As our minibus emerges from Dhaka’s gridlock towards one of its fringe industrial areas, the scene outside turns briefly to rice paddies and a river winding through the fields. The fields are soon overwhelmed by expanses of stacked orange and gray bricks. Above them tower smokestacks belching black clouds. The side of the road is a jumble of concrete, cement, and bricks, with long pipes climbing up from the river to deliver dredged sand. The sky is a cement-colored haze, smudged with black smoke. The water has a black oily sheen, its banks strewn with plastic.
It used to be nice here, our Bangladeshi friends say, but now the river is dead. The scene is alive with people and activity, but it looks to us, too, as if all life other than that concerned with the relentless extraction of profit has been crushed beneath the bricks, cement, and detritus.
The traffic builds again and we see a jumble of buildings, shops, workshops, and, hulking half a dozen stories above them all, garment factories.
Their appearance is surprising. The structures do not look like the dark satanic mills of Lancashire from Dickens novels or grainy photographs in history textbooks, but more like office buildings in suburban business parks: squat, gray, with rows of evenly-spaced windows with bars behind them. Sometimes the bars are draped with clothes through which glimpses of machinery under stark fluorescent light can be seen. The rows of windows are punctuated by large exhaust fans, mostly idle.
Our vehicle swings off the main road into a narrow lane lined by small houses. We stop at the side of the road opposite a large steel sliding gate. We are in a village that is in the process of being swallowed whole by the ragged urbanization spreading from Dhaka’s fringe.
Now we can properly see the massive gray and black factory that we have come to visit, Tazreen. It rises, hulking, ominous, from its surrounding small houses, separated from them by a moat of wastewater littered with plastic bags. A dormitory fringes one wall, low and dark, as if pressed into the earth by the mass towering above it.
Tazreen is eight stories high. The windows of the lower half are broken, the walls blackened by the flames that spat from them when the factory caught fire on the night of 24 November 2012.
This empty hulk still dominates the surrounding village as it did when it was functioning, churning out clothing orders for Walmart and other retailers and churning through the workers who worked its machines for ten, fourteen, and eighteen hour shifts.
When the fire broke out on the ground floor that night, some workers quickly made for the single exit door. On the orders of the manager, security guards quickly locked the door and ordered workers back to their machines. An order needed to be completed. The fire could be dealt with. Vital production time could not be lost. And any panicked evacuation might allow workers to steal clothes.
But the fire spread quickly, and if there was any fire fighting equipment, it was inadequate or not working. Soon workers on the lower floors were overcome by smoke as piles of material and finished garments caught fire. Windows cracked and flames spat from the openings. Workers rushed to the windows, only to confront the bars.
In desperation, workers tore at the large exhaust fans, ripping the blades to create small openings to the outside. Now the workers on the higher floors faced the choice of being incinerated or jumping to their deaths.
Others could not make it through the darkened rooms, struggling to pick out pathways through the machines in the thickening smoke, to the exhaust fans. The smoke took many of them first, then the flames. When it was all over, more than 130 workers had died.
Our minivan heads towards Savar, a kind of satellite industrial area on Dhaka’s outskirts. Rana Plaza once stood on a busy road typical of Dhaka’s industrial fringe — messy, unstructured, a jumble of buildings big and small, lining ragged road edges.
Business in the area goes on chaotically as if the hole in the ground behind the corrugated iron fence, where Rana Plaza once was, is just another building site.
In the rich world, we like to think that mass deaths spur some kind of affected respectful remembrance, as in the cemeteries of war dead in France (dishonest though the tranquility and the reality of the slaughter that led to their creation may be).
Here there is no pretense. At Rana Plaza, the dead are not honored, and likely never will be.
A strip of dusty waste ground, once the entrance to Rana Plaza, is now the site of a bleak memorial. Strands of barbed wire in front of the high steel sheet fence are draped with banners demanding action to improve working conditions, and small posters featuring the face of Sheik Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, like election placards.
Stark and surprising is a small concrete memorial with two arms thrusting skywards grasping a hammer and sickle. The symbol of workers’ power was placed by one of Bangladesh’s multiple left groups, a defiant assertion of worker power in the face of violence inflicted on them. In a sense, it is inspiring.
On the other hand, the facts of Rana Plaza demonstrate the weakness of the workers’ movement so clearly that the monument is almost bitterly ironic — the workers here are united only in death.
As we leave our minivan to place our tribute plaques at the monument’s base, a crowd soon gathers. It appears that groups of foreign visitors are not entirely unknown here. Women holding photos of their missing loved ones gather round. Some ask if we can help to find them, even nine months after the building’s collapse.
