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Features

Bangladeshi textile factory collapse: Over 900 dead, Lessons for Africa

Horace G. Campbell

2013-05-09, Issue 629

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/87286

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The kind of tragic exploitation of workers in Bangladesh is present all over Africa, where people are denied basic labour rights as part of state efforts to attract and retain foreign investment. Militant and sustained efforts are needed to resist this trend

INTRODUCTION

With the death toll now over 900 in the wake of the collapse of the textile factory in Bangladesh, there are newspapers and financial newssheets all over the world decrying this event as a ‘disaster’ and the ‘deadliest industrial accidents ever.’ However, the sweatshop conditions for billions of workers around the world along with the absence of occupational safety beg the question: Was this building collapse an ‘accident?’ Why are there no rules relating to the inspection of buildings and building codes in the countries such as China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Tanzania and South Africa? How was it possible for the owners of this ‘establishment’ to continue operations when the safety and structural conditions of the building had been called into question? It is the contention here that this was no accident but the logic of a form of accumulating wealth that placed a premium on profits over human lives. Some have determined that this period is like a second slavery.

In the past 30 years, the drive for super-profits has led corporations to seek conditions where the working peoples have the least protection with no safety regulations at places of work. Buffeted by banks and hedge fund managers who respect no national boundaries, the bottom line for the ‘investors’ takes precedence over human lives. Egged on by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, governments in the exploited countries of the world have been outdoing each other to establish areas of intensified exploitation called Export Processing Zones (EPZ). EPZ are sites of production where international capitalists do not have to respect labour laws. The recent fire resulting from an ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in West, Texas, was another example of worksites where there are no proper controls with respect to occupational safety.

On top of the promotion of these EPZs, the efforts to roll back the basic rights of workers have intensified. Bangladesh is one of those societies where the rights of workers have been trampled upon to make the society attractive to ‘foreign investors.’ One such attraction is to ensure that there are no democratic rights such as the rights of workers to assemble, the right to a living wage or the rights to collective bargaining. During the period of the last capitalist depression, the International Labour Organization (ILO) had campaigned against wage slavery and at the end of the depression and war workers fought to expand their rights and to strengthen collective bargaining agreements and questions of occupational safety. As one form of cover up of these new forms of exploitation, some international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) write on corporate social responsibility in order to deflect from the growing calls for the protection of workers internationally.

Today, the kind of exploitation that is present in Bangladesh is present all over Africa. In Africa, the role of force in production had denied basic rights to the working people during colonialism. After independence, the politicians aligned with the soldiers to roll back the basic democratic rights of workers. These forms differ in degree from the child labour conditions in mining operations in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the use of semi-slave labour on plantations in Cote d’Iviore, the absence of safety and health for workers and ultimately in the use of religion and ethnic differences to divide workers. When these divisive tactics fail, then the companies and their police and security forces shoot workers as was the case of the Marikana mines in South Africa. This column is a statement of solidarity with the working people of Bangladesh and another call to push for global rights, especially the rights of working peoples.

‘UNPRECEDENTED TRAGEDY, ONE OF THE WORST INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENTS IN THE WORLD’

This is the way the newspapers and journalists have sought to depict the actions that led to the collapse of the eight storey building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013. According to the BBC, ‘some 700 workers have been killed in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005. Garment factory collapses in 2005 and 2010 claimed another 79 lives.’ In this building collapse of April 24, there are now over 912 dead with over 2,500 injured in this latest building collapse. There is no clear account of how many persons were in the factory at the time of the collapse of the building because the factory owners have not given precise numbers. It was reported that 2,437 people have been rescued.

There is still a search for more bodies in the wreckage of the eight-story building that was packed with workers at five garment factories. The building was supposed to be a five storey building. It has been reported that the owner illegally added three floors and allowed the garment factories to install heavy machines and generators, even though the structure was not designed to support such equipment. The factories were making clothing bound for major big name brand retailers in North America and Western Europe. Factory owners such that of the Rana Plaza are not unusual. This owner had claimed the building was safe, and the factory owners had ordered workers into the building despite their objections after serious cracks were found in the structure on April 23, the day before the disaster.

The semi-slavery conditions of workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh had been an open secret among ‘international investors.’ For after all, one of the attractions for Bangladesh as a center for the global textile industry was precisely the fact that working conditions were poor. In November 2012, a fire at another garment factory in Bangladesh that made clothes for Wal-Mart and Sears killed 112 people. Supervisors had ordered the coerced workers back to work after the fire alarm sounded, leaving workers trapped in the upper floors. In 2010, 27 people died and more than 100 were injured in a fire in a factory that made clothes for high-street retailer Gap. Next door in Pakistan in 2012 a fire in a factory had killed more than 300 workers. Then the New York Times reported that the Pakistan fire was the worst industrial accident. http://tinyurl.com/8d7t9qt

Yet, in light of this tradition of coercing workers to toil in unsafe conditions the media has called this building collapse an accident. According to the mainstream media, the building collapse was one of the deadliest industrial accidents ever.

