The garment factory implosion which occurred in Savar, Bangladesh last week now appears to be the single worst industrial accident in the nation's history. At least 377 people are dead, and many more remain missing, wounded, or trapped beneath the rubble.
Nearly 3,000 people worked in the building, manufacturing items for J.C. Penney, Dress Barn and Joe Fresh, among other major retail outlets. "Wal-Mart said none of its clothing had been authorized to be made in the facility, but it is investigating whether there was any unauthorized production," according to the Associated Press.
Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, blamed lax regulation and a lack of worker self-determination for making disasters like the factory collapse possible.
“It is long overdue that the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia and other countries stop relying upon so-called ‘corporate codes of conduct’ that are never enforced," he said in a statement. "Workers must be guaranteed their legal right to organize independent unions, to bargain collectively and to have a contract that includes decent working conditions and a prohibition of child labor. Until workers are afforded their legal labor rights, nothing will change, and the list of tragedies will continue to grow."
Bangladesh is a global hotspot for garment manufacturing, and many of the largest retail outlets in the world have their products sewn there. The sector "has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry that employs 3.6 million people and accounts for 78 percent of the country’s exports," according to The New York Times. But with that industrial boom has come the threat of dangerous working conditions.
In fact, the country's last major industrial accident was only a few months ago, when a November 2012 fire killed 112 people in a factory manufacturing Walmart products. Originally, the retail giant attempted to cast doubt on whether it had any business relationship with Tuba Group, the owner of the factory. When photographs surfaced showing Walmart products at the site of the fire, the company claimed that a supplier "subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies."
The Tuba Group factory lacked several basic legally mandated safety precautions, including accessible emergency exits. The building which collapsed last week also appears to have violated safety regulations: Its owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, was arrested while attempting to cross the border to India and accused of making the building eight stories high, even though he only had a permit to build a five-story building. The mayor approved the project, according to the Guardian.
Several of the international companies with business ties to the factory are gearing up for damage control. Primark has promised to compensate victims and children who were orphaned by the collapse, and members of the Retail Council of Canada have privately met to discuss next steps. However, it is doubtful that any systemic reforms will be implemented to address the workplace safety conditions in Bangladesh or those other developing countries which make cheap goods for American retail shops.
Previous disasters have borne out little meaningful change. Walmart has implemented an in-house workplace rights monitoring system in countries like China and Bangladesh (and soon, reportedly, the United States) has been described as a "public relations scam" by Worker Rights Consortium executive director Scott Nova. And Walmart reportedly ruled out a plan to pay for factory safety upgrades in 2011, saying it was too expensive.
Similarly, independent observers have given low marks to Apple and Reebok's purported attempts to democratize their affiliated factories in China.
Economics Policy Institute vice president Ross Eisenbrey, a dogged critic of labor conditions in the Chinese Foxconn factories where Apple and other major hardware companies have their products built, compared the Bangladeshi building collapse to the recent fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
"If you think we can rely on businesses to self-regulate, think again," he wrote. "West Fertilizer, the small business that blew up and killed fourteen people in Texas last week, declared itself safe and estimated the chance of a catastrophic explosion at zero. They needed someone with authority and the power to change behavior to look over their shoulder, to look out for the workers and first responders who were most at risk, and to look out for the school children whose schools were within the blast radius. But no agency had or exercised that authority."