How the ready-made garment industry captured the Bangladeshi state.
SAVAR, Bangladesh — The stench of Bangladesh’s worst-ever industrial disaster lingers with you long after departing what is left of the Rana Plaza factory complex, which collapsed on April 24. Now, with the death toll reaching more than 900 and additional corpses still being pulled from the rubble day and night, Bangladeshis are reeling from a fresh industrial tragedy. Just after midnight on Wednesday, a fire broke out in a Dhaka clothing factory, trapping eight people who died of asphyxiation.
Both tragedies — which follow on the heels of a similar factory fire last November that left more than 100 people dead — weigh heavily on the country’s conscience. They also extend deep into its economy and politics, both of which are tightly intertwined with Western commercial interests. Ready-made garments are Bangladesh’s largest export industry, accounting for more than 75 percent of exports and raking in some $19 billion annually. And with 3.6 million Bangladeshis — mainly women with little education or training — working in approximately 4,000 textile and garment factories throughout the country, the industry has rapidly injected wages, albeit small ones, into the previously underemployed and underempowered rural class.
But in a country rife with corruption, where regulations are regularly flouted, this progress comes at a price — as the tragedy in Rana Plaza makes brutally clear. And even though it seems like the next horrible tragedy is inevitable — or perhaps, literally, around the corner — it’s worth recalling the day of the collapse. In fact, it illuminates much of what is broken about Bangladesh today.
On April 23, the day before it collapsed, cracks appeared on a pillar in the rear of one of the five factories in the complex, located in an industrial satellite town on the outskirts of Dhaka. The factories were shuttered by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association for the afternoon. By the next morning, however, factory bosses demanded that workers return to their sewing machines. The shops and a bank that were housed in the front of the complex remained closed for fear that the building was structurally unsound.
"We went to work with fear in us that morning," said Arif Hussein, who used to be a finishing manager at New Wave Bottoms, a factory on the fourth floor of the complex that supplied various Western retail companies. Just before 9 a.m., as Arif was starting his day, he felt the 315,000-square-foot complex begin to give way. Arif rallied the colleagues nearest him and ran, managing to escape out the front of the building. The scene was utter chaos, he said.
Many were not so lucky. As the day wore on, rescue workers managed to pull hundreds of bodies from the wreckage. Local volunteers stood on piles of sweaters destined for Western retail outlets — many with price tags already affixed — and tugged at the crumpled concrete. From inside the collapsed building, the limbs of crushed workers protruded from between the pancaked floors.
As the frantic rescue effort unfolded outside, Sohel Rana, the 30-year-old owner of the complex, remained trapped in his office in the building’s basement. The story of how he got out is in many ways the story of how the country got into this mess.
An exemplar of the so-called "Bangladeshi dream," Rana owned a slew of buildings on land that many allege he had stolen. A member of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League — which effectively functioned as muscle for the parent organization — he had political connections that allowed him to avoid taxes, to acquire land through shady deals, and, fatefully, to ignore building inspectors. Rana’s principle source of power, though, was apparently his connection to Murad Jang, the local member of Parliament, for whom he mobilized funds and people.
"Rana was Murad Jang’s right-hand man," explained Omar Chowdhury, owner of Syntex Knitwear Ltd., another garment manufacturer.
Armed with Murad’s patronage, Rana managed to add additional floors to the flimsy concrete and steel building — designed to support apartments, not industrial equipment — and avoid paying taxes on four of its nine stories, according to Iqbal Hossein, a local businessman whose wife works in the local tax office.
"Nothing moves in Savar without Murad Jang giving consent," explained Reswan Selim, owner of anther garment manufacturer in the area.
Trapped beneath the building, Rana called the only man he could count on. By noon, three hours after the building started to give way, Murad’s men had rescued Rana from his office. Soon he was on the run, heading initially to a friend’s flat in Dhaka with the assistance of the member of Parliamen. When the scale of the tragedy became apparent, however, authorities apprehended him near the border with India.
I found Murad Jang standing amid emergency services and rescuers on April 26. When asked who was responsible for the disaster, he replied, "It was a natural disaster." That is how the interview ended. One question, one answer.
Inside what remained of the building were labels reading "Joe Fresh for JC Penney" laying near a decomposing corpse, crushed along with sewing machines. As with many of the brands seen scattered in the rubble, Canada’s Joe Fresh is struggling financially. The company recently signed a deal with JC Penney in an attempt to stimulate business; sourcing in Bangladesh, where wages are among the lowest on the planet, was another way to boost profit margins.
Workers had little choice but to go to work in Rana Plaza on the morning of April 24, according to Iqbal. Without work they would h
ave gone hungry. Labor organizing is strongly discouraged in Bangladesh and the subject of much international criticism. The U.S. trade representative, for example, recently submitted a set of queries to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Commerce regarding labor standards. There is also a chance the country could lose its preferential access to the U.S. market.
Factories, meanwhile, are barely regulated in Bangladesh — and what regulations exist are routinely flouted. Building inspectors, moreover, are understaffed and overworked. "We need an inspection that deserves to be called an inspection," said Albrecht Conze, the German ambassador in Dhaka. "Nineteen people [inspectors in the country] without motorbikes for more than 4,000 factories is simply unacceptable."
Even with limited inspection, however, it is doubtful that politically connected bosses like Rana would pay much heed to bureaucrats. Bangladesh is a deeply feudal society; systems of state or governance have little sway over powerful men and families. As a result, the country has one of the lowest tax bases as a percentage of GDP in the world.
"The sad part is there are many Rana Plazas in Bangladesh. The political situation in the country gives rise to such monsters," said Reswan Selim, a boss of another garment manufacturer. Even the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has publicly admitted that 90 percent of the country’s industrial building stock may be noncompliant.
The tragedy, then, is not just the more than 900 people who perished in the disaster. It is that an industry that Bangladesh badly needs is being jeopardized by a political system run amok — one that’s built on patronage and unable to ensure basic worker safety standards. And this government’s failure to protect its own people is a tragedy that will forever be linked to the stench of death in Savar.