Apr 29, 2013
On Wednesday, April 24, Rana Plaza, an eight-story retail and factory building, collapsed in a suburb of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. More than 3,000 people – mostly women employed by five clothing companies – were at work in the building. More than 1,000 of them were injured and more than 350 are known to have died, with many more bodies and survivors still being dug out of the rubble.
On the day before the collapse, workers had noticed big cracks in parts of the building and police say they ordered its evacuation. But the clothing company bosses told their workers there was nothing to worry about and ordered them to continue working – under threat of being disciplined.
This tragedy is the worst industrial calamity in the history of Bangladesh. But there have been many other bad ones. In 2005, another garment factory in the same suburb as Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 75 workers. In 2006, a factory in Dhaka collapsed, killing 18 people. In 2010, another factory building in Dhaka collapsed, killing 25. Just five months ago, a fire in a garment factory killed 112 workers and injured many others. Fire escape doors in the factory had been locked closed by management.
More than 80% of all Bangladesh exports are clothing, making the country the second-largest exporter of garments in the world. It has more than 5,000 clothing factories employing more than 3.2 million workers. Big brand name clothing companies and retailers contract with Bangladesh manufacturers to take advantage of the cheap labor available. The minimum wage is just $37 per month! Europe gets 60% of Bangladesh clothing exports, the U.S. gets 23%. Walmart and J.C. Penney (U.S.), Carrefour (France), Benetton (Italy) and Primark (U.K.) are just a few of the bigger clothing and retail companies that have garments made there. These big companies are the ones most responsible for the horrible working conditions and super low wages imposed on Bangladesh workers. Despite their indignant denials, these major western companies have blood on their hands.
On the days following the collapse of Rana Plaza, some politicians and government officials spoke out as if they wanted to do something about the horrible conditions faced by Bangladesh workers. One government spokesman even said it looked like “murder” to him. But about 10 percent of the Bangladesh Parliament or members of their families are garment factory owners. The government has never enforced building regulations or health and safety standards. And it has suppressed workers’ attempts to unionize.
Fed up with these conditions, the anger of Bangladesh garment workers and others exploded following the collapse. Hundreds of thousands of workers struck and took to the streets in both the Dhaka area and in the city of Chittagong. They demanded the arrest and execution of the Rana Plaza landlord and factory owners and the improvement of workers’ health and safety conditions across the country. They marched, blocked streets, smashed and burned cars, and set several factories on fire. They confronted the police, with hundreds being injured.
Regardless of the complaining of company and government officials both in Bangladesh and in other countries, the Bangladesh workers are right to rebel. Because this is the only way they have the chance to actually force some changes for the better in their situation.