TEXTILE WORKERS AND EXPLOITATION

Workers in the garment industry have always been open to super exploitation. It was one of the centers of production where the modern trade union movement emerged to fight for basic industrial rights. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) had been one of the largest labour unions in the United States. This union had fought hard for the rights of workers especially after the big garment disaster in New York in 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist factory, which killed 146 workers. One writer who has commented on the recent deaths traced the genealogy of garment manufacturing and the succession of ‘accidents.’ In an article titled “Clothed in Misery,” M. T. Anderson wrote,

‘Similar disasters happened here in the first phase of our national industrialization — the 1878 Washburn mill explosion in Minneapolis, the 1905 Grover Shoe Factory disaster in Brockton, Mass., the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan — but back when New England textile mills were the beating heart of America’s mass-production infancy, the most notorious was the 1860 collapse of the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Mass.’ http://tinyurl.com/cnnm6mj

During the last capitalist depression the workers in the United States fought for better wages and better working conditions. By the end of the depression and the end of the war when workers gained confidence, the capitalist moved the factories to areas of the United States where there were no unions. Later when the workers were unionized in other parts of the USA, the owners moved to low wage economies such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Haiti, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. US garment manufacturers and textile owners had promoted the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to bring African societies into this web of sweat shop production. However, the race to the bottom had been intense with the IMF and World Bank promoting the interests of the big name brand producers of textiles.

The April 24 building collapse is now going in the record book and the way the media is writing about the criminal activities is to divert attention from the alliance between the international garment manufacturers and the local political/comprador elements in Bangladesh. When the press writes about the role of corruption that led to this disaster, the mainstream media tend to deflect attention from the apparel sellers in Europe and North America.

It is against the recent history of the activism of international capital to roll back the rights of workers where it is necessary to locate the actions of the capitalists in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza complex which was not built as a factory to withstand the vibrations and hectic conditions of producing garments is typical of the thousands of cheaply built, unsafe sweatshops in Bangladesh employing workers at $38 a month to churn out orders for some of the world’s largest corporations. Global conglomerates, including some of the world’s best-known brands, extract 60 to 80 percent profit margins from merchandise made in Bangladesh, by pressing contractors to deliver the lowest possible costs. The garment factories in Bangladesh generate 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion annual exports. Grouped together in the Bangladesh Garment Manufactures & Exporters Association (BGMEA) the Bangladeshi ruling elite operates as a junior partner of international big business such as H&M, JC Penney, C&A, Levi’s, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Nike. In the aftermath of the fire, the New York Times editorialized that there were only 11 collective bargaining agreements in Bangladesh. Writing under the byline, ‘Another Preventable Tragedy in Bangladesh,’ this leading voice of liberal capitalism lamented,

‘Meanwhile, there are just 11 collective bargaining agreements in the entire country of 150 million people, and there are only a few unions in the clothing industry. Workers who try to form unions are often fired and beaten, sometimes even killed. Last year, a young labor leader, Aminul Islam, was tortured and killed in apparent retaliation for his work organizing garment workers.’ http://tinyurl.com/cwc8orc

Safety regulations are virtually non-existent, and industrial laws routinely flouted. Bangladesh’s labour ministry reportedly employs just 18 inspectors to monitor conditions in more than 100,000 factories in Dhaka.

SHODDY WORKPLACE AND RIGHTS OF WORKERS EVERYWHERE

What the leading newspapers of the world have neglected to say clearly is that the conditions of the workers in Bangladesh have been the direct result of the new form of sweatshop conditions internationally. The Bangladesh Garment Manufactures & Exporters Association (BGMEA) emerged as a force within the competitive race to move the production of garments to this poor and exploited society. In this race to the bottom, Bangladesh had risen to be the world’s second largest garment producer, behind China, by giving international investors and their local comprador allies a free hand. As in the early industrial era in the United States when poor rural women were lured to these factories, today, there are an estimated 4 million garment workers, mostly women who toil in conditions that were supposed to have been left behind at the end of the last war and depression..

At that historical moment, the ILO was one of the more well-known international organizations as it fought for the rights of workers internationally to ensure an end to poverty level wages and semi slavery working conditions. Since its creation in 1919, the ILO adopted 184 Conventions that establish standards for a range of workplace issues. Today very few workers are aware of these Conventions because the discourses about corporate social responsibility turn the rights of workers into the arbitrary philanthropic actions employers. This philanthropic based approach to the rights of workers finds its echo in the financing of international non-governmental organizations to focus on micro credit schemes or other efforts that does not document the sweat shop conditions Since the era of Thatcherism when there was a total assault on the rights of workers, questions of health and safety of workers have been replaced by the canard of corporate social responsibility. It is not by accident that even in the advanced capitalist countries one of the fundamental battles today is to retain the rights of workers to defend their standard of living. It is not enough for the top media to lament that ‘the severity and frequency of these disasters are an indictment of global clothing brands and retailers like.’

