“Barely a week after the Texas explosion, the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on the planet, collapsed on more than 3,000 garment workers toiling in five sweatshops. Mostly young women, they had resisted going to work after walls in the building began to show cracks the previous day. ‘Management forced us to go up and said there was no problem with the building,’ recounted one survivor. ‘Just after that, I sat at my table to work, and the building just collapsed’ (Democracy Now!, 25 April). Despite heroic efforts by firefighters and other rescue personnel to find survivors, nearly 400 dead bodies have been dug from the rubble in what is the worst disaster in the history of clothing manufacture. More than 1,200 other people were injured.
“Mass protests erupted as news of the disaster spread, with hundreds of thousands of outraged workers walking out of plants in and around the capital city, Dhaka. Highways were blockaded and two factories whose bosses refused to shut down production were set ablaze. Protesters marched on the headquarters of the garment manufacturers association, chanting: ‘We want execution of the garment factory owners!’ When police firing rubber bullets and tear gas could not quell the crowds, the industry announced on April 26 that all factories would be shut for the upcoming weekend. The Rana Plaza building owner was subsequently arrested trying to flee across the border into India.
“The giant retailers who subcontract production to the Savar sweatshops—e.g., J.C. Penney, the French retailer Carrefour and the British Primark—expressed “shock” about the collapse and denied any complicity. But the depraved indifference exhibited by the capitalist magnates to the lives of those they exploit plumbs new depths when it comes to the semicolonial world, where the U.S. and other imperialist powers have imposed the most wretched conditions. The 5,000 factories in Bangladesh that produce garments for major U.S. and European brands are a cornerstone of the country’s economy. The millions of workers toiling in near-slavery in these deathtraps are paid the lowest wages in the world for that industry—as low as $37 a month, far below subsistence, even after working 15-hour shifts.
“The long trail of capitalist industrial murder in Bangladesh includes an earlier building collapse in Savar that left 73 workers dead and a fire at Tazreen Fashions in nearby Ashulia last November that took more than 100 lives. At Tazreen, a source for Wal-Mart and Sears, managers blocked the stairs to keep workers at their sewing machines even as flames spread on floors below. The truth of the matter is that the multinational corporations are calling the shots and are well aware of what it takes to produce clothing at the prices they contract for, aiming to squeeze out the maximum profit. If orders go unfilled, they pick up stakes and move elsewhere. The local bosses are simply the whip hands, lining their own pockets in the process. (For more on conditions in Bangladesh, see ‘Women Garment Workers Fight Starvation Wages,’ WV No. 974, 18 February 2011.)
“To facilitate their many crimes, the garment bosses, aided by the government in Dhaka, brutally suppress unions, the only effective safeguard workers have against the rapaciousness of the capitalist profiteers. Trade unionists are banned from organizing in the factories and are frequent targets of arrest, torture and killing. A key organizer of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, Aminul Islam, was murdered a year ago. As a result, labor unions are almost nonexistent in the garment plants; none of the Rana Plaza factories was unionized. Nevertheless, a number of strikes have swept the industry in recent years.
“The industrial murder at Rana Plaza, and Tazreen Fashions before it, is a searing indictment of the daily workings of capitalist-imperialism. The situation cries out for union organizing drives—backed in action by the labor movement internationally—demanding decent wages and working conditions. These sweatshops are the first links in a ‘just-in-time’ global cargo chain extending all the way to the retail stores in the imperialist countries, with key choke points at the ports and in the warehouses. Coordinated solidarity action could go a long way toward advancing the cause of labor in the semicolonial world and imperialist centers alike.”
See also anti-caste: INDUSTRIAL MASS MURDER: 112 BANGLADESHI GARMENT WORKERS KILLED (December 17, 2012)