Free Trade and a Textile Fire Tragedy

So-called “free trade” in textiles has led retailers to seek out the cheapest labor and to neglect safety measures, factors in a devastating Bangladesh fire in 2013 that killed more than 1,000 workers, recalls Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

It was three years ago in April that the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed with over 3,000 workers inside. Some 1,134 were killed and many others severely injured. Some of the dead bodies were never recovered.

At the three-year anniversary, hundreds of workers and family members gathered in Savar to mourn the victims and to push for safety reforms in garment factories. While some progress has been made, according to human rights activists working in the field, much still needs to change, and U.S. corporations need to take responsibility for what goes on in terms of the treatment of workers at the front end of the profit train.

Savar building collapse in  Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Savar building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Barbara Briggs, Associate Director of the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, has done extensive reporting and organizing in support of human rights for the workers in Bangladesh. Briggs was on the ground after the disaster, documenting what happened and reporting to the world. Flashpoints Host, Dennis J Bernstein spoke to Briggs in 2013, at the time of the tragedy, and again after the third anniversary.

DB: Let’s start with the history. Please give us a thorough reminder of what happened that terrible day on April 22nd in 2013.

BB: The story does begin on April 22nd, and then the collapse happened on April 24th. But the horror of the story is that it was a disaster waiting to happen. And the workers knew that it was going to happen, before the building went down. On April 22nd large cracks formed in this building.

It was a building owned by a man named Sohel Rana. It had been permitted as a five story commercial building. But he was greedy, and he built the building to eight stories. And instead of a commercial building, instead of stores and commerce, he built up three extra floors and put five industrial apparel factories in the upper floors: stuffing the building with sewing machines, with generators, with warehouses.

On April 22nd, that Tuesday, large cracks formed in the outer wall of the building. The workers could see to the outside. They could put their hands through these cracks, which just got longer, and longer. A building inspector was called. He said the building was dangerous, ordered it cleared. Everybody went out. On that Wednesday, the building was empty, and then on the 24th the workers came back to find out what the plan was for repairs, and also when they’d be paid.

And that’s when the factory managers came out, and they ordered the workers to go back into the building. They told them “If you don’t go back in and finish the orders that we have to send out for export to the international labels, we won’t get paid, and you won’t get paid for the month.” And workers have to feed their families. Losing a month of wages, or not having it, would be absolutely disastrous. But it got worse from there.

The owner of the building, Sohel Rana, is a local strong man, and he brought in thugs with sticks, and said “If you don’t get into the building and do your work, I will break your bones.” And literally, under threat of being beaten by these thugs, as well as not getting their wages, the workers went back into work.

They went into work at 8 in the morning. At 8:45 the electricity went out and the generators kicked on. There’s a very unreliable electricity grid in Bangladesh. So five generators kicked on. A couple of minutes later the building started to vibrate, and shake. At 9 o’clock in the morning the building went down with over 3,500 workers inside. As you said, 1,139 workers were killed. The rescue operations worked for days to bring out dead and injured workers.

There are still families who are missing family members who were never found in the rubble. Hundreds were hospitalized with severe injuries, meaning amputations, head injuries, spinal cord injuries. And probably 2,000 were injured in some way. So the toll has been devastating. And, in fact, there are many workers who simply will never be able to work again. And their families were ruined. These were primarily the main income earners for their families.

DB:  And who exactly were they? Tell us a little bit more about who died, who was hurt, who are these people?  A human face, please.

BB:  These are a majority of young women, probably 85% of them young women aged 18 – 28 or 30, some young men as well. You know, there’s one face that really sticks with me. We went to the hospitals, just a few weeks after the collapse, in May of that year. We met a young woman named Sharina, and she had broken both her legs very, very badly. One of them was infected…. She just had a sharpness in her eye, unlike many of the workers who were just like zoned out, traumatized. She was angry. And she said “You know, last night I dreamt that I was walking. And I dreamt that I was with my cousin and we were both in college. And I’ve always wanted to study. And I had to drop out to support my family.” She was supporting her parents, her mother, and her brother. And she was just devastated.

We met other young women, one young woman had lost both her legs, another an arm. Another young woman was just flat on a backboard. I don’t know if she was comatose, but she was simply still. And all of these workers were being cared for essentially by their family members. Not a lot of nursing care in those hospitals, although they were the best that Bangladesh had to offer.

DB:  What was the average salary, by the way?

BB:  The wage ran from 14 – 26 cents an hour. And this was workers who were working 12 to 14 hours shifts, they were working six and seven days a week. Typically, if they were lucky, they would get two Fridays off a month. Friday is the Muslim holiday. So they were typical for garment factory workers in Bangladesh. Young, working less than a subsistence wage, and working 12 and 14 hours a day. And that’s just typical. Sometimes it’s a lot more.

