May Day in Bangladesh: "The serenity of Jurain graveyard seems more than other days on Wednesday as 32 workers whose bodies remained unclaimed made their final journey," is how the local Daily Star described it.
And now begins the sideshow. It's much more engaging than the main event, it must be said. Yesterday, the New York Times's Jim Yardley, who has been excellent on the subject of labor abuses in Bangladesh, delivered a short and amazing profile of Sohel Rana, the 35-year-old owner of Rana Plaza, the massive factory outside Dhaka which collapsed last week, killing at least 400 workers.
Rana appears to be typical of a certain type of Bangladeshi garment magnate: crass, vulgar, nouveau riche, and involved in equal measure organized crime and high politics: he rode with his entourage on motorcycles, he's accused of dealing in guns and drugs, he seized the land where he and his father built Rana Plaza from small landowners by force and through illegal paperwork, and he was protected by corrupt officials.
He was involved in the youth league of the governing Awami League. Which, to put it mildly, is not quite the same thing as being involved in the Young Republicans. The youth wings of the national parties in Bangladesh often function as nothing more than massive gangs: the two main parties are crony organizations at the top and depend in large part on intimidation and politics at the end of a brickbat at the bottom. Every few months or so they call general strikes to protest this or that policy or as a pure show of force—the country largely shuts down and any unlucky autorickshaw driver caught violating the strike risks a beating or murder.
Rana was involved in this sort of politics, and he ordered the factory to be opened even after local television stations reported the cracks in the building and a structural engineer literally seems to have begged him to close it as a hazard. It seems fairly clear that he's an awful human being, and now the whole world—today even the pope talked about "slave labor" in Bangladesh in a May Day mass—is looking at Bangladesh to see if he'll be punished. He was arrested shortly after the disaster, after having briefly been trapped in his pool table equipped lair on the first floor, escaping, and making it nearly across the Indian border. Much of the country is calling for his execution.
It would be nice if he were punished, if only to show the factory owners allied with the ruling party that, in the event of a major disaster they face some repercussions. This may actually happen this time, unlike after the massive Tazreen fire last November—the owner in that case was recommended for charges, but to this date has still not been arrested, much less convicted.
But it's still a sideshow. Benetton, for example, is one of the many foreign brands who did business with Rana that are now in the process of trying to minimize the public relations damage to themselves from this collapse. They followed a model perfected first by Walmart, which also may have conducted business with Rana, by first denying any knowledge of having done business at the factory, and then, when activists and journalists were able to produce Benetton clothes found among the bodies and the rubble, they issued a muted statement abdicating any serious responsibility:
“A one-time order was completed and shipped out of one of the manufacturers involved several weeks prior to the accident. Since then, this subcontractor has been removed from our supplier list."
The logic of this is approach is frankly stunning. Or it's stunning how well it's worked in the past: the strategy is to allow the local factory owners to look like gangsters and delinquents, and to plead ignorance when the gangsters and delinquents do something that leads to the deaths of hundreds of innocents.
But you don't have to make this more complicated than it needs to be. You don't even need to believe that the way we currently drive business to the cheapest, most abusive corners of the world so that Americans can impoverish their own selves buying cheap crap to notice that this isn't a defense that falls anywhere close to Western business standards. We expect companies operating in the United States and in Europe not to do business with gangsters. Rana may have been a gangster. He may have been corrupt. The government may have protected him. The government may still protect him, and he may still walk. But it doesn't really matter. Companies like Benetton put him where he was a week ago—partying with officials, playing pool, lording it over the thousands of workers who went every day to Rana plaza to make less than $40 a month. So who's the real criminal? The thug or the corporate officer who hires the thug? More from Bangladesh: