In Bangladesh, the search for survivors has become an effort to recover the dead. After a garment factory building collapsed in the Dhaka suburb of Savar last week, residents and rescue workers spent days digging through the rubble hoping to save the lives of people caught in yet another Bangladeshi industrial accident. At least 390 people are thought to have died.
This type of accident is all too common in Bangladesh. In November, more than 100 people died in a garment factory fire when workers could not easily escape the building. In 2006, 84 people were killed in a blaze because fire exits were locked.
This is what happens when a $20 billion industry accounts for 3.2 million jobs and 80 percent of a country’s exports. It needs the industry too much, especially when those jobs have helped push female participation in the workplace from 26.1 percent in 2002-03 to a still-insufficient 36 percent in 2010. The globalized economy demands that Bangladesh provide cheap goods, and cheap goods are easier to manufacture when there aren’t strict rules to follow — or at least when they’re not enforced.
It also helps when those rules are set by the same people who own the factory buildings. A sector that is too big to fail can repel government-induced regulation. Mohammed Sohel Rana, who owned the building that collapsed, was escorted to court yesterday in body armor and a helmet. But the factory wasn’t his only project — he was also a local leader of the ruling party’s youth wing. This is partly why it’s so hard for developing countries to bite the hand that feeds: It would require the powerful to bite themselves.
A groundswell of protest might change things, and we’re seeing the beginnings of that. Bangladeshis have burned factories to the ground to make clear that the garment industry is not as invincible as it seems. Citizens want action, and with an election coming later this year, they’ll have the government’s attention.