LESSONS FOR THE AFRICAN WORKERS

Throughout Africa, capitalists have campaigned to roll back the rights of workers. One can measure the extent of undemocratic practices in a society in relation to the amount of rights that have been retained by the working people. The present invasion of Africa by big and small capitalists has left shoddy buildings and poor conditions everywhere. One month before the building collapse in Bangladesh, there was a building collapse, one of the many such collapse in places such as Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. The construction boom in Africa has been taking place in a context where building codes are routinely ignored.

Western democracy experts have focused on narrow issues of elections and parliaments without a concomitant analysis of the extent of the erosion of rights of working peoples. The removal of basic safety and security of workers in order to attract ‘investors’ is part of the current political process promoted heavily by the World Bank. The more brutal dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko simply used troops to shoot workers. In the aftermath of this form of wanton killings, militias have moved in to ensure that mining operations in the Congo are never placed in a situation where the miners have the basic rights for good pay and safety. Just as in the mines, so it is in the plantations where child labour has returned and the questions of occupational health deleted from negotiations.

Capitalist from all corners of the world from Japan and China in the East to the USA and Brazil with the Europeans full of experience salivate on the super profits to be reaped from the situation in Africa where there is a young work force without the protection of the state. The young people of Egypt had worked with the April 6 movement to fight for better conditions for Egyptian workers and it is this struggle of the Egyptian workers that precipitated the revolutionary upsurge which is still lingering in Egypt.

International capitalists are afraid of the kind of political mobilizing in Africa that educated the Egyptian population, hence the new pressures to present religion and religious allegiances to blunt discussion of the conditions of workers. The Bangladesh building collapse brings back the question of the rights of workers in all parts of the world. Western European planners, in the face of the stirring from below, seek to bring discourse about corporate social responsibility, but as the workers in the Niger Delta has testified, companies such as Shell Oil are adept at playing the game of using the language of corporate social responsibility while working with the military and private military contractors to police workers.

The experiences of removing the conditions of safety and collective bargaining for workers in Africa and Bangladesh have found their way back to the United States where the capitalists have been emboldened to embark on a massive campaign to strip workers of their rights. This blowback can be seen with the public struggles over collective bargaining and absence of safety conditions in establishments. The most recent example of the massive explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Plant is but one of the most graphic examples where the owners had pushed for 'Exemption' From Safety Rules and Targeted Workplace Inspections. Over the years the OSHA had cited the West Fertilizer Plant for violations of respiratory protection standards, but did not issue fines. This is because the OHSA has been disempowered in the era of neo-liberalism. These capitalists have been pushing for exemptions in Africa and the experience of this fire that killed 15 persons in April exposed US citizens to the raging fires and unsafe conditions at industrial and oil producing sites all over Africa. According to a report in the Huffington Post, ‘By claiming the exemption, the company became subject to other, less stringent requirements and avoided certain OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency rules.’

It is these less stringent rules that have applied all over the world of poor workers so that today most students do not know what OHSA stands for. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration Is that body which is supposed to inspect establishments to guarantee that the conditions of work are safe for those toiling in the place of production. In the aftermath of this fire that killed 15 persons and displaced an entire city, readers understood that the OHSA had last inspected the plant in 1985.

This kind of exemption which has been adopted by capitalists whether from China or the USA dictates that there should be stringent international standards about workers at places where there are dangerous chemicals and toxins. In every part of the world of the poor, one can see conditions where there are no rules relating to the protection of the environment. This writer is challenging the young in NGO community to refocus on the rights of the working people to build a new politics.

SOLIDARITY ACROSS BORDERS

Workers all across Africa and their supporters who share a sense of solidarity are pushing for the removal of the politicians and corporate elements that align with foreign capitalists to establish sweat shop conditions. At the moment of decolonization one of the most militant fronts had been the working poor. It is this history of organization of the workers that has to be brought back so that the struggles of the African workers are linked to the struggles of the workers in Bangladesh, China and India. The renewed campaign of the workers in Africa can now in the short run link up with workers in Brazil, India and China. As one component of the BRICS framework, there has been the establishment of a forum to support the closer relationship between workers in the BRICS societies. African workers, especially the workers of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have the necessary social weight to be able to challenge the capitalists in South Africa as well as to be a major force in this forum of trade unions from the Federative Republic of Brazil, The Russian Federation, the Republic of India, the People's Republic of China and the Republic of South Africa. This BRICS forum of workers has the capability of organizing within a framework of more than 200 million organized workers. This framework must be strengthened by the day to day struggles to ensure that the kind of accident that took place in Bangladesh is a matter of history.

As long as this criminal action is presented as an ‘accident’ and a tragedy, then those who profit from the sweatshop conditions will shed crocodile tears about the loss of lives. Militant and sustained actions to defend the global rights of workers are now on the agenda internationally. The All African Trade Union Centers and COSATU should be in the forefront of pressing the ILO to mount a clear investigation with the results being released to all parts of the world. It is only vigilance and aggressive networking internationally that will ensure that the Bangladeshi government and manufacturers do not simply make cosmetic changes to safety and building standards.

* Horace Campbell teaches at Syracuse University in New York. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya published by Monthly Review Press, New York and distributed in the UK by Pambazuka press.

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