Nearly 100 people are feared dead after the collapse of an eight-story block housing factory and shopping center collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Wednesday. Officials say that there were 2,000 people inside when the building collapsed. Those who are still trapped inside are part of the Bangladeshi garment industry. That industry alone makes up some $19b worth of that countries exports and it is the driving force of the Bangladesh economy. Tragedies like this are far from uncommon. Today’s incident highlights, once again, the actual cost of cheap labor and clothes.
The factory in Dhaka is just one of 4,000 through out the country. The collapsed factory produced clothes for The Children’s Place, Dress Barn, Benetton and a few other American brands. Rescue workers are using Earth moving machines and their bare hands to try to reach the remaining survivors. Hundreds more are feared dead, trapped between the heavy concrete blocks. People who work in and around the building said that the factory had developed a severe crack on Tuesday. When the structure's safety was questioned by workers, the factory owners told them “not to worry, they had examined the crack.” Rolls of brightly colored fabric cascade down what is remaining of the factory, which workers are now using as a make-shift slides as they attempt to rescue as many people as possible. Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir informed reporters that those who violated construction codes in the building of the now collapsed factory would be punished.
The Bangladesh garment industry is one of the largest in the world, second only to China. American companies prefer to use foreign workers to manufacture clothes for the obvious reason of cheap labor. In November 2012 a fire broke out at the Tazreen garment factory inside the Dhaka region. That fire killed 112 people and severely maimed or injured many others. Workers there were told to ignore the fire alarm that went off, that it was probably just a false alarm. When workers tried to leave, they were told to get back to work and the factory gates were locked behind them. In the investigation that followed after that fire, it was discovered that the building had no fire permit. The Tazreen factory also lacked emergency exists and of the eight floors of that factory, only three were legally built. This is a common practice.
Amidst the decayed rubble were labels for Disney and Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart doesn’t take any responsibility for the factory conditions in places like Bangledesh. Instead, they put all of that responsibility on the factory owners. If a behemoth like Wal-Mart wanted to, they could at the very least exert some pressure on these factories to improve working conditions and safety standards. Instead factory owners and companies like Wal-Mart quibble over who is more responsible. They’ve done this for years and they will continue to do it while more people die in the unending quest to yield the highest profit margin possible.
The collapse of this factory will bring about a critical eye to the garment industry, at least for the next day or two. Then we will realize that we value cheaper clothes more than the lives of people we do not know. At least they have a job, right? Any way, demanding improved safety standards might mean that someone will have to pay a dollar more for a t-shirt and who would want that?
Far from being helpless, we are all slightly culpable for this. The good news is, is that we can put our money where our mouth is. We can also use social media to demand that companies we purchase goods from demand more of their suppliers. At the very least we can educate ourselves on where our goods come from.