The death toll from the recent collapse of an eight-story garment factory complex in Bangladesh had passed 500 by Friday. More than 2,400 workers had been rescued from the rubble. Dozens remain unaccounted for and are presumed dead. The tragedy at the Rana Plaza complex, which housed five factories, now ranks among the worst industrial accidents.
As they should, tough questions are arising out of the rubble concerning those responsible for what has happened and what needs to take place next. The disaster puts in the harsh spotlight yet again the weaknesses in an industry increasingly dependent on the cheap labor and poorly regulated working conditions that exist in some of the poorest economies in the world.
The garment industry is a crucial sector of the Bangladeshi economy, second only to China’s in size. It has grown rapidly in recent decades, a $20 billion a year enterprise that accounts for nearly 80 percent of the country’s export earnings. In a poor country with a high rate of unemployment, garment factories have become a boon, employing an estimated 4 million workers, predominantly women and girls earning very low wages.
Blame for the Rana Plaza disaster in Savar, outside the capital city of Dhaka, has fallen appropriately on the owner, who is alleged to have added three more floors illegally to the building complex, on engineers who helped him and vouched for the safety of the structure, and on factory managers for ordering workers back into the building after large cracks in the edifice forced an evacuation. Labor advocates point out, too, that accidents of this magnitude occur in a political environment of official corruption and negligence, where safety regulations for workers and buildings alike are weak, are implemented and enforced haphazardly or do not exist at all.
Like other countries that have carved a niche in an expansive global economy, Bangladesh must sustain the high production capacity of the garment industry to help build a stronger economy and raise the quality of life overall. But at what price to the workers and families?
Some of the international clothing companies with contracts in the doomed complex have announced compensation packages for the dead, the injured and orphaned children. That is as it should be. But the responsibility runs deeper to workers whose low-wage labor generates cheap consumer goods and huge corporate profits in much wealthier countries. In the wake of this and previous disasters, several corporations (among them Walmart, Disney and The Gap) have acknowledged the economic and social responsibility to provide more vigorous training and supervision of their contractors. That’s the least they owe to the workers.