Garment Industry Sweatshop Conditions Led to Tragic Loss of Lives in Bangladesh Building Collapse

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Posted May 1, 2013

Interview with Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, conducted by Scott Harris

sweatshops

Five days after the April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, an illegally constructed eight-story building that housed five garment factories and a shopping mall in Dhaka, Bangladesh, government officials suspended rescue efforts. While nearly 400 bodies have been pulled from the rubble, an estimated 1,000 people who were inside the building at the time of the collapse are still missing, which could bring the death toll to near 1,400.

Despite cracks in the walls and warnings made to the building’s owner about the danger, employees of the garment factories were ordered to report to work on the day of the collapse. The owner, a local politician of the ruling political party, who attempted to flee to India, has been arrested.

Reacting to what many observers believe will be the garment industry’s deadliest accident – and a string of other disasters, including a November 2012 fire in another Bangladeshi factory that killed 112 – garment workers have staged militant protests in the capital city, smashing cars and setting fire to two clothing factories. International companies that made their apparel in the collapsed factories include Dress Barn, Primark, Joe Fresh, Benetton and The Children’s Place. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, who examines the role multinational apparel corporations play in the poor working conditions in sweatshops across the developing world which contributed to the tragic loss of life in the Bangladeshi building collapse.

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: This building had a permit for five stories but they built three additional stories which were completely illegal and it was shoddy work. And we don't even know how many workers really worked in the factory. It could be even 4,000, could be 3,000. All we know is that right now, in this factory collapse in Bangladesh, 400 workers are dead, 2437 workers have been accounted for. Of that, 650 are seriously injured and hospitalized, many amputees.

The police are still saying that 1,000 workers are unaccounted for, are missing. So the death toll could soar. I mean, we could be talking about a thousand people dead or above that. And this really is the worst manufacturing disaster in the history of the garment industry.

So this is just brutal and these young people, 80 percent of them young women, they work 13.5, 14.5 hours a day. They'll do this for six and seven days, mostly seven days and they get two days off a month. So you're talking about young women who are in the factory 90 to 100 hours a week. That's standard. It's a hell. A hell of life. The wages are pitiful. They get helpers, the younger people get 12 cents an hour. So-called junior sewers, they get 22 cents an hour. Senior workers get 26 cents an hour. You're talking about the lowest wages in the world.

So here you've got a death trap, which was illegally built. You got five garment factories inside this building and when the workers saw the cracks on the walls of the building, this was on Tuesday, April 23rd, literally cracks in the walls of the factory, they refused to go to work. They came back on the following day, Wednesday, April 24th, and you know the workers were sort of milling around outside to see what was going to happen, and the bosses said to them, you know if you don't go to work, you're not going to paid the entire month of April. And of course, these workers are so poor, they live from hand to mouth, they can't give up a month's wages.

And top of that, there were gang members there ready to beat the young women to smithereens if they didn't go into the factories. So they were forced to go into the factory. One hour later, the building imploded and pancaked down. There's no way to condone this. This just vicious, cruel, they treat these workers like they're slaves, and the garment owners, all they want is the cheapest garment possible. So, for them, Bangladesh is a bonanza.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Charles, I've heard it said that this building collapse in Bangladesh compared often to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory – back in 1911, where mostly women, 146 of them killed, many of them having to jump to their deaths right in downtown New York City – as that was a turning point in the American labor movement, that this may be a similar turning point in Bangladesh and maybe for other sweatshops around the world. If that's true, do you place your faith in change in people on the ground in each country in terms of strong unions developing or being allowed to develop? Or are we looking at some other kind of international treaties, the International Labor Organization, or other institutions that can play a positive role here in changing the conditions in these factories?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: It's a difficult question. It's a huge question. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 – that mobilized the people. We didn't have industrial relations before that. It was only after those women died and leapt from the top of the Ash building in Greenwich Village – it was only then that we had an industrial policy. It was only then that the laws were implemented that there'd be sprinkler systems and that exit doors had to be opened outward, they couldn't be locked. And hearings after hearings were held so that between 1911 and 1938, for example, there were no sweatshops in the United States. They were wiped out complete because they were governed by laws. If the American people were more engaged, that would be very powerful, but I don't really sense it or see it.

So, I think we're at a crossroads right now, where we better get our U.S. government involved and the European Union involved and the Canadians involved. I think this is the time to really make some challenges – and fortuitous that workers have to have health and safety and they have to have the right to organize.

Find links to more news and commentary on the relationship between western-owned manufacturers and sweatshop conditions across the developing world by visiting Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights' website at globallabourrights.org/.

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