Why did thousands of terrified apparel workers in Savar, Bangladesh, file onto the upper floors of the Rana Plaza building which local authorities had condemned and from which the shops and banks on the lower levels had already been evacuated?
It was not because they were feckless or stupid. But the owners of the five garment factories in the building that produce apparel for export to the USA and Europe required workers, mainly young people, to work three days unpaid for any work day they missed. April 24 fell on the last week of the month. If workers were fired for absenteeism that week, they would receive no pay for the entire month. And their families would go hungry for lack of the 21 cents per hour ($37 per month) pay they would bring home.
The building owner, a politically well-connected local leader of the ruling Awami League, assured the factory owners that the visibly flawed and illegally constructed structure was safe. The factory owners, desperate to maintain the lowest possible production costs to keep their contracts from the best-known Western clothing brands, ordered the workers to go to work. The building collapsed. Of the 2500 workers in the five factories, at least 300 are dead, 2000 injured, and many more still dead and dying under the rubble.
There are many to blame for this mass industrial manslaughter. These include corrupt local politicians, greedy and unscrupulous national businessmen, and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association that fights against unionization and against any enforcement of labor laws or safety regulations.
But the intellectual instigator of the crime is the global garment industry itself -- profitable global corporations that own brands like Benetton, Children’s Place and Calvin Klein, massive retailers like Wal-Mart, C&A and Tchibo. Like other global industries in electronics, shoes and toys, the garment/apparel industry profits heavily from buying at low prices based on exploited and poorly paid factory workers in developing countries and selling at higher prices to customers in Western shopping malls. Far up the feeding chain, these global corporations try to insulate themselves from the widespread misery of the workers that actually produce their goods through a vast supply chain of manufacturers and sub-contractors. If young workers work excessive hours at monotonous tasks, die from fires, explosions, or building collapses, or merely are swallowed alive and spit out from the bowels of the global capitalist system, these corporations do not acknowledge their responsibility and culpability.
Read the details of this latest man-made disaster in the articles posted on DSA’s labor blog Talking Union. Respond to the appeals for the expression of solidarity to the struggling workers of Bangladesh, of China, and of the USA. Make the connections. We all live together in one small corner of the universe. The young women trapped in the rubble of Rana Plaza are our sisters and daughters. If we do not react, we are the ones who are ultimately culpable.
Paul Garver, a member of DSA’s National Political Committee, is a retired global union organizer and co-editor of Talking Union.