There has been no new tragedy in Bangladesh in the 5 years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed there on April 24, 2013, crushing 1129 people to death. Rana Plaza was only the worst in a string of workplace disasters, mainly fires, that had killed scores of Bangladeshi workers at a time over the previous two decades.
Credit for the sudden safety improvement should go to an international solidarity movement, which forced the big brand-name European and American retailers who import clothing from the poor South Asian nation to spend real money on workplace inspections, and to repair or even close down the most dangerous factories.
But the successful safety campaign in Bangladesh garment factories is slowing down, as some of the big brands are looking to end their responsibility. The vital pact that reduced the danger to the garment workers, called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, expires on May 15, and some 80 of the U.S. and European importers that agreed to it are not signing a 3-year extension. And certain of the biggest American brands — like Walmart, the Gap and Children’s Place — never got behind the push for safety in the first place.
As some of the big importers skulk away, a new Rana Plaza disaster becomes more and more likely.
Another huge building collapse or fire would be a tragedy first and foremost for the victims and their families. But it could have a new bad consequence — another addition to the rise in jihadist Islamism around the globe. Bangladesh, with 163 million people, is the third most populated majority Muslim nation in the world, but until the past few years violent jihadism had not surfaced there. Now it has, and more mass deaths in the garment factories might serve as a recruiting tool. If that happens, we in the rich world would hear the usual nonsense from the usual suspects about the “clash of civilizations,” when we should instead be blaming greedy American retail chains.
Back in 2013, I visited Bangladesh a few months after the Rana Plaza disaster, and I interviewed survivors and courageous union leaders as part of my long report. The garment factories stretch northwest of the crowded capital, Dhaka: ugly 5-to-9-story buildings, each with anywhere from 4500 to 9000 workers in each. Some 80 percent of the workers were women, nearly all from 18 to 30 years old. Their base salary was $38 a month (not a typo), although compulsory overtime raised that figure to $60-$90.
Walmart and the Gap do not own the factories directly. Local Bangladeshi subcontractors allow the big brands to slink away from their moral and legal responsibility. Kalpona Akter, an impressive 40-year leader in the independent union movement, told me she always rushed out to the scene of the latest factory disaster — to look after the survivors, of course, but also so she could collect labels from the clothing that was being sewn there. She said: “The big European and American importers sometimes deny that their brands were sourced to that factory. So we need to get the logos, the actual proof, before the Walmarts and the others can cover up.”
Kalpona Akter and her allies used the Rana Plaza collapse to pressure 220 of the big brands into signing the Bangladesh Accord for workplace safety, a legally binding agreement in which the importers promised to spend as much as $1 billion for inspections and to fix the most dangerous workplaces. Among those who joined the Accord were the Swedish retailer H&M, and Zara, based in Spain, along with the U.S. parent company for Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. It is at least partly thanks to the Accord that, so far, there have been no more Rana Plazas.
Meanwhile, other U.S. importers like the Gap, Walmart, Target, and Macy’s cooked up an alternate scheme, which they called the Bangladesh Alliance, no doubt hoping the similar name would cause confusion. The Alliance was a toothless arrangement, which promised to spend only a laughable $42 million for safety — a sick joke given that Bangladesh has an estimated 3000 garment factories, employing 4.4 million workers. (To their discredit, former U.S. senators George Mitchell and Olympia Snow fronted for the dishonest, window-dressing substitute.)
The Bangladesh Accord was only a 5-year agreement, and it is about to expire. So far, only 140 of the original 220 brands have signed the 3-year extension; notably absent is Abercrombie & Fitch, and a worldwide campaign is targeting them. (The toothless Alliance is ending after 5 years, and there are no plans to extend it.)
Despite the success with workplace safety, independent unions are under enormous pressure in Bangladesh from the government and the owners, even though the brands promised in the Accord to respect labor’s right to organize. Unions and factory safety are inseparable, as the Rana Plaza survivors told me a few months afterwards.
They said that the awful disaster there was completely foretold. The day before the building collapsed, a big crack opened in a wall on the third floor, and crowds fled the building in fear. The young garment workers, some of them missing limbs or still on crutches, showed me cellphone photos of the actual crack. The next morning, they fearfully milled around outside, only going in when they were warned they would be fired otherwise. The 9-story building fell at 8:30 a.m. An independent union could have protected them by calling them out of the factory without fear of reprisal.
Without immediate action, another disaster becomes more likely. This time around, though, the local jihadist movement will argue that “Muslim Lives Don’t Matter.” And the jihadists will have a point.