DB:  Tell us a little bit more about the owner. Was he arrested immediately? Was he prosecuted for mass murder? How did that play out?

BB:  He tried to flee. And he was, in fact, arrested at the border, and he and his family, actually a number of them, were prosecuted and he is in jail now. So, for what it’s worth.

DB:  And tell us a little bit about, in terms of the plight of these workers, obviously thousands, if they didn’t die, they lost their income. That, I’m sure, was quite devastating. Where would they go from there?

BB:  They, and their families, are really stuck. I don’t have a lot of demographic data, you know, what has happened with many of those individuals. But many of them can’t work. Many of them talked about [what] their choice would be: to beg on the street. Families, of course, instead of having an income earner, now would have someone they need to take care of. It’s tough.

DB:  Now, has anything changed, that would prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again? I’m sort of harkening back to the early days in the United States and the [Triangle] Shirtwaist Fire in Manhattan, terrible disaster, lead to the beginning of a real battle for worker’s rights, union rights. What happened here?

BB:  Well, a lot of promises were made. It was all U.S. and European companies: it was J.C. Penney, it was Benetton, it was Primark of the United Kingdom, Walmart documents were found in the factory rubble, Inditex– the biggest garment factory in the world– which produces the Zara label. H&M was there. Joe Fresh was there from Canada. The Children’s Place, they were all there producing in this factory. I mean, dozens of labels. And the U.S. and European companies I think were quite shook up by the fact that so many workers making their product had been killed, and injured, all in one fell swoop.

DB:  Over 1,100.

BB: Yeah, yeah. And there have been efforts to at least improve the safety of these buildings. I mean, Bangladesh literally had to, with the help of the U.S. and European companies, import, you know, and build a factory to make safe fire doors. There weren’t even fire doors. And, instead, companies were locking workers in behind locked gates.

Mostly European companies and a handful of U.S. ones formed something called the Accord for Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh, with the hope to inspect and provide funding to make their factories safe. And signing on, essentially, to be legally accountable for the basic safety of factories that these companies use.

Most U.S. companies, headed up by Walmart and The Gap, by the way, didn’t want to make a legally binding commitment. They set up a considerably weaker, sort of add-on operation called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which also does factory inspections, and provides some funding for the companies themselves to improve factory conditions. There have been a lot of inspections, and [there] might, and this is just a very personal, gut sense, hopefully [be] some improvement.
But the Center for Business and Human Rights, out of NYU Stern School, found this last December that of 3,425 inspections that have been conducted so far, this is as of December of last year, only eight factories have passed the final inspection. So there’s still major problems, even in terms of safety. … And, actually, I want to step back for a second.

The emphasis has been on direct contract factories, and the one problem is that there are some 4,000 to 4,500 garment factories…. But, in fact, if you count smaller sub-contract factories that are taking work from these main factories, there are probably 7,000 factories, total. And the additional 2,500 or so factories are much less regulated, and often much less safe. So they’re in worse safety shape, lack of inspection, lack of regulation, so that already is a huge vacuum.

And then, in addition, you have to look at the conditions inside the factory. And a lot of these kinds of conditions just haven’t changed. I mean, we’re seeing a continuation of extraordinary amounts of overtime. Just in the inspections and investigations that we’ve done over the last two years, [we have] run into continued long hours. And this is starting at 8 o’clock in the morning, and many workers not finishing until 10 o’clock at night, 11 o’clock at night, midnight. Finishing sections sometimes working until 1 a.m. or working night shift until 3 a.m. or 5 a.m.

It’s not that unusual to see 100 hour work weeks. It’s not unusual to see workers working over 200 hours of overtime a month. They are being cheated of overtime wages and basic legal benefits. By law, workers are supposed to have what’s called earned leave, which is essentially vacation time. They don’t want to take the time, management doesn’t want them to take the time, but they should be paid the money that they would be earning.

… [There is] a real serious denial of workers who are pregnant, not getting the paid [maternity] leave that they are owed. They’re supposed to get eight weeks before the birth, eight weeks after the birth. And, many, many, many factories either don’t pay it, or pay just a portion of what they are supposed to. Severance pay… so many of these benefits are just not paid.

And then many, many factories generate phony pay stubs. They basically have a double set of books. And the pay stubs are, the workers say, for the buyers. In other words, they say, “Oh, these workers are working 8 hours a day, they are working only the limited 2 hours of overtime they are legally supposed to. They are getting every single Friday off. They’re getting all their benefits.” When, in fact, they’re not getting that at all. We’re seeing a lot of verbal abuse. That continues, sometimes physical abuse.

