In Bangladesh another tragedy has befallen workers in the country’s garment industry. On the morning of April 24th a factory building collapsed in Savar, just outside the capital city of Dhaka. The confirmed death toll as of this writing is over 600, and may approach 1,000, making it so far the most deadly factory incident in this country that has suffered similar disasters in only the past few years. This also shows in reality the many contrasts of the First World and the Third World.
The factory, like many factories in Bangladesh that have had accidents and others that continue to operate, was a multi-story building. While building regulations often take a back seat to the needs of its corporate suppliers, this factory was in blatant violation of the existing laws. The owner was licensed to build only five stories but illegally added on an additional three stories to make it eight. The day before there were visible cracks on the building, but the owner made his workers, which numbered over 3,000, to enter the building to continue to work. Managers ordered workers on the upper floors to continue to work even after police ordered evacuations of lower floors and nearby businesses evacuated. Workers were crushed in the rubble, and rescuers continue to dig through the heavy concrete looking for survivors and removing bodies.
The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, has been arrested and detained by authorities. Rana is also a prominent politician of the country’s ruling party. Others have been arrested with him, while he faces a maximum of seven years for his crimes. The prime minister of Bangladesh called for a national day of mourning. Furthermore the Bengali masses have taken to the streets to express their anger. Several protests have happened in the aftermath of the disaster. Roads have been blocked, several incidents of vandalism have occurred, and buildings and vehicles have been attacked. During the May Day protests here people called for the death penalty for those responsible. The anger of the masses is visible and justified.
The people of Bangladesh have suffered many incidents such as this. Only recently a factory fire in Dhaka in November 2012 claimed the lives of 112 people and injured hundreds more. Before this most recent incident it had the distinction of being the factory disaster with the largest death toll to date. The factory, owned by Tarzeen Fashions, was a multi-story building that was in the process of being expanded via building more floors atop what was already built. In this and many other factories in Bangladesh basic safety rules were ignored. Yarn and other flammable fabrics were placed near generators. There were no fire escapes. In fact when the fire alarms went off managers told the employees to dismiss them as false alarms. Employees ignoring the managers and rushing to safety made the death toll ever lower than it could of been. Furthermore bars were put on windows and exits were locked, allegedly to prevent theft. The deeper part of these tragedy is that it and others before it were preventable.
Since 2005 over 600 Bengali workers have died in similar factory fires. Of the 4,500 garment factories in the country, one third have been cited for fire code violations.
Along with the dangers from fires, the numbers show clear exploitation of the workers. Bangladesh has become the 2nd largest exporter of garments, right behind China. The garment industry accounts for $20 billion of the country’s economy, 80 percent of its exports, and employs 40 percent of its industrial workforce. Yet the workers in these factories never see the benefits of this wealth. A worker can expect to make from the minimum wage of $37 a month, with the average wage being $45 a month. 3 million people work in the garment industry in Bangladesh, most of them young women. An average workday is 10 hours a day, six days a week. With the class struggle more intense in Bangladesh, one of the poorer nations in the world, there is more active organizing on a labor basis. Many more workers have been killed in labor struggles.
It is not just in Bangladesh. Earlier in September 2012 a fire engulfed a factory in Karachi, Pakistan, killing over 300 workers. Like the fires in Bangladesh the building was multi-story, windows were barred to prevent theft, and there were no usable or safe fire exits. That same night another fire blazed in a shoe factory in Lahore, killing 25. In Pakistan textiles account for 7.4 percent of the GDP, and employs up to 38 percent of the workforce. In 2011 the year before 151 Pakistani workers died in factory incidents, due to criminal neglect and regulations not enforced. Sweatshops supplying garments for Western consumers populate the countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and Vietnam. Many other disasters happen frequently, even if the death toll is so low as to not stay in the global consciousness as these above have. In the poor countries of the Global South the state is subservient to the interests of foreign capital. It is used more to repress labor strikes than to enforce safety for the people.
The garment industry is increasing in the countries of South Asia. Many are leaving China where they are located now as the costs there are getting more expensive, as their economy grows and the country expands as a regional and global power. They are going to countries like Bangladesh with even more lax regulations to further the superexploitation to gain more superprofits. And with it more deaths that are preventable will happen.
Meanwhile in the Global North
The commonality in all this is the relationship to the Global North, the First World countries that consume the products that workers in Bangladesh and other places in the Global South produce through their labor. Most manufacturing production has shifted away from the wealthy countries in the First World for the lower labor costs in the Third World. It has been widely reported about the corporations such as Wal-Mart who utilize this system of exploited labor to sell their goods to consumers in the First World. When comparisons are made to conditions in Bangladesh and other countries with sweatshops to that of people in the First World, one has to go back through history. One specific event known to activists is the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was the incident that happened in New York City on March 25th of that year where 146 garment workers, mostly immigrant women, were killed in a fire. Safety exits were blocked on the 11 story building, preventing escape for the workers trapped inside, and many leaped to their deaths. This became a symbol of the exploitation that came to be known as sweatshops, and became a rallying symbol for labor activists in the U.S. In one recent protest in New York, an action to block a ship carrying WalMart goods was invoked by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. The ironic thing is that atrocities like the Triangle fire happen too often in countries like Bangladesh, precisely because this exploitation shifted to the Global South, and on a greater scale.
