A Factory Collapsed on Wednesday, and 300 People Were Crushed to Death
This January, when I visited Bangladesh to write about the Tazreen Fashions factory fire for VICE's "Fashion Issue," a fire which killed more than 110 workers, I was left with the impression that life for garment workers there couldn't get worse. Laborers who tried to organize for basic safety conditions were being intimidated by shady "industrial police" forces; mothers' whose children died in the fire couldn't collect indemnity because the remains of their offspring were so badly charred they were unidentifiable. Western suppliers like Walmart did little to change these circumstances, perhaps because they profit so immensely from them.
Well, this Wednesday, the horror at Tazreen was surpassed. And not just surpassed. It has been more than doubled, and the bodies are still being counted. On Wednesday, more than 2,500 workers in the Savar area outside of Dhaka went to work in a factory where cracks had just recently appeared in the walls. Buildings like this in Bangladesh are frequently built to a certain, legal, height, and then have floors added on, illegally, to increase production capacity. This was the case here. The building collapsed. It will take a long time before we really know how many died and even when we know we won't really know, because every single powerful element in the industry is both shady and has an interest in minimizing disasters like this. At this writing 300 people are confirmed dead, around 600 injured. Nine hundred people are still missing.
It will take some time before the real story here becomes totally clear. We know, for example, that the owner of the factory is involved, like many factory owners, in politics and is aligned with the Awami League, the ruling party. An activist once gave me an estimate that 10% of all Awami League parliamentarians are garment factory owners. Which points to one thing that can be said with certainty about this current disaster: Activists and journalists are still going through the long process of determining which Western brands were producing here, what they knew about the conditions at the factory, how they came to place orders here, whether or not the factory had been inspected by representatives for the individual brands and whether or not they used it even after deeming it unsuitable, which is the simplest way of explaining the way in which Walmart was using the Tazreen factory when it burned. So far we have Primark and Mango, among other European producers. Activists claim, according to the New York Times, to have found evidence that Walmart and Benetton had produced here, which Benetton is so far denying. Walmart's disaster-lockdown man Kevin Gardner gave this statement: "We are investigating across our global supply chain to see if a factory in this building was currently producing for Walmart."
In any case, whatever Western brands eventually are discovered to have used this factory will argue that they have standards in place to evaluate supplier factories and that these standards are good-faith efforts to protect workers but that in the end it's the job of local authorities to develop and enforce safety laws in supplier countries.
This position was indefensible last week. Now it's something approaching evil. You cannot know the Bangladesh garment industry and think that the producers and the local government will act unprompted to protect workers. It's easy to explain why, though because of the limitatations under which newspaper writers work they can't spell it out plainly. So we will:
There's no meaningful difference between the interests of the local garment bosses and the Bangladeshi government. The garment bosses block safety legislation in parliament, the government fails to properly enforce the safety laws that actually are on the books. And the interests of the garment bosses are in keeping costs down, in order to produce at the costs demanded by Western brands. So long as Western brands refuse to pay the costs of worker safety, the business will flow to producers that take risks to produce at high volumes and low costs. There's nothing else to say about it. This isn't something that's just going to sort itself out.
Yesterday the Christian Science Monitor ran a piece asking "Who ultimately bears responsibility for Bangladesh factory disasters?" We don't need to ask this question anymore. Not one meaningful change came out of the Tazreen disaster. And if we fail to properly assign blame for this collapse nothing meaningful will come out of this one. We can sit here and wish that the government wasn't corrupt and that the garment owners were all so decent as to be willing to sacrifice business for safety, but that isn't how Bangladesh, or global capitalism, works. The responsibility for something like this lies entirely with the people who created the supply chain. One end of that chain are these looming grave sites of factories. The other is the Western company. They are responsible, and by extension Western consumers and governments are responsible for not pressuring them to take action in time to save the thousands of people who disappeared beneath that rubble. There's nothing confusing at all about it. The time for investiating, for asking who's responsible, how this happened—that's passed. It's time to place the blame for this blood where it belongs.