Are these people deranged by grief, or is the disappearance of a loved one in the ruins of a building too hard to fathom? That a strange foreigner might be able to shed some light on the mystery is no more incredible than the loved one’s disappearance itself.
We leave our entirely inadequate statements of solidarity and grief in picture frames at the base of the thrusting concrete arms, then walk down a narrow side alley towards the back of the Rana Plaza site. Between buildings, a ragged wire fence has been breached and a heap of smashed concrete and torn fabric is one of the few remaining traces of the building. Much of the rest of the rubble has been removed.
We scramble up the mound of concrete and cloth. Steel reinforcing rods stick out, waiting to maim you if you stumble. There are still clothing labels and spools of cotton scattered in the rubble. At the top of the pile is a giant rectangular pit filled with fetid green water.
In the absence of much of the building’s wreckage, the full horror of the collapse is hard to grasp. But in this dank pit, in the absence of respectful memorialization, the enormity of the contempt for workers’ lives is clearly expressed.
Can there be any heroes in events such as those at Rana Plaza? Unlike in rich world tragedies, where the media will seek to give a name and a face to the victims, the western media was unable to break through the enormity of the incident or to establish any real human connection with the victims.
The death toll itself seemed shocking enough, although some images of bodies (and survivors) being removed from the rubble were broadcast. But we learned little of the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers, of the effect that the killing and maiming at Rana Plaza would have on the survivors (including orphaned children) and their communities.
But how could the workers who are accorded no value as humans while alive be transformed into individuals experiencing suffering — people with worth beyond their ability to generate profits for factory owners — in their deaths?
If there are any heroes from Rana Plaza, it is those who, upon hearing of the building’s collapse, rushed to the scene to start a rescue effort that lasted weeks. Through days and weeks of anguished, dangerous scrabbling through wreckage, these people insisted that every worker trapped in the rubble was worth fighting for.
We met some of these rescuers, or body-finders, a group of young anthropologists, in Dhaka’s Bahadur Shah Park, where groups of activists meet to talk and plan. Mostly in their late-twenties, these young activists had a soft manner and good English that betrayed their status as members of Bangladesh’s small urban middle class — something not to be hidden or sheltered behind a faux-working class pretense, but a spur to action alongside those less fortunate, and a commitment to use the skills and education that they benefited from for the benefit of others.
We spoke to one young woman, Sana (a pseudonym), a student at Dhaka University. Her work on behalf of garment workers makes her a potential target by the factory owners.
Sana and her small group of friends — ex-students, academics, political activists, journalists — spent days and weeks at Rana Plaza. They described the search and rescue efforts, the failure of the state and employers to do the job properly, the effort by the government to hide the true death toll. Even today, when human skulls are being found in the rubble, government representatives dismiss them as those of animals.
In the wake of the collapse, while searching for workers, Sana and others collected evidence from what they knew instinctively was a crime scene, not the scene of a tragedy. They collected labels, order books, price tags, thread samples — anything that would identify the companies whose clothing was being manufactured at Rana Plaza. This work was crucial to establishing the guilt of companies like Benetton, which initially denied having anything to do with Rana Plaza.
Hundreds of Rana Plaza workers and perhaps thirty Tazreen workers remain “missing.” For Sana and her colleagues, the search for them continues. At Tazreen, the fire was so hot that some workers were eviscerated, leaving families lost in a kind of suspended grief exacerbated by the fact that without a body, they are entitled to no compensation.
Sana is driven to provide the relief of certainty, at least, to ease the pain of not knowing. She is driven, too, to find evidence for the sake of compensation, and by the refusal to allow that workers can simply disappear, going to work one day and never existing again.
Just as important as this work of activist remembrance is the work Sana and her colleagues have done to bring the owner of the Tazreen factory to justice. They petitioned the High Court to issue an arrest warrant, and called for him to be arrested after he was living in full view ever since the fire, with the police refusing to apprehend him. They and other activists like them have managed to achieve a first in Bangladesh: the arrest and charging of a factory owner for causing the deaths of workers in his factory.
As we head back towards central Dhaka, we pass again through the landscape of smoke stacks, brick piles, the black river, the patches of green rice paddies covered in dust. Entering the maelstrom of Dhaka’s traffic again, the urban fabric becomes more dense, the buildings higher. Factories, shops, and apartments are hard to distinguish: it is a harsh, ugly streetscape.
For many of us on the Left in the West, the problems of capitalism are not always immediate, even if we know them instinctively. Social democracy smoothed many of the hard edges of capitalism in the 1960s and 1970s, even if those protections are now being stripped away by the resurgent advocates of unrestrained free markets.
But in Bangladesh, there is no Vaseline on the lens, no Potemkin village for capitalism to hide behind. Here is capitalism at its most raw and most brutal.
