Garment workers in Bangladesh walked off the job, blocked roads, attacked factories and smashed vehicles April 26, paralyzing at least three industrial areas just outside the capital Dhaka. Some 1,500 workers, many armed with bamboo sticks, marched to the Dhaka headquarters of the main manufacturers association. The uprising began when police fired tear-gas and rubber bullets at anxious relatives as they massed at the site of a collapsed factory where resuce workers were attempting to dig out their loved ones trapped under rubble. About 3,000 people are thought to have been in the Rana Plaza complex in Savar industrial zone on the outskirts of Dhaka, when it collapsed on the morning of April 24 shortly after the workday started. Only some 60 have been found alive; some 1,000 are thought to have escaped unharmed. The complex housed factories that made clothes for retail chains Benetton, Primark, Matalan, Children’s Place, Cato Fashions, Mango and others.
Some workers are said to have reported a crack in the building’s facade shortly before the incident, but their warnings went unheeded. Blogs Michelle Chen for Working In These Times: “Some were told to report to work anyway or risk losing a month’s wages. With minimum pay set below $40 per month (about the retail price of a typical sweater they might produce), workers could ill afford to be concerned about their safety, and so they followed orders and reported to what would be for many their last day of work.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called a meeting of industry leaders to demand that Rana Plaza’s owners surrender to police. Some two hours later, Mahbubur Rahman Tapas and Bazlul Samad Adnan, owners of New Weave Bottoms and New Weave Style, respectively, turned themselves in at the headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, said the disaster highlights concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh. “Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, its workers would have been in a position to refuse to enter the building on Wednesday morning, and thus save their lives,” he said.
Labor activists say laws and enforcement are weak in a country where the garment industry weilds great political clout. No factory owner has been charged over a worker death in Bangladesh. “At least 33 members of the current Parliament own garment businesses.” said Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation. “That’s more than 10% of seats. There are repeated instances of MPs linked to the garment industry blocking stricter legislation.” (Working In These Times, Daily Mail, DW, BDNews, AFP, The Guardian, CNN, April 26; AFP, NYT, Democracy Now, WSJ, April 25)