Bloodstained Clothing From Bangladesh


Last Wednesday’s collapse of the Rana Plaza on the outskirts of Dhaka over 400 people dead, mostly young women, and the death toll may rise as more bodies are pulled from the building’s mangled wreckage. Over a thousand workers have been injured, some gravely, in what is the garment industry’s deadliest accident to date. The incident sparked violent protests in Bangladesh, and several arrests have been made, but whether there will be real accountability and subsequent reforms to avoid future calamities remains to be seen.

After temporary closure of the complex on Tuesday, the owners re-opened the factory the next morning despite warnings that the building was structurally compromised.   At the sight of obvious danger, including cracks in the building, and on the advice of union leaders and safety experts, garment workers balked at entering the building. Perhaps the workers believed the false reassurances that the building was safe to enter.  But many of the workers who returned to work despite their apprehension were told that if the factory failed to produce and delivers its wares, cash flow would be interrupted and the owners would not be able to pay the workers their wages for the month.  With no other source of income, desperate workers had no real choice, although shop and bank employees working on the building did not report to work on Wednesday.

This tragedy could have been prevented if Bangladesh exercised adequate regulatory oversight over its 5000 factories, or if Bangladesh had a strong history of collective bargaining, but none of the workers in the Rana Plaza Building belonged to a union. Although Bangladesh provides some legal protections for workers, the climate for trade union rights remains appalling, andharassment of those attempting to organize unions is widespread.  In April of 2012, tireless and politically targeted labor activistAminul Islam was tortured and murdered, and no arrests have been made, sending an ominous signal to others fighting the uphill battle for the protection of workers in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is now the world’s second largest exporter of garments, which comprise 80% of the country’s exports.  Enjoying a competitive advantage over other countries paying lowest wages, Bangladesh’s garment workers make between 17 and 26 cents an hour.   Working conditions in many factories are abysmal.  Since 1990, industrial accidents in Bangladesh have resulted in 1,071 fatalities and 3,127 injuries in 279 separate incidents, not including the most recent calamity. This tragedy sparked global outrage, especially coming closely on the heels of a November fire in the Tazreen factory in Savar that  killed 112 workers and injured scores of others who were unable to flee the burning building, in part because emergency exits were locked.  Already rickety buildings reach toward the sky to add floors that can accommodate yet more businesses that generate increased profits, with no attention to safety. Several of the upper floors in the Rana building were constructed without permits. In the wake of the November fire, labor advocates proposed comprehensive reform for safety standards through the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Agreement, though the response has been tepid thus far.

Although Walmart was reportedly the Tazreen factory’s largest purchaser, the company refused to provide compensation to the victims, claiming it was unaware that a subcontractor procured services there. Walmart has since announced a “zero tolerance policy” for subcontractors, though its efficacy remains untested. However, one report noted that some Bangladeshi business with higher standards subcontract to those with abysmal conditions. The mechanics of the global supply chain leads some analysts to argue that the system of subcontracting provides large retailers with political cover and plausible deniability, so that in the wake of such tragedies, companies can respond with incredulity about factory conditions. As long as retailers are focused on cost and speed and impervious to the appalling conditions under which garments are produced, more tragedies are likely.

Bangladesh has made strides in alleviating poverty, though many challenges remain. The current development orthodoxy is underpinned by an unquestioned faith that the potential of unbridled capitalism will inure to the benefit of the world’s poor.  The underlying premise is that free markets will generate economic development that will ultimately lift poor countries out of poverty.  Countries desperate for economic development face understandable tension in balancing the need to protect impoverished workers with the incentives that lure large retailers or their subcontractors to take advantage of lax safety standards and other sweatshop conditions. The Bangladeshi government claims it wants to improve conditions but is mindful of the potential economic impact of heightened standards for millions who rely on those jobs. Those considerations are real, but the government cannot sacrifice safety at the altar of economic development. Further impeding efforts to improve working conditions is that many factory owners are either members of Parliament or of political parties.  Theories of economic development are inseparable from those who are enriched by them.

The Rana calamity, which occurs against the backdrop of the global sweatshop industry, highlights the importance of fostering solidarity among social movements challenging the structure of low wage markets and advocating for accountability for the conditions of work on an international scale.  One progressive commentator elicited derision for suggesting that it was entirely appropriate for poor countries to embrace lower safety and labor standards, arguing that workers in the developing world individually an collectively engage in a cost-benefit calculus and voluntarily accept the risks attendant to garment industry factories in order to earn enough to fend off starvation.  Critics counter that countries in the global south must avoid a race to the bottom, in which countries are pitted against each other in every decreasing wages and safety standards.

The economically, geographically and socially disenfranchised garment workers in Bangladesh need multi-stakeholder support.  The US government can play a role. The US-based labor organization AFL-CIO filed a petition asking the US government to consider withdrawing, suspending or limiting Bangladesh’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preference, over concerns about workers’ rights and safety issues.  A delegation from Bangladesh argued its case on March 28, 2013, and the US can use this opportunity to demand enhanced protections for Bangladesh’s vulnerable workforce.  Retailers can be pressured to ensure the integrity of their global supply chain by consumers demanding that garments are produced in humane conditions.  Social movements can identify the ways in which their interests are intertwined and work in solidarity across borders.  Various international workers’ rights initiatives  can help create a floor of decent standards across the globe to protect the next country targeted for its exploitable labor force.  Hopefully, the horrifying carnage surrounding this tragedy will galvanize a coordinated international response to the treacherous conditions on which the supply chain for the garment industry is often predicated.

Lauren Carasik is a Clinical Professor of Law and director of the  International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law.

Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxemburg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
Majd Isreb
America’s Spirit, Syrian Connection
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving