference on the part of the companies whose products were made there.”

    Whoa whoa. Slow down.

    The first enables the second. The government said, “We’re gonna regulate this stuff! We’re taking over for safety!” at the behest of 1st World advocates who apparently know better (whom you publish, like Hugh Cortazzi).

    Does anyone not see the relationship here? If there was no “government standard”, then the company itself (and commissioning company) would be 100% liable for all damages via the elimination of moral hazard.

    But because of the existence of a government standard (and the inevitable corruption that comes with enforcing it, especially in the 3rd world) the businesses are free to finger point at the government: “Where were your inspectors?”.

    Businesses are only lax in their own inspections, only “indifferent” because of the perverse incentive government gives them by “ensuring safety” through rules, codes and regulations. All those things ultimately do is mitigate potential blame and responsibility in the face of an accident.