May Day: Reflecting on Bangladesh factory disaster and corporate terror

The manifestation of the “race to the bottom” contributes directly to increasing rates of inequality in Bangladesh.

While garment manufacturing has led to impressive growth in Bangladesh's overall GDP, profits from the industry go primarily to garment retailers and brands in Europe and the US [AP]

How is it that we label some acts of violence with the brush of global terrorism while others are relegated to the more mundane category of everyday violence? Tsarnaev brothers were instantly characterised as terrorists, and Muslim terrorists at that, with a national and social media frenzy dissecting their crimes boosted by the live spectacle of the “manhunt” in Boston.

Yet in the same week, an explosion in a fertiliser factory killed 14 people and caused enormous damage to a small town in West Texas – with little media attention. The Boston Bombings were deliberate acts of terror committed by villains targeting the innocent; the Texas explosion while tragic, was seen as accidental – as opposed to the outcome of the deregulation of industry and safety standards – and therefore easily forgotten.

The horrific factory collapse on April 24 outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed more than 400 people, mostly young Muslim women, and injured at least 1,000 more might conceivably also be understood as an example of globally networked violence.

The eight-storeyed Rana Plaza complex housed a variety of businesses, including a bank and five garment factories that employed 3,122 garment workers. Workers noticed a large crack in the building on April 23 and the building collapsed the next day. Police ordered it to be evacuated, and the bank on the second floor told its workers not to come in the next day.

However, the garment factories decided to stay open for business, and the result was senseless and preventable tragedy. This was only the latest in a series of factory fires and collapsed buildings in Bangladesh that have killed over 900 workers since 2005 and injured thousands more.

Who is guilty?

Big retailers in the US and Europe have pointed fingers at local sub-contractors in Bangladesh as the guilty party behind these “tragic accidents”. But there is nothing accidental in these too common acts of terror against workers and companies like Walmart, The Gap, H&M and hundreds of others, who have refused to address basic demands for safety by workers in the Bangladeshi garment industry. 

The fire at Rana Plaza brought thousands of workers, their families and supporters to the streets demanding justice. A coalition of NGOs and workers organisations has been calling for multinationals to join a programme that would establish independent monitoring, workplace safety committees and address some of the basic fire prevention strategies. 

So far, only two companies (Phillips van Heusen which represents brands such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger; and German-based Tchibo) have signed it, while the majority refused. Companies like Walmart are defiant against any attempt by workers to have a voice in ensuring their safety in the workplace in Bangladesh, deflecting criticism by promising self-regulation and investing in public relations-driven charity. 

Bangladesh is the second largest producer of garments in a trillion-dollar global industry, squeezing profits from workers assembling to the dictates of fast fashion under perilous conditions and at mind-boggling speeds. One report found that workers had to sew one pair of Walmart “Faded Glory” jeans every six minutes, sometimes up to 12 hours a day. 

Powerful multinational retailers and brands arrive in Bangladesh demanding the lowest possible price forcing local producers to cut costs in building maintenance, safety and wages.  

Workers protest in Dhaka over factory deaths

What about the opportunities and benefits of globalisation for workers who are very much at the bottom of the pyramid? In the 1980s, the Bangladeshi government was pushed to focus on exports – promoting its abundance in cheap labour as its “comparative advantage” both at home in the textile industry and abroad from remittances by workers living abroad.  

The textile industry has long been a prominent part of the economy in much of South Asia, and with independence from Pakistan in 1972, Bangladesh nationalised its large textile mills. The privatisation of the industry began in the 1980s and was accelerated after 1986 once the government signed on to the IMF’s structural adjustment policies. 

Despite its pursuit of “free markets”, structural adjustment of Bangladesh’s economy meant a heavy hand of the state in promoting and supporting the readymade garment (RMG) industry alongside harsh interventions against unionisation attempts by workers.  

Growth of garment industry

The last three decades has seen an explosion in the growth of the RMG industry which today accounts for almost 80 percent of the nation’s overall exports. As such, wages in this notoriously low-wage industry have remained virtually stagnant, making Bangladesh “competitive” against China, India, Cambodia, El-Salvador and virtually all other garment exporters that have seen average garment wages rise. 

This manifestation of the race to the bottom contributes directly to increasing rates of inequality in Bangladeshi society and the growing numbers of the working poor. In other words, while garment manufacturing has led to impressive growth in the country’s overall GDP, profits from the industry go primarily to garment retailers and brands in Europe and the US, and to a lesser degree to Bangladeshi middle-men and factory owners. The government has little incentive to disrupt this cozy relationship as the industry accounts for so much of its economy. 

Most of the production takes place in export processing zones where companies are exempt from many basic laws – and pay little in taxes. With a small tax base, the government has few resources to build up its department of labour or other enforcement mechanisms. Some in the US have called for boycotts or bans of Bangladesh garments, but this would only exacerbate the problem and hurt workers.  

This May Day, we might want to return to the similarities between the acts of violence outside of Dhaka and in Boston, both events resulted in senseless bloodshed of innocent victims. While we might debate how to prevent tragedies like the Boston marathon bombings, it is abundantly clear that enforcement of safety standards and basic regulations would help prevent the sheer scale of terror and violence from being unleashed yet again in Bangladesh. 

The International Labor Rights Forum, (ILRF) the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) and the Asia Floor Wage campaign are making efforts to demand accountability in Bangladesh. 

It would cost only a small fraction of the profits that this global industry aggressively extracts. Walmart, for example, would have to pay $500,000 a year for two years to fund the ILRF programme – or about 2 percent of their CEO salary in 2012

The WRC estimates that the ILRF safety programme would cost only about 10 cents per garment if spread out over all the country’s exports – a small sum for corporations or even western consumers, who benefit from the violence that comes from an economic model that promotes profits over human life. 

Paula Chakravartty is an associate professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. 

Stephanie Luce is an associate professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute, City University of New York.