From A World to Win News Service:

Bangladesh: The Human Cost of Cheap Clothes

May 12, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


Update May 12, 2013: As more bodies are discovered in the rubble, the death toll in the Bangladesh building collapse is now over 1,100 people.


April 29, 2013. A World to Win News Service. Bangladeshi garment workers have suffered yet another tragedy and outrage, this time in the industrial suburb of Savar, 30 kilometers outside of Dhaka. Those who first arrived on the scene could see mangled body parts amid the mangled metal and concrete and hear calls for help from those trapped in the ruins. As of April 29, the bodies of more than 380 people have been found in the ruins of Rana Plaza. Most were crushed to death by the collapse of the building where they worked. Several hundred people are still missing. Over 1,200 have been injured, many with loss of limbs. Four days after the collapse a fire broke out on one of the floors, putting an end to the barely audible voices still crying out to be saved. Rescue workers wept after coming so close but ultimately failing to save a trapped woman they had been talking to. After days of working through the rubble with bare hands and small tools, and with the passage of time dimming hope, the heavy construction machinery brought in contributed to sharply reducing hopes for finding more survivors.

Officials noted a crack in the walls of the eight-story building on April 23, and people were evacuated. The shops and a bank on the ground floor stayed closed on the next day. But factory owners threatened their employees to go back to work or face being docked a day's pay or worse. At 9 am, one hour into the day's start, a huge noise was heard as the back end of the building caved in and the stories collapsed one on another, burying more than 3,000 workers, mainly women.

Over the next several days, racing against time, relatives and local residents helped rescuers sift through the mountains of unstable rubble as the voices of buried survivors became increasingly faint— tugging, pulling and easing out bodies as the death toll mounted. Thousands of local people rushed to the inundated hospitals to donate blood for the survivors.

Occasional moments of hope would occur when rescuers tried to smash through a slab of a concrete wall, and heard a voice call out: "'Help, get me out, cut off my legs but just get me out of here.' The woman's desperate voice was later joined by dozens more—up to 40 men and women who had been trapped together in the corner of a third floor room which had somehow survived the collapse of four floors on top of it. As they were led out of their tomb some wept and shook.'' (April 25, 2013, Daily Telegraph)

As the death toll rose, hundreds of thousands of furious workers went on strike. They blocked major motorways outside Dhaka and laid siege to the main manufacturers' association demanding that those responsible be punished. In some areas cars were set on fire and factories forced to shut down. Demonstrations spread as far as the port city of Chittagong. Part of the intense outrage stems from the frequency with which lives have been snuffed out by the dangerous working conditions that are business as usual in the Bangladesh garment industry. When the police fired rubber bullets at the demonstrators, the crowd became even more outraged at being attacked for their righteous anger.

The Rana Plaza was constructed on marshy land in violation of zoning regulations, with improper foundations. It had been constructed with eight floors and a ninth floor in the building stages, despite only having permission for six. But enforcement is lax. Although the law includes the possibility of jail for violating workplace health-and-safety provisions, infractions mainly result in paltry fines or nothing at all. The Rana Plaza's owner, caught trying to escape to India, has been arrested along with other individuals, among them factory owners who forced employees back to work and engineers responsible for the building's poor construction.

In the face of continued anger among Bangladeshis, Home Minister Alamgir sought to quickly turn the page on this disaster. He claimed that rescue teams did ''better than the average international effort in such cases'' and emphasized the number of people pulled out of the rubble, not the dead and missing. But the building's collapse was not a natural disaster. It was the result of a murderous conspiracy to disregard the potential cost in human lives in keeping the international profit machine humming.

In November of last year, a fire at Tazreen Fashions in Bangladesh killed 121 workers and injured 200. Despite government and employer promises to rectify the situation, nothing ever came of it, and no one was ever charged. Since 2005 and before this latest disaster—the Rana Plaza collapse is considered one of the country's worst industrial tragedies—more than 1,000 textile workers have died in fires and collapsed buildings. According to an AFL-CIO account, since the fire at Tazreen, 41 other instances of fire have occurred, killing nine workers and injuring 660. (

Among the businesses in the Rana building were Phantom Apparels Ltd. and the New Wave group which on its website named 27 main customers, including some of the biggest clothing brands such as firms from Britain (Primark), France (Carrefour), Spain (Mango), Italy (Benetton) Canada (Loblaw) and the United States (Walmart). Labels of many of these companies were found strewn among the broken bodies and broken concrete.

