More than 300 workers now have been confirmed dead from Wednesday’s building collapse in Bangladesh. Some 2,200 survivors have been pulled from the ruins of what is being called one of the worst manufacturing disasters in history. More than 3,000 garment workers were on the job when upper building floors pancaked on top of each other.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has ordered the arrest of the building’s owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, a local leader of ruling Awami League’s youth front, who told factory operators the building was safe. Hasina also has ordered the arrest of five garment factory owners.
Cracks in the multistory building, located in Savar, just outside the capital, Dhaka, were reported in the local media after they appeared on Tuesday. Although workers in the retail shops on the building’s first floor were told to stay home on Wednesday, operators of five garment factories in the building’s top floors ordered employees to report to work. According to the Bangladesh Daily Star, video shot before the collapse shows cracks in the walls, with some attempts at repair. The video also shows columns missing chunks of concrete.
Bangladesh’s BDB News24 reports workers say factory owners forced them to work on Wednesday, including Aklima, a garment worker. “I did not want to go to the factory since a crack appeared yesterday (Wednesday),” she said. “But the factory’s officers forced us into the building in the morning.” Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Haq told the press that the collapse “was not an accident, it was a killing incident.”
The Solidarity Center has called on the Bangladesh government to enforce its labor and building codes, on multinational companies that source from the country to prioritize health and safety conditions in factories, and on both to respect the rights of workers and to recognize that the only way Bangladesh will have safe factories is if workers have a voice on the job. Human Rights Watch noted to the Associated Press that “none of the factories in the Rana Plaza were unionized, and that had they been, workers would have been in a better position to refuse to enter the building Wednesday.”
Media reports describe Dhaka and Savar as chaotic, with thousands of garment workers protesting the collapse and demanding arrest and punishment of those responsible for the tragedy, and families of missing workers pressing to get access to the ruins to find their loved ones.
The building collapse took place five months after a fire killed 112 garment workers at the Tazreen Fashions factory. Since then, there have been at lest 41 fire incidents at Bangladesh garment factories that have killed nine workers and injured more than 660 others, according to data compiled by the Solidarity Center.
Bangladesh’s apparel industry is the country’s largest source of export revenue—78 percent of the country’s $23 billion in export revenue in 2011. Yet garment workers are paid $37 a month, the lowest in the world, as factories seek to minimize costs to meet the price demands of the global apparel brands. Workers often are prevented from forming unions and these vulnerable and impoverished workers cannot fight alone for their rights.
A New York Times editorial today concisely summed up the solution to Bangladesh’s ongoing workplace tragedies, writing that the government must “enact meaningful changes for the country’s 3.5 million garment workers, many of whom are women.” The most essential change is to “enforce Bangladeshi labor laws and safety standards, which theoretically provide protection but are rarely honored. The laws allow workers to form unions and bargain with management on wages and working conditions, but the government has not defended those rights despite promises to do so to international agencies and the United States.”