Rana Plaza Disaster Highlights Grim Conditions of Bangladesh’s Garment Factory Industry

On April 24th, 2013, Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh crumbled to the ground, killing over 1,100 people and injuring approximately 2,500. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association president confirmed that 3,639 workers were in the building at the time of the collapse. (Siddiqui, 2014). The eight-story building housed local shops, a bank, and several clothing factories. The accident occurred only a few months after the fire at Tazreen Fashion’s, which claimed the lives of 117 people, and injuring 200 more.   A report by the International Labor Rights Forum found that “since 1990 over 1,000 workers have died in preventable factory fires and other unsafe workplace incidents in Bangladesh alone” (ILRF, 2012). Before the collapse at Rana Plaza, at least 700 people had been killed since 2005 in the country’s garment manufacturing industry (ILRF, 2012). The tragic event at the Rana Plaza highlights the grim conditions of Bangladesh’s garment industry.

There are several factors that contributed to the collapse of the Rana Plaza on April 24th. On one hand, the Bangladeshi government has neither the resources, nor the will-power to enforce regulations (Devnath & Srivastava, 2013). In the Dhaka area, there are only 18 inspectors and sub-inspectors who oversee an estimated 100,000 factories. (Pearshouse, 2013) Penalties for offenses are often very light fines, and corruption and political power of factory owners influence regulation and human rights violations. Owners cut corners during construction in order to make a larger profit, and retailers who are looking for the lowest possible production prices feeds the vicious circle – which allows the poor standards to thrive (ILRF, 2015). This is apparent in the case of Rana Plaza. The land for the plaza – originally a pond – was illegally grabbed through imitation and bribery by Sohel Rana (Mustafa & Islam, 2013). Although originally designed and approved as a six-story building to house a shopping mall and local shops and offices (USA Today), three stories were added without proper authorization, says Ali Ahmen Kahn, head of the Bangladesh Fire and Service and Civil Defense (Manik and Yardley, 2013). According to a member of the Dhaka’s city development authority, Sheikh Abdul Mannan, the owners got permission to erect the building and add the extra floors from the Savar Municipal Corporation, which has different building standards than Rajdhani Unnaya Kartiripakkha, Dhaka’s development authority (Devnath and Srivastava, 2013). The Plaza was also converted from commercial to industrial use. The Plaza’s architect, Massood Reza, told reporters that the building was planned for shops and offices, not factories (South China Morning Post, 2013). Other architects stressed the risks involved in placing factories inside a building designed only for commercial use, noting the structure was potentially not strong enough to bear the weight and vibration of heavy machinery. Due to the substandard building materials used in the construction of the plaza, the vibrations of the generators on April 24th shook the building structure to its deadly collapse.

The severity and the backlash of the accident has resulted with 41 people accused of murder, including Sohel Rana, his parents and wife, owners and managers of the factories housed in the complex, as well as several government officials. What police reported as a “mass killing” (BBC, 2015), originally the accused faced only charges of culpable homicide – in Bangladesh, the maximum sentence is seven years in jail. (CBC, 2015). However, prosecutors say that the seriousness of the accident meant that the charges have been upgraded to murder. The shift of charges came after the investigation found that Sohel Rana, his staff, and the management of the five factories had forced workers to enter the building, despite warnings from officials who deemed the building unsafe. If convicted, defendants face the death penalty. Eighteen people, including seventeen of those charged with murder, have also been charged with building code violations. (Motlagh, 2014). What is happening now is unprecedented – no-one in the past has been punished for accidents at garment factories. But such is the seriousness of the disaster – it is alleged that the factory was a death trap – there is not way this case could have been ignored” (BBC, 2015). However, the fact that it has taken more than two years to bring formal charges in relation to the factory collapse has led to allegations that officers dawdled during the investigation process. Questions have been raised about the government’s willingness to bring the guilty to justice, especially since factory owners in Bangladesh have political power to influence government policy and reform. (ILRF, 2015)

The manufacturing shift from China to Bangladesh is the result of years of strong economic growth, surging wages, and inflation on the Chinese market. Once the largest producer of textiles and garment manufacturers, retailers are now looking to countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and India to produce items at low cost. However, it’s Bangladesh who has received the biggest growth in the garment industry. Bangladesh is attractive to apparel makers because its factories produce high quality products at a low price, prompting global retailers to shift production over from China. However it’s not only the appeal of cheap labor and quality items at a fraction of the cost which interests textile and clothing manufacturers, it’s also the fact that it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure workers are adequately protected – and not left up to the companies (Motlagh, 2014). In response, this has created an $18 billion manufacturing industry, shadowed with the abuses and violations that the menial workforce has always been susceptible to (Narayan, 2013).