In interviews conducted by the British charity War on Want (, women describe working conditions in the factories that are not only dangerous but also degrading. They tell of being slapped or beaten if they try to refuse overtime. Shifts last as long as 15 hours. Some relate that paychecks always fall behind and when they are finally paid it is never the correct amount due them. They compare the luxurious living conditions of the factory owners to the cramped one-room shacks where they live. Their shacks are in close proximity to the multi-story factory buildings where you can see steel-reinforcing rods poking from the rooftops in preparation for the addition of yet another floor of sewing machines.

When the U.S. instituted quota restrictions on the importation of apparel from countries like China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, the growth of the garment industry in Bangladesh was given a boost. As a "least developed country" Bangladesh received preferential access to the U.S. and European Union markets. The traditionally large clothing producers relocated ready-made garment (RMG) factories to countries that were free from quota restrictions and had enough trainable cheap labor. Bangladesh was seen as a promising place for the industry to invest. Since the 1980s the RMG industry went from 4 percent of the country's total export earnings to 80 percent today.

While that preferential treatment lasted only until 2004, the garment industry in Bangladesh became a favorite production site for many big brands. The less-than-a-living wage is $38 a month. The vast pool of available workers are mainly women, often part of a newly arrived and huge influx of people from the countryside desperately searching for whatever work they can find to support their families. In addition to the super-exploitation, the women are often sexually harassed. Despite laws against it, in the smaller sweatshops where local factories outsource work, often child labor is used.

Now Bangladesh is the world's second largest clothing exporter, after China. Almost 4 million people are employed in more than 4,500 textile factories. The government of Sheik Hasina works hand in hand with an association of clothing manufacturers whose members include Bangladesh's most prominent families. Her job is to protect the status quo so nothing is done that might frighten away the major clothing brands. That includes turning a blind eye to the hellish conditions created by the local factory owners who extract only a small part of the wealth generated by the super-exploitation of the garment workers. The situation in the Bangladeshi garment industry is not a throwback to the past but a defining feature of where the world is going today as globalized cheap manufacture plays an increasingly major role in the international process of capital accumulation.

Different ideas have been put forward about who is responsible and how to resolve the intolerable working conditions for garment workers. Calls have been made for more corporate responsibility, more government intervention, more fire and building inspections, more audits, more unions. Union organizers are often arrested and sometimes brutally killed. Some measures have been taken with little progress. Some NGOs and union organizers made attempts to call together the clothing industry importers to form an independent organism to monitor the various garment factories to improve safety conditions but no agreement could be reached. Now with the shame of the world cast on the name brands they have shed crocodile tears and offer some food to families of the victims.

John Hilary, executive director at War on Want, told Reuters, ''What we're saying is that bargain-basement (clothing) is automatically leading towards these types of disasters." He said that Western clothing retailers' need to undercut rivals has translated into increasing pressure on foreign suppliers to reduce costs. "If you've got that, then it's absolutely clear that you're not going to be able to have the right kind of building regulations, health and safety, fire safety. Those things will become more and more impossible as the cost price goes down." Hilary said the push for lower costs inevitably led to factories cutting corners. "As a result of that, we see the sort of disaster that happened yesterday," he said.

The brand name companies see the obstacles as too many and too costly to solve. Their bottom line after all is profit. If they don't maximize profit by cutting costs one company will be devoured by another. And if profits are not made in Bangladesh, which is now part of the world imperialist market, then the companies will move to another oppressed country where they can find a suitable workforce to super-exploit. By the internal logic of capitalism, where profit and competition rule over everything, each player at every level of the trillion dollar garment industry must keep costs to a minimum to effectively beat out competitors. Further, to remain competitive and profitable today, clothing retailers must be able to change styles quickly and often, with tight deadlines adding to the intense pace imposed on garment manufacturing. These economic necessities translate into the destruction of human lives and potential on a mass scale.

The deaths and injuries at Rana Plaza are not an aberration but part of the workings of a ruthless system. The sorrow and righteous anger of the Bangladeshi people is a worldwide wake-up call. The next time you don your clothes, look at the label and remember there is blood on it that you don't see.


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.


Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.