Factories that churn out consumer products around the world feed the insatiable appetite of consumers around the world, including the US. Bangladesh has turned into a major exporter of clothing and the garment industry there is a major political backer.
The factories where these clothes are produced operate 24/7/365, with multiple shifts operating to keep the output going. The owners operate them as little more than sweatshops straight out of the American 19th and early 20th Century. That is, they operate like how American clothing manufacturers used to operate until the criminal tragedy that was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire revealed just how deadly these factories were and New York State imposed sweeping safety rules for industry.
Locking emergency exits and lacking sufficient safety gear meant that those trapped by the flames could never escape, or their only means of escape was jumping to their deaths.
Fires have claimed dozens of lives across Bangladesh in just the past year. This past November saw a fire at another factory in Dhaka kill 112. The building housing that factory lacked sufficient exits or safety gear, meaning that victims simply could not get out of the building before succumbing to the smoke and heat.
Today another major incident occurred.
A building housing at least four clothing manufacturers collapsed, killing at least 100 and trapping dozens more. That’s despite news reports in the local papers that the building was suffering from structural problems yesterday. Cracks had appeared in the building and no one moved to inspect the building or shutter it to make sure that it was safe to occupy. Factory owners ignored warnings not to allow workers to enter the building.
Workers in the Rana Plaza building said it had developed such severe cracks the day before that it had been reported on local news channels. They hesitated to enter the building Wednesday morning, said Abdur Rahim, who worked in a garment factory on the fifth floor.
But a manager from the factory assured them there was no problem, so they went inside, he said.
“We started working. After about an hour or so the building collapsed suddenly,” he said. He next remembered regaining consciousness outside the building.
Bangladesh, like other developing countries, is going to have to reevaluate its safety rules and crack down factories that are operating without proper safety systems in place. Moreover, these countries have to make a concerted effort to make sure that worker safety is not trumped by business concerns for the bottom line that treats workers as disposable assets.
American businesses and consumers expect cheap products, and have gone to places like Bangladesh to get clothing made. The cheap costs come at a price - and the price is working conditions that are dangerous and deadly. Businesses will continue to chase cheap manufacturing across the globe, dipping into countries that have lax regulations on worker safety because it adds to costs. That means consumers have to demand that businesses have to choose sources that are not putting their workers into dangerous conditions. For instance, Walmart terminated its relationship with a Bangladeshi company after the November 2012 fire though critics claimed that the company knew about the unsafe working conditions and thwarted efforts to correct them.