A report released by Human Rights Watch in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, lists numerous instances of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, alongside forced overtime and denial of wages for extra work (Human Rights Watch, 2015). The report also showed instances of denial of paid maternity leave, and workers being barred from using toilets. (Aulakh, 2015) Not to mention the conditions in which these garment workers (mostly women and children – supervisors and managers are usually male) are subject to working in. Trapped in buildings constructed of subpar materials, poor electrical wiring, and insufficient number of exits and little fire-fighting and first aid equipment, it’s no surprise that these accidents keep occurring. Although the Bangladeshi government has promised safer working conditions and regular inspections (Aulakh, 2015) after the collapse of Rana Plaza, two years later conditions are still dreadful and basic right are a mirage to most factory workers.

For nearly a century, the garment industry’s sweatshops have been a breeding ground of a variety of abuses and mistreatment. Aside from mining, no other industry has produced so many public, large-scale catastrophes. However, for all the ill-treatment, endangerment, preventable disasters and the lives injured and lost by the hand of these sweatshops, little has been done in the way of reform – until now. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was drafted and adopted by more than seventy companies worldwide in summer 2013 (Accord, 2015) Perhaps it was the scale of the Rana Plaza disaster, or the timing, occurring so soon after the fire at Tazreen Fashions, but by March 2014 more than 150 companies had adopted the accord. The accord is a legally binding commitment that subjects factories to independent inspections and public reports while requiring retails to fund annual safety upgrades of up to $500,000 (Accord, 2015).   The September following the Accord, the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee was formed, with a goal to “develop a comprehensive and independent process that would deliver support to victims, their families, and dependents in a predictable manner consistent with international labor standards” (Rana Plaza Arrangement, 2015). With the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) acting as a neutral chair, the committee is composed of members from the Bangladeshi government, representatives of garment industry both locally and internationally, trade unions and non-government organizations. The agreement has established a claims process that will be implemented by a range of local organizations and international experts to support victims, their families and their dependents to submit claims, assess the level of payments to be provided to each beneficiary, undertake medical assessments and provide follow up support where needed. With a $30 million target, payments will be funded through the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund – which is open to contributions from any organizations, companies or individuals wishing to support the committee. The agreement has been signed by leading buyers, such as Primart, Loblaw, and BRAC USA, which includes Gap, Hudson Bay Company, Wal-Mart and the Children’s Place (Accord, 2015)

While the Bangladesh Accord, the Rana Plaza agreement and it’s signatories have both done a great deal of work, their progress in improving safety has been painfully slow. By the Accord’s own admission, it is significantly behind schedule in providing the necessary structural and procedural changes to keep Bangladesh’s garment workers safe (Bain, 2015) Many factories have been granted extensions for fixing violations, which is ultimately lengthening the original five-year timeline (Bain, 2015). Some of the reasons for the delays are valid, however most are not.

Globalization is essentially the byproduct of putting the capital’s interests above the peoples (Rothe, 19). Crimes of globalization “refers to a mass harms of people, especially within developing countries, that arise as latent consequences of the development and expansion of global capital” (Rothe, 19). The Rana Plaza factory collapse is another victim of the harms of globalization. The contributing factors to the factories collapse – neglecting safety violations, using subpar building materials, etc. – parallels how our capitalist economy is expanding around the world, resulting in a world society with powerfully consumerist values. With the demand for cheap fashion, regulations become ignored in order to deliver the product on time. Yet as pressures from abroad begin to set (or attempt to set) new standards in Bangladesh, companies will begin to loose productivity and money to compensate for new regulations in safety and wages. Instead, Western corporations will become wary of products “Made in Bangladesh”, and begin placing orders in Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia instead, mimicking the shift from China to Bangladesh just years before. Although there are many contributing actors and agents as to why, how and who is responsible for the collapse, the Rana Plaza tragedy falls under the larger umbrella of crimes of globalization. The harms “involve cooperative endeavors between international financial institutions, transnational corporations, and state or political entities that engage in demonstrably harmful activities in violation of international law or international human rights convention” (Rothe, 19).

On Canadian soil, a $2-billion class action lawsuit is being filed against Loblaw Companies Ltd. by Toronto law firm Rochon Genova LLP. The firm is claims that Loblaw allegedly knew about the POOR safety and building standards of the plaza, and were aware there was “a significant and specific risk to works who manufactured Joe Fresh garments and who were employed by their subcontractors in Bangladesh” (CBC, 2015). The firm is seeking the $2 billion in damages on behalf of the works who survived the collapse, and for the families of those who did not. Loblaw states it has already spent $5 million since the disaster to improve standards and inspections in Bangladesh (Talaga, 2015). A source from an advocacy group regarding human rights says that “Loblaw is being targeted because they’re a leading company with more capacity to bring about real change than [others]” (CBC, 2015). Kevin Groh, vice-president of corporate affairs at Loblaw said in a statement that he hoped “this claim does not distract from the positive work Loblaw has done and continues to do in respect of this tragedy – and that it does not discourage others from making similar contributions” (Talaga, 2015.) A similar lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C against J.C. Penny, The Children’s Place and Wal-Mart, all of which were sourcing garments from factories in Rana Plaza as well (Talaga, 2015).

