In spite of obvious warning signs, some 3,000 workers were inside the eight-story Rana Plaza April 24 when the shoddy building — which housed five garment factories, a few shops and a bank — caved in.
Enraged demonstrators, who forced a virtual shutdown of garment production in and around Dhaka, have been met with police tear gas and rubber bullets. In face of ongoing protests, government officials arrested the building owner along with a couple of factory bosses and building engineers.
At the same time, the government has ignored demands for tools from the mostly volunteer rescue teams, and on April 28 demanded a halt to rescue efforts. Two days earlier, volunteers — who had been moving rubble with crowbars, picks and their bare hands — were photographed holding up placards requesting electric drills, surgical masks and other rescue equipment. “We’re struggling for equipment and supplies,” volunteer Mehdi Hasan told the Guardian April 26.
“It looked like an earthquake had hit,” Nazma Akter, president of the Bangladesh Combined Garment Workers Federation, said in a phone interview from Dhaka April 25.
Akter said garment workers had been sent home from the Rana Plaza the day before because a large crack had been discovered in the outer wall of the building. But bosses ordered them to come to work the following morning.
“The bank and the shops told their people to stay away because it wasn’t safe,” Akter said. “For an hour workers refused to go in. Then the bosses told them they wouldn’t get paid if they didn’t go to work, so they did. An hour later the building collapsed.”
Among those arrested are factory owners Bazlus Samad and Mahmudur Rahaman Tapash and landlord Sohel Rana, a local politician and member of the governing Awami League party, who was captured at the Indian border trying to flee the country.
Most factories in the Dhaka area, comprising 60 percent of the garment industry in the country, were closed by protest strikes. Demonstrators set fire to two garment factories and damaged at least five others, the New York Times reported. By April 27 protests spread to Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, also a major industrial center.
The Rana Plaza disaster comes just five months after a fire killed more than 120 workers at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka’s Ashulia industrial area.
At an action outside the headquarters of The Gap Inc. in San Francisco April 25, garment worker and Tazreen fire survivor Sumi Abedin, 24, described that disaster. “We dashed down the stairs, but the factory manager had locked the door,” she told the Militant. “I jumped from the third floor, not to save my life, but so my family could have a proper burial.”
Abedin was touring the U.S. with Kalpona Akter, executive director of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, to win support for the fight of garment workers in Bangladesh. Abedin said she was working 11 to 13 hours per day, six days a week for about $62-$65 a week. “I’m here to call for full compensation, to demand a safe workplace for us,” she said. “We want doors to the factories to be left open and the stairways left unblocked.”
Workers at Tazreen Fashions were trapped inside the building when the fire broke out. The exits were locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work and highly flammable stacks of yarn and clothes blocked stairs leading to the exit.
According to Kalpona Akter, more than 900 workers have been killed in fires and building collapses since 2005. “They didn’t die,” Akter said, “they were killed by these retailers.”
Bangladesh’s more than 5,000 garment factories produce clothing for well-known international retailers, including Walmart, Sears, H&M, Benetton, Gap and others. The industry employs more than 3.6 million workers, mostly women. Garments account for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s manufacturing exports. Over the last decade, the country has become the world’s second biggest garment exporter after China.
Garment workers in Bangladesh are the lowest paid in the world, with a minimum wage of $37 a month, which was raised from $20 after a strike in 2010. In June last year, more than 300 factories in Ashulia were closed down for a week as workers demanded higher wages and better conditions.
Leaders of workers’ struggles and union-organizing efforts in the garment industry have been targets of repression and intimidation by bosses and their government. Aminul Islam, one of the leaders of the 2010 fight, was tortured and killed in April last year. No one has been charged with this murder.
Kalpona Akter and other leaders of the solidarity center were framed up in July 2011 on charges related to a June 2010 protest at a garment factory. She spent one month in jail and the charges are still hanging over her.
There were no unions in the Rana plants or in Tazreen Fashions. Only a couple dozen of the country’s factories have unions.
Eric Simpson and Betsey Stone in San Francisco contributed to this article.
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