In Bangladesh, grief over a collapsed factory has swiftly turned to anger. Rescue workers are still pulling bodies out of the ruins in the outskirts of Dhaka, the death toll has topped 275, and garment factory workers blockaded highways and attacked factories for refusing to give workers a day off to mourn. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters, who numbered in the tens of thousands.
Sadly, the history of the garment industry in Bangladesh suggests that little is likely to change. Garment workers are caught in a trap—work cheaply, at significant risk to your life, or don’t work at all.
In the wake of the tragedy, politicians were quick to promise action. “Whoever might be the culprits, and even if they belong to our party, they won’t go scot-free,” said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But who exactly is to blame? Is it the regulatory framework that let a building with no permit be constructed? The factory owner who forced his employees to work even after cracks in the foundation were found? Or the Western clothing manufacturers that enabled Bangladesh to become the world’s second-largest exporter of cheap clothing?
The building collapse was all too similar to a fire in November last year, which killed 112 people in a factory with no safety certificate. In March government ministries and industry representatives agreed to create a national action plan to improve fire safety. But Babul Akter of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation was not optimistic.
“At least 33 members of the current parliament own garment businesses,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “That’s more than 10% of seats. There are repeated instances of MPs linked to the garment industry blocking stricter legislation.”
Some affected by Wednesday’s collapse are hopeful that the big clothing brands that use Bangladesh as a supplier will force a change in working conditions. Customers of Joe Fresh, one of the brands sourcing clothes from the destroyed factory, have threatened to boycott the label as anger on social media grows. But New York-based sourcing agent Edward Hertzman told Reuters that Bangladesh’s garment industry can only survive by offering the lowest costs: “If the factories want to raise prices to make up for rising wages and costs, the buyers say, ‘oh why do we want to go to Bangladesh if I could go to China, Vietnam, Latin America etc for a similar price?’“
Indeed, even before the factory collapse this week, major Western buyers were expressing dissatisfaction with Bangladesh, citing recent civil unrest and religious violence. A 40 percent reduction in foreign orders is likely to get worse in the wake of the building collapse—none of which will help Bangladesh avoid future tragedies.