Here the water that is drunk, the land that sustains crops, the air that is breathed, the people themselves, are all “inputs” in the relentless drive for profit; worse, the people are entirely disposable.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, shock and outrage around the world led to redoubled efforts to force the major clothing brands to accept responsibility for the safety of workers in their supply chains. The evidence collection of Sana and her friends was vital to proving which companies had suppliers in Rana Plaza’s factories.
One of the most important ways of enforcing this responsibility has been the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement signed by over 150 garment corporations from twenty countries, two global trade union federations, Bangladeshi unions, and a number of activist and non-government organizations.
The International Labor Organization is its chair. The accord commits companies to a process of safety inspections, reporting, and rectification works. Companies contribute to a fund that is supposed to ensure that signatory factories are brought up to a safe standard. Inspections by international inspectors began in February 2014.
In countries like Australia, much of the effort of activists concerned about the fate of Bangladeshi garment workers has been concentrated on pressuring companies to sign on to the accord. A large number of them have — although some, such as the Just Group, have made a point of resisting this pressure and then signing on to an alternative global agreement, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a largely American initiative that has much weaker legal obligations and pointedly ignores local or international unions. These activist efforts are worthwhile, especially when targeted at getting companies to sign the accord. The Alliance, on the other hand, is a typical corporate smokescreen.
Given that we had been involved in such activities ourselves before visiting Bangladesh, we were keen to see what effect the accord was having on the ground. What we found concerned us.
Not only did it take a long time for the safety inspections to commence, but there are no follow up inspections planned to ensure that any identified problems are rectified. Given the phenomenal level of corruption that extends from the government through the factory employers — thirty of whom occupy seats in the national parliament — and even down to many unions, any process that does not ensure that safety improvements are actually implemented is likely to be just another opportunity for graft.
As union officials interested in international worker solidarity, we spent most of our time in Bangladesh with local unionists, workers, and members of left parties. It soon became clear that the incredible fragmentation of Bangladeshi politics and society is replicated on the Bangladeshi left, perhaps in even more extreme form.
There are eighty or ninety unions claiming to represent garment workers, ranging from “yellow” or boss’s unions to ones that function like NGO charities and others that attempt to organize workers in their communities since they cannot get into their workplaces. Most political parties, from the ruling Awami League down into the smallest ultra-left sects, have their own “unions” with some presence amongst garment workers.
Some of the bigger unions have managed to establish good international links and are even affiliates of global union federations. This often colors their activism: They tend to be externally focused, concentrating on sourcing funding from overseas unions, federations, and NGOs.
It was often unclear whether much real organizing was going on at ground level — organizing workers in their workplaces or communities to build their power and fight for improved terms and conditions.
Other unions, usually smaller and associated with leftist parties, are making a much more concerted effort to get amongst the workers — a dangerous job. Union organizers are often threatened, attacked, or even killed by the hired thugs that work for the more unscrupulous factory owners. We accompanied some of them to meet workers.
The workers’ districts of Dhaka probably look better at night, when we visited them. Lights glimpsed through half open windows or doors give a homely quality to quarters that are spartan and poor. We were ushered almost furtively down small alleys, into a single room crowded with mostly young men, and encouraged to sit on a low wooden platform that served as a bed and seemed likely to collapse under our weight.
The meagre possessions of the eight men who called this room home — a room that was not much larger than the bathrooms in many Western houses — were placed neatly on ledges. Clothes hung from wooden frames. Around twenty men had crowded into the room to meet us and to tell us their stories.
On a subsequent evening, we met in a tiny child care center — it, too, no larger than a bathroom —set up by our union hosts. Here, twenty-two children are looked after while their mothers labor in garment factories. Another twenty or so workers, men and women, crammed into this room to meet us.
The workers spoke passionately and intensely about the conditions of their work. We expected to hear stories about dangerous buildings and fires. Certainly workers told us that the locking of fire escapes was not just a one-off occurrence at Tazreen, the act of a deranged owner. It is a common practice, the work of owners who don’t care about workers’ lives.
But most of the workers’ problems are more day-to-day, though never banal. Workers complained to us about not being paid properly, of violence in the workplace including verbal and physical abuse and rape. Rape is used as intimidation and punishment to stop women from joining unions.
They told us of the long hours without breaks of any kind, not even to go to use the bathroom. They told of arbitrary firings, of intimidation by hired thugs, of routine withholding of entitlements, of the regular use of child labor, of contempt for Bangladesh’s workplace law, of the refusal or inability of the authorities to implement the law, of insecure employment and regular bouts of unemployment, and of the threats made to workers who tried to join unions.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, a spontaneous mass strike of garment workers led to a 75% increase in the minimum wage. This seemed to be a tribute to mass worker action — although it was somewhat surprising that, given the horror of Rana Plaza and Tazreen just months before, there had not been a more substantial uprising. The fragmentation of the labor movement and lack of clear leadership probably explain that, as well as the effect of brutal repression on the ability of workers to mobilize for the long term.
