The eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, during working hours on April 24. The official death toll stands at 1129. However, workers’ rights groups believe the number could be higher. Another 2000 workers were injured in the collapse, many losing limbs.
Perhaps the most horrifying factor of this workplace tragedy is that loss of life could have been avoided. The day before the collapse, building inspectors found large cracks in the building and ordered its immediate evacuation.
Rana Plaza was home to offices, apartments, shops, a bank and several garment factories — businesses which in total employed more than 5000 workers across the eight levels of the building.
When the order was given to evacuate, the entire building was cleared, however the garment factory workers were forced to return to work the next day under threat of their pay being docked if they did not return.
In further evidence that this tragedy was entirely avoidable, the top four floors were built illegally, and architects gave prior warning that the building was designed for office space and shops only. It was never built to support the weight and vibrations of machinery.
A Four Corners report that aired on June 24 exposed a number of Australian companies who manufacture their products in Dhaka. Well-known companies such as Cotton On, Big W, Target and Rivers use manufacturers who employ workers in similar conditions to the Rana Plaza.
Several Bangladeshi workers interviewed on Four Corners described the awful pay and safety conditions they experience. In several garment factories, workers are not allowed to be union members and union delegates receive threats.
It is not just Australian clothes makers in Bangladesh who benefit. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on June 26 that Qantas has launched an investigation into claims headphones used on its flights were manufactured by “inmates at a Chinese prison who were regularly beaten and held in solitary confinement if they failed to meet production targets.”
However it is not necessary to look overseas to see a complete disregard for the safety of workers. In Melbourne, the deaths of construction worker Billy Ramsey and three people in the Swanston Street wall collapse, both at Grocon sites, show that the same attitudes exist in this country.
Victorian premier Denis Napthine’s reaction to the 10,000-strong protest against safety conditions on Grocon sites shows this. It is reasonable for workers to be concerned about their safety in the workplace, particularly after four people died, however Napthine described the action as “disgusting behaviour” that was “beneath contempt”.
What is disgusting and contemptible is the economic system we live under, where the disregard for the wellbeing of workers is a result of the drive for profits.
It is not ordinary Australian shoppers who are to blame for these disasters. An April 26 Sydney Morning Herald article quoted labour activist John Hilary as saying: “Bargain-basement [clothing] is automatically leading towards these types of disasters".
But the companies could easily afford to significantly increase workers’ wages and ensure safe working conditions without raising the retail price of their clothes. Doing so would require a cut in their profits though.
In the same SMH article, the president of the National Garment Workers' Federation of Bangladesh, Amirul Haque Amin, laid the blame where it belongs. “The deaths of these workers could have been avoided if multinational corporations, governments and factory owners took workers' protection seriously," he said.
Now more than ever, as workers desperately try to cling to the hard-won conditions as they’re slowly stripped away, international worker solidarity is needed. Workers in Australia need to fight for union rights everywhere, especially in those countries where unionism is illegal or under threat.
Workers in Australia can support the Bangladeshi workers by promoting international bargaining against multinational attempts to locate work where wages are lowest, with the aim to build the strongest possible links with unions in other countries.
We should also demand that Australian companies involved in workplaces accidents like the one at Rana Plaza, should pay compensation to the victims.