Bangladesh Factory Disaster: Workers Lives are Expendable for Capital

Rahima Begum, 30, knew something was wrong long before the building fell apart around her. A day earlier, she walked up the five floors to Ether Textile and started her shift operating a sewing machine... For Begum, April 23 was filled with warnings. At 10 a.m., workers at other factories and offices emptied out of the building. Half an hour later, a manager, who she didn’t name, told her floor to clear out too. “The manager said there was a boiler blast on the third floor,” Begum said Thursday in an interview at the one-room hut she shares with her husband and their 7-year-old daughter. “That was a lie.” She filed out with the rest of the fifth floor. She waited. She ate lunch. When Begum returned, the factory was abuzz — cracks were clearly visible in the walls. She said the manager told them the walls would be fixed and the building would be “perfect” the next day. It wasn’t. The fissures were still there and hundreds of workers refused to go inside, she said. In the same building, officials at Brac Bank had their employees vacate the premises the night before, said spokesman Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq. At Ether Textiles, managers took the opposite decision. They threatened to withhold a month’s pay if workers didn’t start immediately, Begum said. Ether Textiles officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
“I was helpless,” she said. “I can’t think of a day without work.” Assured by the managers that the building was safe, she started work. An hour later — darkness. The power failed. “My heart sank,” she said. Then the pillars started crashing.

from the Toronto Star

With monotonous and tragic regularity news of fatal ‘accidents’ in Bangladeshi textile factories briefly catches the eye of the world’s media. Usually it is the story of workers being killed or injured in a horrendous factory fire. Typically the scale of death and injuries are not just the result of ‘Third World’ lax safety regulations but the direct consequence of the practice of blocking off fire escapes and locking workers inside the building so there is literally no escape. That was what happened last December when at least 117 workers died in a fire at a factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. Although the scale of the deaths evoked protests, the fire itself was nothing unusual.

However, on 24 April, news of the worst disaster yet began to emerge. When cracks emerged in an 8 storey building housing — amongst hundreds of other businesses – five textile factories employing more than 3,500 workers, the occupants were advised to evacuate. Some did but the textile managers, under pressure to maintain tight production schedules and encouraged by the building’s owner — Sahel Rana a local politician connected to the Awami League’s youth section — typically ignored the warnings and carried on with ‘business as usual’. As this is being written the death toll has risen to 352 with well over a thousand injured and about 900 people still buried in the rubble (2).

Thousands of garment workers have taken to the streets to protest and demand safer working conditions. The government has made sympathy gestures such as declaring a day of mourning and announcing that the building’s owner would be punished. Likewise, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) revoked the membership of the companies operating in Rana Plaza and called for those responsible for the collapse to be prosecuted. (The BGMEA have now handed over the owner and managing director of New Wave Style, one of their hastily expelled companies, to the police while Sahel Rana is still ‘on the run’.) Clearly the employers and politicians are worried, not so much about the plight of the workers, as for the effect this might have on the big international buyers, the likes of Walmart, Primark and many more, who call the tune.

It is well-known that the so-called Ready Made Garment Sector in Bangladesh owes its success in the global market place to the undercutting of Chinese prices, made possible by a steady supply of remarkably cheap, mainly female labour power. As the cost of production for making clothes in China has increased the big retailers are adjusting their supply chains: Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan, but especially Bangladesh with its already extensive network of farmed-out garment suppliers, are the favourite substitutes. As the Financial Times matter-of-factly put it the day after the factory disaster in Dhaka:

Chinese workers’ demands for better conditions and higher pay have been driving manufacturers to seek cheaper alternatives.

Now Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest garment producer with exports amounting to $19bn, or almost 70% of the country’s total. Not that this is anything to celebrate for the three and a half million workers who slave for 15 hours a day for $37 a month in stifling and dangerous sweat shops, usually with windows barred and doors locked. The fact that the garment workers have had to struggle for even these wages (3) and that the hundreds of deaths through ‘accidents’ have brought no improvement to their appalling working conditions highlights the total disregard for their lives and well-being by the government and employers’ organisations who are currently professing so much concern at the breach of (rudimentary) safety regulations and loss of life.

While it’s true that famous High Street brands do not want the bad publicity of having their retail products generally associated with the appalling conditions of the typical Bangladeshi garment factory it’s also true that the numerous reformist groups campaigning for improved wage rates and conditions for workers in such places have had miniscule impact. Rather, the ‘brands’ have professed to comply with the likes of Labour Behind the Label, the Clean Clothes Campaign, etc. to avoid bad publicity for their retail outlets whilst cynically ignoring what really goes on in their supply chain.

A much more pressing reason for Western buyers to think about pulling out from Bangladesh is the wider political turmoil associated with the sharpening rivalry between the ruling Awami League and its opponents, particularly the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami and its ally the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The Awami League has tried to make political capital by instigating a war crimes tribunal against leading member of the Jamaat-e-Islami for offences way back in the 1971 ‘war of liberation’ against Pakistan. (In general the ruling class is divided between ethnic nationalists and orthodox Muslims who would have preferred to remain with Pakistan.) Both sides are bringing their supporters onto the streets and a hundred people have already been killed. There is the prospect of more unrest when the tribunal gives its verdict some time in May or June. Worse still, for the factories supplying Western brands, strikes and political protests are disrupting the supply chain. As the Financial Times correspondent Amy Kazmin explains, even before the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, “Western buyers’ patience had already begun to fray” since

the shutdown off transportation — including roads and ports — an government offices, including customs offices, has prevented the import of raw materials, and shipment of finished goods to reach their destinations in time.

FT, 26.4.13

Already the garment employers are complaining that they have lost $3bn worth of new orders and seen $500m of orders relocated to India.

When it comes to shifting its supply of cheap labour power footloose global capital knows no boundaries. As the world capitalist crisis continues the battle to undercut rivals and ‘maintain competitiveness’ is sharpening. Workers the world over face sharply declining wages and conditions. The reality in Bangladesh, as everywhere else, is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are even poorer. It is ridiculous to argue — as some commentators have in the wake of the Dhaka factory disaster (4) — that, despite the low wages and horrible working conditions, urban factory workers in places like Bangladesh are better off than their rural counterparts and that in the long-run capitalist ‘development’ will lead to higher living standards. As if independent economic development were possible today when capital investment is driven by profit rates determined on a global level. Far from protecting the well-being of the workers whose labour creates the profit behind the bulk of national income, the role of the state is to oversee the interests and guarantee the profits of international capital. If it can’t do that capital will leave and find more ‘reliable’, even cheaper labour elsewhere. In fact the garment industry is already ‘diversifying’ and turning a blind eye to the same hellish working conditions as in the sweatshops of Dhaka. Last September almost 300 workers were killed in a garment factory fire in the Pakistani city of Karachi. The ugly truth is that as the economic crisis worsens there will be even more disastrous industrial ‘accidents’ with more and more workers’ lives put at risk in the pitiless search for higher profits.

For those who have eyes to see it there is only one rational solution: that is for workers the world over to rise up and get rid of this nefarious system which, despite the means and wherewithal to provide a civilised existence for everyone, exists principally so that the work of the majority can be exploited to provide profits for the few.


(1) See our 2011 article ‘Bangladesh: Workers Struggle for a Living Wage’ originally published in Revolutionary Perspectives

(2) In fact, the final death toll has risen to over 1100.

(3) See also bangladesh-garment-workers-struggle-against-vicious-exploitation which originally appeared in Revolutionary Perspectives 41.

(4) See, for example, Alex Massie’s In Praise of Sweatshops on The Spectator website 26.4.13.

Sunday, April 28, 2013