Struggle for Labor Rights Continues After Massive Factory Collapse in Bangladesh


Photos of missing family members posted during the days after the collapse. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Photos of missing family members posted during the days after the collapse.
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The Savar building collapse on April 24, 2013 was the deadliest disaster in the garment industry’s history. Rana Plaza near Dhaka, Bangladesh was an eight story building owned by Mohammed Sohel Rana where nearly 3,000 adults and children worked to earn a living. When the building collapsed during the morning rush hour, of the thousands buried among the rubble, 1,130 people were killed and 2,500 people were injured.

Cracks in the building were noticed the day before the collapse, but after inspection Managers told workers that if they didn’t work, they would lose an entire month of pay. The upper floors had been built without a permit and architects had stated that the building was unstable and could not handle the weight and the vibrations of the machinery. Workers attempted to warn their managers, but were ignored. In other words, this “accident” was entirely preventable.

A 400-page report by the Bangladesh Home Ministry found five reasons for the collapse: low-quality construction materials, use of black money* in the illegal construction and approval process, failure to follow building codes, construction of the garment factory on top of a market complex and loading of heavy machinery that could not be supported by the building. As a result, the building owners may face charges of “culpable homicide.”**

This is not the first tragedy in the Bangladesh garment industry. The New York Times reported that overwhelming pressure from consumer and labor groups for not doing more to ensure worker safety in Bangladesh has Walmart, Gap and numerous other retailers scrambling to forge a new plan to promote safety in that country’s apparel industry.

Interestingly, prior to the building collapse, these same retailers were instrumental in defeating a 2011 proposal to increase wages and safety standards. Since the Savar factory collapse, at least 14 major North American retailers have refused to sign the most recent proposal, The Bangladesh Factory Safety Accord.

Local and international unions have long campaigned for such changes, but “the issue is not really about making a new law or amending the old one,” said Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, a group campaigning for garment workers’ rights. “In the past whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beatings and harassment,” she said. In 2012, a well known Bangladeshi labor activist Aminul Islam was murdered for his advocacy work.

While the Savar building collapse has brought the plight of garment workers to a global audience, their fight for decent wages and safe working conditions is far from over.

*Black money: money that was acquired illegally, in this case it may refer to the bribing of officials in charge of giving out building permits.

**Culpable homicide: responsibility for the worker deaths.

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