I’m sure most of us have by now heard about the tragic Rana Plaza fire in the Bangladeshi capital city of Dhaka last month. I, like many other people, was horrified and saddened by the huge loss of life in that building, mostly young, impoverished women. This tragedy has spurred me to write this article, which isn’t just about this tragedy, but also about problems and issues that this tragedy has exposed to the surface of many people’s consciousness: cheap labour, insufficient government regulation, corruption and corporate exploitation – all of which are serious problems in Bangladesh and, indeed, in the rest of the developing world.
The Rana Plaza fire has taken the lives of more than 800 people and injuring many more. This wasn’t the first industrial disaster in Bangladeshi industrial history; in April 2005, more than 70 people were killed when a factory collapsed; in February 2006, more than 17 people were killed when a garment factory collapsed; in June, 2010, more than 24 people were killed when a building collapsed; in November, 2012 a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory killed more than 115 people. They all occurred in Dhaka, the centre of the country’s garment industry.
The Rana Plaza was a huge commercial building that housed a number of businesses, including a bank, clothing factories and a number of small shops. Interestingly, the bank and small shops, which were located on the lower floors, immediately shut down their operations very soon after discovering the cracks in the building’s walls, and warnings were given to close the building all together, but garment workers were told to ignore these warnings and were forced to continue as normal – much to their detriment. Another interesting (and somewhat incriminating) fact is that many of these garment factories were actually producing clothes for (mostly Western) corporations. It is now abundantly clear that this building became dangerously unstable, due to the cracks in the walls that had been gradually created because of the heavy machinery and their vibrations in the factories – heavy machinery that was never meant to be placed inside a building that was designed to house offices and shops, according to the building’s architect, Massood Reza. It is now evident that the collapse wasn’t a possibility, but an inevitability. Another horrifying aspect of this tragedy is the extremely upsetting fact that some of the female workers’ children were also killed when the building collapsed, as they were inside the nursery facilities that the building also housed.
The criminally culpable attempt by the building’s owner, factory owners, managers and supervisors to suppress information pertaining to the structural instability of the building and its burden of having to deal with so much weight is actually a disturbing pattern of behaviour among some (perhaps many?) of Bangladesh’s wealthy, powerful and politically-connected businessmen, many of whom have emerged from the country’s booming Ready-Made Garments (RMG) sector. In fact, the Bangladeshi RMG sector has ballooned to such proportions that it has now made Bangladesh the world’s second biggest exporter of garments, after China. Another distinction that the country has gained in recent years is that of being a country that pays its garment workers some of the lowest wages in the entire world.
Sohel Rana, the owner of the Rana Plaza, which is now a ruin of rubble, was caught by Bangladeshi authorities near the border with India; we can all safely and accurately assume that Mr. Rana, who is known by locals as a crooked businessman with ties to a host of criminals and a particular political party, was trying to flee to neighbouring India to escape the clutches of justice. Credit needs to be given where it is due, and it should be given to those quick-thinking Bangladeshi agents who located and apprehended him. It’s also comforting to know that a Bangladeshi court has frozen the assets of Mr. Rana and is discussing ways in which they can be used to compensate the dead victims’ families as well as the surviving victims. But a peek at Bangladeshi history will show that corrupt and exploitative businessmen – especially those with strong links to members of parliament – are hardly ever brought to justice, and the victims of corporate greed, insufficient regulation (including its weak enforcement) and criminal negligence usually linger in the darkness of injustice for the rest of their shattered lives. Victims of other people’s bad decisions in the poor world seldom get to taste the fruits of justice.
What makes this tragedy even more shocking is that all this loss of life could have been prevented if a number of checks and balances were in place and maintained, such as: a strict implementation of sensible government regulation; the construction of structurally-sound buildings; regular inspections by properly trained government inspectors; the allocation of licenses by a government body to owners and operators of commercial units and complexes who have successfully met a carefully designed criteria list; a law making it a legal requirement for factory owners to set up and annually replenish a regeneration fund that could be tapped into to use for purposes like making necessary repairs and carrying out modernisation programs; the allocation of a building permit to those who have been given the proper approval by a legitimate authority to build or extend a structure, etc. It’s clear that the central government has an important role to play in preventing such disasters from taking place in the future, not just the private-sector in Bangladesh. But if there’s an absence of sincerity and a genuine desire to improve things from the movers and shakers of either the public or private- sector, or both, then much won’t be changed for the desperately poor and extremely vulnerable workers of Bangladesh. Bangladesh already has a regulatory framework in place to help regulate a number of domestic industries, but there has been a serious problem of a weak enforcement; in some areas, the enforcement has been non-existent.
This tragedy has, in fact, helped to remind consumers all over the world about a deeper institutional system – a deeper rot, if you will – that operates without any accountability and real transparency. It is a system of international trade that is dominated by Western and Western-based corporations, who have a tendency to outsource and/or contract the mass-production of all kinds of consumer goods to Third World countries – more accurately, to companies in the Third World who then employ desperately poor people (in the case of the Bangladeshi RMG sector, mostly women) and then make them work in obscenely unsafe and unhygienic conditions and, to add insult to injury, pay them a pittance an hour. These ridiculously low wages are, if you think about it, reminiscent of the very low wages that were paid to many workers in Britain, America and elsewhere a century ago, before mass-movements in these now industrially-developed countries, comprised of all kinds of exploited workers, organised themselves into coordinated efforts to improve their working lives. And it is mainly because of these labour and civil movements that many people in the developed word now get to enjoy a better standard of living, as they now have all kinds of necessary checks and balances and employee rights enshrined into the constitutions of these respective countries to protect them. There are similar movements taking shape in Bangladesh and in other developing countries, but they still haven’t rooted themselves in their respective societies; without the support of many sectors of society, including members of the middle and upper classes, they will remain weak and inefficient in doctrine and influence.
It doesn’t take a lot of research to discover that a disturbing number of Western clothing companies are fully aware of the human rights abuses that are taking place in factories up and down the developing world – in factories and industrial plants that produce goods for them. Some argue that many Western corporations much prefer this unfair, exploitative and rapacious system, because it guarantees a number of benefits for them, namely: a huge and regular supply of goods that they purchase for as little as possible and then sell to Western consumers for as high as possible; the willing and full cooperation of notoriously greedy and corrupt businessmen (and, of course, their friends in the halls of government) to help “get things done” at any cost; a weak set of regulation (compounded by its weak enforcement and its limited abilities); the absence of a national minimum wage law, etc.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh is increasingly active in a race to the bottom – of the cheap labour index. Workers in Bangladesh, and every country on Earth for that matter, are human beings who deserve the same rights that many in the West enjoy and sometimes take for granted, including decent wages, meaningful employment opportunities and safe and hygienic working conditions, for them and for their descendants If the Bangladeshi garments manufacturing industry – which employs well over a million Bangladeshis – were to be carefully restructured, as well as other growth industries, then I wholeheartedly believe that these domestic industries can be a force for good, instead of a cesspool of extreme greed, corporate exploitation, humiliation and human misery.
We in the West, as members of the world’s largest and most powerful bloc of consumers, have a responsibility to help initiate the positive changes that are badly needed in many parts of the world, where so many fellow human beings languish in sub-human conditions and treated as if they are sub-human. How do we effect such seismic changes? Well, there are so many creative and lasting ways to be effective and emboldened agents of positive change in the world, but utilising our most powerful weapon as Western consumers – our collective buying power – is a great place to start.