RAIM has pointed out the composition of the majority in First World countries is that of a labor aristocracy, where imperialism has developed to a point to bring its populations in line with its system through economic benefits, making these majorities net exploiters who bring in more than the value of their labor. With even the left-wing parts of the First World not aware of these facts, it often brings them into the area of chauvinism. The reaction of the tragedies in Bangladesh further shows this.
Back in March 2011, the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the news program Democracy Now, hosted by Amy Goodman, a favorite among the First World Amerikan Left, devoted several shows to this event. This was also around the time another factory fire occurred in Bangladesh. On December 14th 2010 a fire broke out at the Hameen factory outside Dhaka, killing 29 workers. Also happening at the time were disputes over labor legislation in Wisconsin. The Democracy Now show was titled, “100 Years After Triangle Fire, Tragedy in Bangladesh and Anti-Union Bill in Wisconsin Highlight Workers’ Enduring Struggles.” So here they are trying to compare the situation with workers in the United States, specifically Wisconsin, with those of Bangladesh. Instead it revealed their own chauvinism.
One of the guests, Charles Kernaghan of the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, gets some things right when he describes the conditions of workers in Bangladesh as worse than they were for those at the Triangle factory:
“This is going on, still, in the global economy today. Not one change. In fact, it gets worse. In Triangle they made 14 cents an hour. But when you adjust that for inflation, that 14 cents an hour in 1911 is worth $3.18 today. The workers at the Hameem factory in Bangladesh on the outskirts of Dhaka, they’re making, at the top wage, 28 cents an hour. That means that their earning, their wages in Bangladesh today, are one-tenth of what wages were in the United States 100 years ago. We are racing to the bottom.”
Kernaghan and co-host Juan Gonzalez further talk about the myth of post-industrial society, when in fact there are more manufacturing workers than anywhere, just all moved away from First World countries to countries like Bangladesh. Yet Kernaghan later slides into chauvanism in his attempt to appeal to his audience , those in the U.S.:
“But if we don’t take some control over the global economy, we’re all going to be working for $3.18 an hour, without a doubt, with no benefits. I mean, we’re going downhill so fast, it’s remarkable.”
Another guest on the same show, labor historian Steve Fraser, further shows the inherent chauvinism in the Amerikan Left when he describes the potential results of anti-labor legislation in Wisconsin at the time:
So it’s an extremely dangerous moment in the country’s history right now, because what he [Wisconsin governor Scott Walker] is proposing we do — and what has already been going on here in America — is a kind of auto-cannibalism, a kind of eating away at the welfare of working people, that’s gone on for the last generation, so that, soon enough, we, too, will be making exactly what those Bangladesh workers will be making. The safety net will be shredded and then — and eviscerated and be gone. And the general level of well-being in this country will be destroyed, if we don’t now mobilize, as people in Madison and elsewhere have begun to do, against this assault. (emphasis ours)
Both of these interviewees expressed views show common themes among the First World. They realize that the Third World exists but do not push to abolish the discrepancies between the oppressed and oppressor nations, just want the oppressor nation peoples not to fall into the state of the Third World. And these views are from the more leftist segments of Amerikan society. The mainstream of Amerika could not care less about the conditions of people in the world below them. And for the workers in Wisconsin, even those who professed some type of internationalism, their main concern is their own material well being. Far from producing revolutionary consciousness it came down to a dispute between Democrats and Republicans, a reformist campaign in essence. They inadvertantly realize that their well-being is many times better than that of the great majority of the world. Their wages and benefits, while under attack, make them part of the richest 15 to 20 percent of the world. A more just economic distribution of the resources of the world would make them and others in the First World have to cut back.
The tragedy in Bangladesh, and many others before it, are caused by exploitation that is at the heart of this global system of capitalist-imperialism. The workers in Bangladesh were toiling in inhumane conditions to make products for privileged consumers in the First World, and faced dangerous conditions so that a minority class of the bourgeoisie and net-exploiters in the wealthy countries could profit and benefit. A system that so recklessly disregards human life is a system that needs to be abolished and replaced by one that is based on the needs of humans and the ecosystem it supports. This will come about by the actions of those it has used and abused, the revolutionary class, the proletariat. This class overwhelmingly resides in the masses of the Third World, the Global South, and they will take back the products of their labor and resources stolen from them for consumption by the imperialist countries. The allies of the international proletariat must strategize on how best to assist this global struggle. One thing that is key is to see the world not from wishful thinking but how it really is. To see global contrasts for what they really are.