More than 500 people have now been confirmed dead in last week’s building collapse in Bangladesh, the country’s worst industrial disaster on record. The dead are among the 2,868 victims pulled from the rubble of the eight-story building, which housed five garment factories where thousands of workers toiled on the upper floors. No one has been rescued alive for the past three days, and estimates of the number remaining in the rubble vary widely, from less than 200 to more than 1,000 people.
The mayor of Savar, where the Rana Plaza building is located, has been suspended on charges of failing to take proper action after several cracks developed and were reported by a structural engineer a day before the April 24 collapse. The mayor, Md Refatullah, also was charged for “irregularities” in approving the design.
A government inquiry concluded today that substandard construction materials and the vibration of heavy machinery in the five garment factories were prime triggers of the building’s collapse. The building owner, Sohel Rana, a prominent leader in the nation’s ruling party, was arrested over the weekend and his assets frozen. Despite the engineer’s warnings, Rana told factory operators the building was safe. Factory owners then demanded workers return the next day.
A 16-year-old garment worker whose right hand was amputated after she was pulled from the wreckage told the Solidarity Center that the factory owner said she would lose a month’s wages if she did not go to work. Solidarity Center Bangladesh Country Director Alonzo Suson and local staff are speaking with survivors, ensuring that they understand their rights and that their stories are not forgotten.
“If those workers had a collective voice to stand up to factory managers, this tragedy might never have happened,” says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Program Director Tim Ryan.
Thousands protested in Dhaka, the capitol, on May 1, internationally recognized May Day, demanding justice for those killed and injured at Rana Plaza. But garment workers from a variety of factories have been out on the streets of Dhaka for days, “demanding more safety” at the workplace, Suson told the Rick Smith Show. “Without a union at the workplace, there is no workers’ voice in making sure that safety of working conditions happen.”
While global apparel brands have taken steps to demand factories observe the nation’s job safety and health laws, they have not pushed for strong unions at the workplace—and without freedom of association, say Ryan and Suson, individual workers cannot press for safe workplaces. Nor can they demand wages they can live on. Bangladesh garment workers are paid $37 a month, the lowest in the world, to toil in conditions Pope Francis this week described as “slave labor.”
As Ryan told Public Radio International, “The brands can also be helpful when it comes to communicating with their contractors, with their companies, and say ‘Look, freedom of association is the law of the land.’
“Many of these brands have codes of conduct, which, again, are often just words on a page, but often they (mandate), ‘implementation (of) all existing labor laws and freedom of association,’ he said. “This is where the brands can put their money where their mouth is.”
For more than two decades, the Solidarity Center has been supporting workers trying to gain their rights in Bangladesh.