As of Friday morning, the collapse of Bangladesh's Rana Plaza garment factory has claimed over 1,000 lives. Since the eight-story factory building collapsed on April 24, there have been 1,021 deaths reported, with an additional 2,500 people injured and countless more still reported missing.
The official death toll is expected to rise further as the recovery operation continues and more bodies are discovered. Brigadier-General Siddiqul Alam, who is responsible for coordinating the recovery operation, told BBC News, "Each time we moved a slab of concrete, we found a stack of bodies." Of the bodies recovered, Army Captain Shahnewaz Zakaria says, "Most are female garment workers."
The Bangladeshi government has launched an investigation to determine the cause of the collapse. As details emerge, it is becoming clear that this tragedy is the product of systemic failure at both the local and international levels.
Rana Plaza was originally constructed as a five-story building. The size of the building had been illegally increased when three additional stories were built on top of the existing five, in order to accommodate multiple garment factories within a single building. If you have ever played Jenga as a child, it should come as no surprise that the three additional floors massively increased the weight of the structure and likely contributed to its ultimate collapse. The failure to crack down on the illegal expansion of a factory employing thousands of workers is evidence of sheer negligence on the part of the Bangladeshi government.
To make matters worse, police ordered an evacuation of Rana Plaza due to huge cracks that had appeared on the building's walls just one day before the entire structure collapsed. In spite of the cracks, factory owners told their workers that it was safe to return to work. The next day, while the building's bank and a few shops remained closed, factory workers reported for duty on the day of the devastating collapse.
Bangladesh has notoriously lax labor laws, with minimal safety requirements such as the inclusion of emergency exits and the presence of fire extinguishers. Even these barely minimal standards were not met at the illegally constructed Rana Plaza building, where exits were literally boarded up and locked down as workers tried to escape. The Rana Plaza building was just one of many inadequate factories in Bangladesh. In fact, nearly half of all Bangladeshi factories do not meet the nation's own legal workplace-safety standards.
The collapse of Rana Plaza has placed an international spotlight on the garment industry and has shed light on the blatant human-rights violations within Bangladesh and the industry as a whole. Bangladesh has 3.6 million documented garment workers, who make up the the industry's lowest-paid workers across the world, earning just $37 dollars per month or $0.12 cents per hour. Furthermore, there are virtually no organized unions to represent Bangladeshi garment workers, making it exceedingly difficult for workers to organize and protest for fair wages or safer working conditions. In fact, the New York Times reports that Bangladeshi labor organizer Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered last year in a case that remains unsolved.
When nations such as Bangladesh take a hands-off, libertarian approach towards establishing factory standards, the unregulated environment will attract companies in search of cheap labor, such as Walmart, Primark, Sears, and Joe Fresh. In fact, part of the reason why Bangladesh has been able to expand its garment industry is because of rising wages in China, which led companies to seek cheaper alternatives in nations such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia. While the world's wealthy business owners will profit from these policies, the workers are left with, at best, abysmal workplace conditions and minuscule salaries that fail to provide any substantive economic growth. At worst, we witness devastating tragedy such as the deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza building.
In spite of the tragedy in Bangladesh, some neo-libertarians such as Matthew Yglesias have argued against international standards for workplace safety.
"Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans...Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you'll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine."
No, Mr. Yglesias — the current system is not fine. If anything, the death of thousands of hard-working Bangladeshis, as a direct result of inadequate global regulations and the lack of defined workplace standards, should serve as an indictment of libertarian economic policies. In the pursuit of a truly global free market, we have decreased individual accountability and have simultaneously created dangerous working conditions in the world's poorest communities. Now is the time to reject the fallacy that it is acceptable to allow third-world countries to be held to lower standards for workplace safety and basic human rights.