Rescue workers at the collapsed Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, gave a brief cheer following the disaster as they heard the building’s owner had been arrested.
But the moment passed quickly and they soon went back to the grim task of retrieving bodies from the rubble. More than 1100 garment factory workers are now estimated to have died.
The multi-storey building housed five factories and employed thousands of people.
Property developer Sohel Rana only had permission to build five floors, but greed had got the better of him.
He added an extra three storeys, knowing that his political connections made it unlikely he’d ever be prosecuted.
Workers had alerted their managers to a huge crack in the building. This was where they produced clothes for multi-national companies including Primark, Matalan, Wal-Mart, Mango and Benetton.
They held a brief walkout—then returned to work after bosses threatened to dock their wages. The building collapsed the following day, and anger spread among workers across the city.
As hundreds downed tools to demand justice for the families of the dead and injured, the bosses and their friends in government feared the worst.
They were not worried that hundreds were dead and buried, but that strikes could spread across city and beyond.
They mobilised the Rapid Action Battalions of militarised police that are regularly used to attack pickets in an attempt to “lock down” the surrounding areas. Owners closed down nearby factories in an effort to stop walkouts. They failed.
Thousands of workers rampaged through industrial districts around Dhaka on Friday, blocking roads and vandalising factories. Rioting has spread across the city.
Eight major workers’ organisations called a day of strikes on the Sunday.
The protests forced the two largest garment bosses’ associations to close their factories all weekend so workers could help in rescue efforts—something they had initially resisted.
Bangladesh’s government is keen to distance itself from Rana. Its information minister Hasanul Haque Inu said “I wouldn’t call it an accident. I would say it’s a murder.”
But the government’s main concern is to ensure that business continues at the thousands of other garment factories, which account for 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports.
The Rana Plaza collapse is the worst in a series of accidents—over 100 workers were killed in a fire just last November.
Profits and competition
The government knows that improving workers’ safety and pitiful wages will undermine the country’s competitiveness. This fact is also well understood by the multinational firms that outsource the production of sweatshop clothes.
Some activists in the West called for a boycott of firms such as Primark and Benetton. They want clothing giants to guarantee that their products were produced under decent conditions.
Others, including many trade unions, say that new trade agreements should insist upon minimum standards before allowing clothes to be imported.
Socialists are on the side of all those who want to improve workers’ lives. But these terrible working conditions are not an aberration but something that is built into the capitalist system.
Individual companies know that if they do not make profits comparable to those of their rivals they will be driven out of business or bought up by their competitors.
Clothing firms are scouring the world looking for ways to buy more cheaply.
Manufacturing clothes, unlike most other products, can be relocated because of the low level of technology and relatively unskilled labour used.
So boycotting a particular firm will not stop the sweatshops, but instead it will boost its competitors.
Likewise, using trade restrictions to punish Bangladesh for its low labour standards can only benefit rival capitalists in equally poor Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
The only way to drive out terrible conditions is for workers to organise themselves, as those who have taken to the streets of Dhaka have done.
Workers’ action there often spreads quickly from one factory to another. It can force bosses in the sector as a whole to make concessions.
In the longer term clothing bosses faced with rising costs will look elsewhere. That’s why we have to make the struggle international—and against the system as a whole.
Only then we can end the misery of sweatshops that have been a feature of capitalism since its birth.