As the death toll of Wednesday’s garment factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh surpasses 320, the incident has become the most lethal disaster in garment industry history, one of the worst manufacturing disasters ever. The New York Times reports that more than one thousand of the Savar factory complex’s 2,500 workers have been injured, and hundreds remain trapped in the rubble. By comparison, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, one of the most widely remembered disasters in industrial history, killed 146 and injured 71.
Like last week’s fertilizer plant blast in West, Texas, the collapse of Rana Plaza was preventable. A bank and other commercial establishments on the ground floor were reportedly closed after workers complained of a visible crack in the building on Tuesday, but managers of the factories on the upper levels of the five-story complex refused to follow suit. About an hour into the workday on Wednesday, the building collapsed; three days later, volunteers are still pulling survivors and corpses out of the rubble.
The names of international brands whose clothes were being produced in the Savar factory complex are beginning to surface: a range of U.S., European, and Canadian companies, they include the Children’s Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions, Mango, Joe Fresh, and BM Casual. Ether Tex, one of the factories destroyed in the collapse, listed Walmart as one of its customers on its website, but it remains unclear whether the U.S. retail giant was sourcing clothes from the factory at the time of the collapse.
Despite declaring a national day of mourning on Thursday, Bangladeshi authorities are struggling to contain the mass protests that have erupted around Dhaka in the aftermath of the factory collapse. Hundreds of thousands of industrial workers walked off the job Thursday and took to the streets; on Friday, protesters “attacked factories and smashed vehicles, forcing many garment factories to shut down operations,” according to Al Jazeera. “Hundreds of workers from different factories lay siege to the head office of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka,” adds CNN. “They are demanding the arrest and execution of the owners of the factories and the collapsed building at Savar,” a Dhaka police chief told AFP. The protesters, some of them wielding bamboo lathis, were met with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The upheaval in Bangladesh comes amid renewed international action over last November’s Tazreen factory fire, which killed 112 workers in the outskirts of Dhaka. Calling for improved factory safety standards, labor activists from Bangladesh have taken their fight directly to U.S. retailers, with the support of a coalition of U.S. labor rights groups spearheaded by the International Labor Rights Forum.
As part of the “End Death Traps” tour, Kalpona Akter, who directs the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Sumi Abedin, a twenty-four–year old survivor of the Tazreen factory fire, have traveled to ten U.S. cities to demand accountability from the Gap, Walmart, Sears, and other major brands for life-threatening working conditions in their supply chain. Specifically, the activists called for U.S. companies to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire Safety Agreement, drafted by labor groups, which not only institutes an independent factory monitoring task force but also establishes a significant union role in enforcing its provisions.
The Tazreen fire is only one of many incidents spurring this latest push for factory safety: AP reports that “In the five months since last year’s deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., there were 41 other ‘fire incidents’ in Bangladesh factories—ranging from a deadly blaze to smaller fires or sparks that caused employees to panic, according to a labor organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO umbrella group of American unions.”
Michelle Chen offers a thorough and insightful account of the Bangladeshi activists’ U.S. trip and its context in In These Times. Her interview with Sumi Abedin, the young worker on the tour who jumped out of the Tazreen factory’s fourth-story window to escape last November’s blaze, highlights the pressure on managers and workers to deny dangerous conditions. “When auditors visited,” Abedin told Chen, “they told us what to say. We were supposed to say that the gates are always open, that there is no excess production, that we are provided with masks—none of this is true.”
Chen notes that, even before this week’s disaster in Savar, outrage was growing at the cycle of neglect. Further coverage of the “Death Traps” tour in LaborNotes and the Nation likewise attests to growing international momentum for better working conditions, higher wages, and greater labor rights throughout the garment supply chain. And major brands have been forced to listen: while Akter, Abedin, and local protesters rallied in New York, European brands implicated in the Tazreen factory fire agreed to a $5.7 million compensation plan for the victims.
Yet Walmart, Sears, and other U.S. retailers not only refused to join negotiations over compensation for Tazreen victims, but have also rejected a common factory safety plan proposed by unions. Instead, Walmart recently “pledged $1.8 million to establish a health and safety institute in Bangladesh to train 2,000 factory managers about fire safety,” according to the New York Times. But labor leaders see this measure as part of “a patchwork system of private audits and training” that “improves very little in a country where official inspections are lax and factory owners have close relations with the government.”
Kalpona Akter is among them:
Walmart’s announcement will not save workers from dying in future fires. There is no amount of training that will add safe fire exits to factories…. If Walmart is truly serious about preventing future deaths, they must sign the existing fire safety agreement that has already been signed by PVH/Tommy Hilfiger and Tchibo. Until workers are involved in the improvement process, there will be no real change.
From Bangladesh to California to China, low-wage workers are getting involved in the process, whether their employers recognize their efforts or not. Warehouse Workers United, one of the main groups organizing last fall’s landmark strikes in Walmart warehouses in the United States, has explicitly extended solidarity to workers further up the supply chain, releasing a list of “Core Principles to Ensure Basic Labor Standards in Walmart’s Supply Chain” earlier this month and sponsoring the Bangladeshi workers’ U.S. tour.
Are these ripples along the supply chain beginning to “turn the tide against Walmart’s parasitic model of globalization,” as I hoped they would last fall? On the retail end, the anti–Walmart tide has now spread from the United States—where Walmart associates in 150 stores confronted their managers with demands for a fairer scheduling system on Wednesday—to China, as Esther Wang reports in the American Prospect.
Battles with Walmart are not the only link between Bangladesh and China—incidentally, the world’s two largest garment exporters. A rise in labor militancy also bridges the two manufacturing-driven countries, despite the lack, in both, of strong unions to voice the workers’ demands. An excellent report by Eli Friedman in Jacobin last December and Ross Perlin’s essay in the Spring issue of Dissent both attest to this trend in China.
Ongoing industrial action in the world’s largest manufacturing country may even be part of the reason that some Chinese garment factories are moving to Bangladesh, where wages are far lower—approximately fourteen to twenty-four cents an hour, as Charles Kernaghan told Democracy Now. Bangladesh has undoubtedly been one of the most conspicuous victims of the neoliberal era’s global race to the bottom in wages and working conditions. But the country’s working poor are starting to make it clear that they’ve had enough.
The current working-class revolt over the Savar disaster is only fanning the flames in a country which has so far witnessed some of the largest political protests of 2013. Since February, protesters have occupied Dhaka’s Shahbagh square to demand punishment for war crimes that took place during the country’s independence war in 1971. Yet the movement has devolved into a “political civil war between the two mainstream parties, setting aside the calls for justice for victims of that violence,” as Vijay Prashad notes in CounterPunch. Could the Savar disaster, Prashad wonders, “provide a progressive hinge for a protest movement that is otherwise adrift”?
As of this writing, Sohel Rana, the owner of the building that collapsed, is on the run. Threatened by arrest and, moreover, by thousands of protesters calling for his death, he may not escape retribution for this disaster. The renewed scrutiny activists have brought to the Tazreen factory fire mean that the demands of Bangladesh’s workers are echoing around the world. If there is a shred of encouragement to be pulled out of the rubble in Savar, this is it.
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