Perhaps a bigger issue the victims and prosecutors of the factory collapse will face is who will be held accountable for the accident? It is easy to point blame at Mr. Rana, who deliberately and knowingly broke laws, ignored violations and forced workers to return to work, or perhaps city officials who knew what was going on and failed to act, or on the corporate conglomerates that set out for cheap work in return for cheap fashion. However, should a finger be pointed at us, the consumerist society with such a high demand for developing-world’s product? If it weren’t for globalization, and a capitalist thirst for more at half the cost, would hundreds of lives have been lost in Bangladesh on April 24th, 2013? One could argue that these things are inevitable, an act of fate. However, the Rana Plaza accident could have easily been prevented. It is important to take a step back and remember that perhaps your favorite t-shirt from H&M, your Nike shoes and your old Gap jeans all play a small role in the greater scheme of globalization.   Although we may have not have had a direct hand in the events of the Rana Plaza incident, we should not forget that it is the byproduct of our capitalist economy which has inevitably led to such a tragic violation of work safety and human rights violations.

References

Aulakh, Raveena. “Two years after Rana Plaza Collapse big problems remain”. The Star. 22 April 2015. Web. 17 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/04/22/two-years-after-rana-plaza-collapse-big-problems-remain.html

Bain, Marc. Years after the Rana Plaza tragedy, too many of Bangladesh’s factories are still “death traps”’. Quartz. 25 October 2015. Web. 17 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://qz.com/530308/more-than-two-years-after-the-rana-plaza-tragedy-too-many-of-bangladeshs-factories-are-still-death-traps/

 Devnath. Arun & Srivastava, Mehul. “’Suddenly the floor wasn’t there,’ Factory Survivor Says”. Bloomberg Bussiness. 25 April 2013. Web. 16 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-04-25/-suddenly-the-floor-wasn-t-there-factory-survivor-says

 Islam, Shyadul & Mustafa, Sabir. “Profile: Rana Plaza Owner Mohammad Sohel Rana”. BBC News. 3 May 2013. Web. 16 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22366454

Motlagh, Jason. “The Ghosts of Rana Plaza” [PDF file]. Virginia Quarterly Review. 90(2), 44-89. Retrieved from: http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=ad5994ee-87c4-4196-a400-47ff73872cee%40sessionmgr4003&vid=1&hid=4214

 Pearshouse, Richard. “Bangladesh’s other workplace catastrophes”. Human’s Right Watch. 20 May 2013. Web. 17 November 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/20/bangladeshs-other-workplace-catastrophes

Rothe, Dawn L. “An Introduction to State Criminology”. Print.

Siddiqui, Sadaf Saaz. “From Under the Rubble”. The Daily Star. 25 April 2014. Web. 12 October 2015. Retrieved From: http://www.thedailystar.net/from-under-the-rubble-21266

Talaga, Tanya. “Bangladesh factory-collapse workers, families seek $2 billion from Loblaw”. The Star. 30 April 2015. Web. 18 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/04/30/bangladesh-factory-collapse-workers-families-seek-2-billion-from-loblaw.html

Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Web. 17 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://bangladeshaccord.org/about/

“Bangladesh murder trial over Rana Plaza factory collapse”. BBC News. 1 June 2015. Web. 16 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32956705

“Bangladesh Official: Disaster not ‘really serious’”. USA Today. 3 May, 2013. Web. 12 October 2015. Retrieved From: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/05/03/bangladesh-official-disaster/2134531/

“Bangladesh to lay murder charges in 2013 garment factory collapse”. CBC News. 1 June 2015. Web. 17 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/m/touch/news/story/1.3094924

“Collapsed Bangladesh building not ‘designed’ for factory-use, says architect”. South China Morning Post. 5 May 2013. Web. 17 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1230573/collapsed-bangladesh-building-not-designed-factory-use-says-architect

 “Loblaw will ‘vigorously defend’ lawsuit over Rana Plaza factory collapse”. CBC News. 30 April 2015. Web. 18 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/loblaw-will-vigorously-defend-lawsuit-over-rana-plaza-factory-collapse-1.3055872

 International Labor Rights Forum. Web. 16 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.laborrights.org/

Human Right’s Watch. Web. 16 November 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/22/bangladesh-2-years-after-rana-plaza-workers-denied-rights

Rana Plaza Arrangement. Web. 16 November 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.ranaplaza-arrangement.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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