Of all the things that workers told us, two are crucial to understanding the Bangladesh garment industry: The workers we met had never heard of the accord, and they all said that the increase to the minimum wage had been a disaster.
That the accord was not known is perhaps unsurprising. The factory inspections have only just begun, and the accord has largely been pushed by organizations in countries that are buyers of Bangladeshi goods rather than by Bangladeshis themselves.
While awareness of it may be increasing as the inspections take place, the current lack of knowledge reflects the fact that the labor movement in Bangladesh is unable or unwilling to organize such a campaign itself from the ground up. It also reflects the reality that, as we discovered, while workplace safety is important to workers, day-to-day working conditions and pay are more pressing.
The disappointment about the increase in the minimum wage was more surprising — until workers explained that it had led to employers trying to recover the extra cost by increasing working hours, demanding higher production targets, and sacking workers, especially assistants who help machine operators. Many workers also complained that employers simply didn’t pay the increase, providing pay slips that showed an amount that the worker never received.
At the same time, landlords, many of whom also own garment factories and hope to cream off some of the promised pay rises, raised rents on workers’ housing. Workers had seen no tangible benefit from the increase in the minimum wage, but very tangible increases in their living costs.
The accord is an important initiative. The first inspection reports show that most Bangladeshi garment factories are unsafe. Fire protection measures are inadequate or non-existent, buildings are often not constructed according to the approved plans, floor plates are overloaded, building techniques are poor, construction systems are under-engineered, short cuts have been taken on building materials, maintenance and repair are inadequate.
It is highly likely that lives will be saved as a result of the accord inspections as at least some factories will be prevented from collapse and others will be forced to provide safe fire escapes.
In the context of global capitalism’s complex production and consumption webs, the accord’s insistence that companies should internalize all the costs and responsibilities of their production and supply processes is challenging to the neoliberal nostrums of outsourcing, free trade, and the unrestricted flow of capital.
There is a risk that the accord will alleviate concerns about fire and building safety while doing nothing to prevent the continued exploitation of workers in other ways — over-work, low pay, violence. Concerned citizens in the rich world may consider their work done once the accord process is under way and most companies have signed up.
But the fundamental problem of raw repression of workers and unions will remain. What is the point of a fire escape if management is not prevented from locking it?
In order to put dirt cheap clothes on the shelves of Australian, European, and American stores to keep consumption high, companies will continue to seek out countries with low production costs, and to keep those costs down by any means. Under the model of international competition for export-led growth — the standard development model encouraged by the IMF and World Bank — countries vie to offer the cheapest wages and most docile workforces possible.
Given the track record of Bangladeshi garment factory owners and the pressure of the global brands for cheap goods, anything that increases costs — substantial pay rises or building improvements, for instance — will lead to attempts to constrain costs elsewhere, as happened after the minimum wage increases.
Most companies are in the accord simply to protect their brands. They are in Bangladesh in the first place because of the cost — it is the cheapest place on earth for the industrial production of garments, primarily because of the raw repression and disempowerment of Bangladeshi workers.
The accord’s greatest flaw is that there is no provision for follow-up inspections to ensure that the required rectification and repairs have taken place. The accord, we were told by a young American woman working on its implementation, will rely on “worker voice,” expressed through workplace committees, to ensure that employers have fixed their buildings.
Given that the political elite and the factory owners spend a great deal of effort ensuring that workers have no voice, it is hard to see this as anything other than heroic optimism at best, or calculated recklessness at worst.
After Rana Plaza, Rezaur Rahman and some other Bangladeshi artists created an exhibition to document the horror of the building collapse and the struggles of the garment workers. The exhibition was called “Murder, Not Tragedy,” and included horrifying images of bodies crushed in the wreckage.
Sana and her colleagues refused to allow the workers of Tazreen and Rana Plaza to simply disappear, to become simply waste discarded along the road to “economic development.” By their rescue efforts and their continuing commitment to identify the missing, they insist that workers’ lives are meaningful and valuable. Their efforts highlight the failure of the state and mainstream political institutions, including some unions, to fight for real justice — indeed, they expose the complicity of these institutions in an industry that is often no better than a global criminal conspiracy.
Remembering the dead, helping the bereaved and injured, giving workers voice: all of these are vital. But above all else what the brave and committed organizers of real unions need is assistance to build the kind of worker power that can transform the position of Bangladeshi garment workers and tear the fabric of the international fashion industry once and for all.