Accountability for the Bangladesh Building Collapse: Blame Game or Real Change?

The April 24, 2013 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building located on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh is a grim but familiar story. Housing primarily garment factories, the building had known safety issues. On the day of the collapse, thousands of garment workers clocked in for their shifts producing garments largely for American, Canadian, and European markets. The casualties of the collapse at the time of writing have surpassed 300 dead, over 1000 injured, and scores are still trapped in the rubble.

This is the latest in a series of industrial accidents in Bangladesh's garment sector in recent months. Factory fires have been especially deadly. In the last seven months fires have claimed the lives of hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers garnering intense, yet shorted-lived, international media attention.

Last November, for example, the Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka went up in flames, killing more than 100 people and injuring over 200; up until this week's tragedy it held the ominous distinction as the most deadly industrial accident in Bangladesh's recent history. In the midst of November's blaze, over 2,000 factory workers, mostly female, found the doors had been locked, windows bolted shut, no functioning safety equipment, and only three accessible staircases. Many of the Tazreen workers jumped from the nine-story building in a desperate bid to survive.

The recent garment factory fires in Bangladesh hearken back to the Triangle Factory fire of a century ago. In March 1911, the workshops and offices of the Triangle Waist Company, a company that manufactured women's "shirtwaist" blouses, became engulfed in flames. Heaps of scrap fabric and oil used to lubricate machines fed the inferno on the three top floors of the ten-story Asch Building in New York City's garment district. As the workforce of largely young, immigrant women tried to escape, they found the main stairway door locked, windows shuttered, and routes to safety blocked by closely packed rows of worktables and chairs. The only fire escape collapsed and horrified onlookers watched from the street as workers jumped for their lives from the windowsills above. In all, 146 died.

Separated by a century, in the days and weeks that followed the Triangle and Tazreen fires, calls for justice and accountability led to the arrest of factory managers who claimed that their factories met mandated safety standards. At trial, a jury ultimately acquitted Triangle managers Max Blanck and Isaac Harris of manslaughter charges. The fate of the Tarzeen managers, arrested and accused of preventing workers from leaving the burning building, has yet to be decided. Will anyone be held to account for the most recent building collapse and lives lost?

Bangladesh is home to an estimated 4,500 garment producers employing over 3 million workers. By some estimates the country is on track to surpass China in less than a decade as the largest apparel manufacturer in the world.

The success of Bangladesh's garment sector, which produces goods amounting to 80 percent of the country's annual exports, is built on a foundation of cheap labor, long hours, and abysmally low safety standards. Garment workers labor 12 to 14 hour days in dangerous factories making ready-to-wear clothing that is sold by leading retailers including the recognized industry standard-setter, Wal-Mart.

Price and delivery pressures exerted by major retailers on their suppliers contribute to this status quo. When the difference between profits and losses are calculated in fractions of pennies, workplace safety standards become expendable for factory operators and they routinely ignore national minimum wage and child labor laws. Improve conditions, manufacturers argue, and production will move somewhere else where labor standards are even worse.

In spite of sustained efforts, change through collective action remains elusive for workers in this climate, for reasons ranging from poverty that compels workers into the factories to intimidation and violence meant to silence those who speak out--as was the case with Aminul Islam, a well known Bangladeshi labor activist murdered in April 2012.

With demand high, accountability low, and profit margins thin, garment producers and retailers who source from them have little incentive to change. Citing costs and potential legal issues, major retailers rejected a plan in 2011 proposed by Bandadeshi and international unions that would have established an independent inspectorate to oversee all of Bangladesh's factories with the power to shutter facilities deemed unsafe. Other retailers have pledged support for the plan but, drawing upon a strategy historically utilized by companies--especially in the US during late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--when under pressure to stop employing child labor and improve other workplace standards, only if others sign on.

The globalization of production, moreover, has introduced more opacity into the process of garment assembly, often through a labyrinth of retailers, suppliers, contractors and subcontractors, and layers of deniability for all.

In the wake of the Dhaka building collapse, international retailers and clothing companies seem to be following what has become a routine response to mass casualties at production sites, making statements meant to both distance themselves from the tragedy and to assuage public opinion. For example, The Children's Place admitted sourcing from a factory in the building in the past but clarified that at the time of the Rana Plaza collapse nothing was being produced for the company there. Wal-Mart stressed its commitment "to promoting stronger safety measures in factories and that work continues," noting that no "authorized" production was underway in the collapsed building, and promising action against any unauthorized production as a result of subcontracting. Loblaw, Canadian retailer of Joe Fresh apparel, pledged its commitment to "finding solutions to this situation ... to ensure the physical safety of workers producing our products" with the caveat that the company's "audits align with those of industry around the world."

Socially responsible consumerism has been a popular concept yet thus far has failed to significantly alter the status quo on the factory floor. But a recent Nielsen global survey found that 63% of consumers under the age of 40 say that they would be willing to pay more for products produced by "socially-responsible companies." While it remains to be seen if these attitudes translate into actual purchases made, such studies point to shared values that may push companies to rethink their willingness to source goods based on cost considerations alone.

In the days after the Triangle fire, labor activist Rose Schneiderman spoke passionately at a memorial meeting and her words are as applicable to Dhakar and garment manufacturing centers the world over today as they were to New York a century ago. "This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed," Schneiderman declared. "The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred."

The Triangle fire galvanized public opinion. Graphic reporting of the tragedy by the burgeoning mass media cast a harsh light on the unsafe conditions and lack of safety regulations normative throughout the garment industry. The shocking realities of sweatshop work could no longer be easily ignored.

Garment workers then amplified their calls for better working conditions and safety standards through unions, such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), that had long been active. Important, too, were cross-class alliances developed within groups like the Women's Trade Union League in the years before the fire, and so sustained agitation by these organized workers in cooperation their middle-class and government allies ultimately led to the enactment in New York of some of the most progressive factory and fire safety laws of the early twentieth century.

If history is any guide, progress on workplace standards in Bangladesh and in other developing countries will be difficult to achieve and slow in coming. But without a sense of life and death urgency, a sense of outrage, and a commitment to press for change, we are virtually guaranteed, all too soon, to witness another tragedy of similar or worse scope to the building collapse in Dhaka.