What would have protected the Rana Plaza workers, and might have averted that tragedy, [is] if the workers had had a union. That right to organize and be represented and bargain collectively is virtually 100% denied. The government, for a little while, was allowing some union registrations, but, you know, even that was still very weak. And that door has, for months, been shut. Workers who try to organize unions are typically fired, and blacklisted. And we’re actually seeing an increase in management’s use of local goons to terrify the workers. So it’s rough out there.

DB:  In terms of the workers, now you mentioned a number of U.S. corporations, western corporations, that you said that the workers are making 13 – 27 cents an hour. Were they aware that the garments that they were sewing together for 27 cents were selling for, I don’t know 10, 20, 100 times more than they were getting paid?

BB:  Overall, no. They know they’re not getting paid enough. And, I should say inflation has happened, wages have gone up a little bit now. So now we’re talking approximately 35 – 45 cents an hour. But expenses are higher, too. And some of that is intentional: every single time the wages go up, workers’ rents go up. Their improvement gets eaten away really quickly by intentionally increased prices.

DB:  And, are working children still a problem?

BB:  Sometimes. That’s the one thing that’s not as prevalent as it used to be. I mean, 10 years ago, 12 years ago we saw eight year olds. You know, there still may be a few 13 year olds. But that age range is going up.

DB:  So let’s talk a little bit about what has changed. What are some of the positive aspects? What, maybe, perhaps, are the movements that have grown out of these struggles?

BB:  Well, we still are not seeing nearly enough systemic change. But, the U.S. and European companies increasingly are sensitive to the fact that consumers care about this issue, and increasingly are willing to respond when problems are pointed out to them. And over the last couple of years, we’ve had very good luck going to, again, The Gap, but also H&M and Inditex, you know, some of the more progressive labels and saying “Look, we’ve been talking with workers in this factory … where a high proportion of the production is yours and there is forced overtime. And there are these extraordinary hours. And workers are not getting the benefits that they’re supposed to, and, you know, documenting the abuses that are taking place and other violations that are taking place.” And there have been a string of factories that have really cleaned up. And we estimate about 40 factories and some 100,000 workers now are working under much better conditions.

DB:  This is in Bangladesh?

BB:  This is all in Bangladesh. But this is 100,000 workers of somewhere between 4 and 5 million workers. It’s not a big percentage, but it is factories where workers are working legal hours, you know, an 8 hour day, with no more than 2 hours of overtime, most of the time. Where legal wages and benefits are paid, where there are no more two sets of books. Where bosses have been retrained, and verbal abuses ended. And, you know, I’ll just mention one. There’s a factory that we’ve been working with recently called Haesong Sweaters, where the 10,000 workers are now, again, working reasonable hours, paid properly. The entire workforce has received training on their basic legal rights. Every member of management has been retrained about how to treat workers, and what are proper communications with your workers.

And, recently, free and fair elections have been held for the workers to choose representatives to a so-called workers participation committee in each of the factory’s three units. Now it’s a little short of a union, but those committees are now up and running and they are actively engaging with management, you know, bringing them problems and bringing them issues that workers want to solve. So it’s a helpful venue and something that’s very empowering to the workers. They now know what their rights are, and they have at least some venue for communicating with management to solve problems.

So we have a long way to go. But the other thing I want to mention is that factories like Haesong, where improvements have taken place, are a real model. … It’s now doing very well. And factories like that are a model for workers in surrounding factories where there are still big problems. They know … family members that work in a better factory, neighbors that work in a better factory [and they] talk about the changes that have taken place. And workers in surrounding factories begin to learn their rights and want
similar conditions.

DB:  Is there incentive for the owners? Has it been your experience that, where they clean up, things actually go better for the factory, that the morale works for the producer, for the owner?

BB:  Yes. Because the better factories typically also learn to be more efficient– they don’t have these crisis moments– their workers tend to be better trained, better motivated, and not exhausted all the time. I mean it’s a really sort of a high road, low road problem. You need a level of skill, and a level of expertise, and it takes time to make the improvements, and investment to make the improvements and do the worker training and the management training that it takes to run a better factory.

But once you get there, the better and more committed labels want to [do business] there, because they know that the product will be better, and they also know that there will be less likelihood of there being a workers’ rights scandal. So there is an upside. But it takes less investment, less expertise, and at the beginning it’s probably easier to set up a lousy factory. And that’s where the majority are sitting right now.

DB:  In terms of the U.S. response, has there been a movement? … I know you’ve been inside of this. Maybe talk about how your work has included trying to get legislation in the U.S. to have companies here be accountable for their relationship to some of these death factories. Has that been a part of your work?

BB:  Well, we sponsored or rather were supportive of something called The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act. But that was a few years ago. That was 2007-2008-2009. Since then, honestly, the situation in Washington has been really, really difficult. And the ability of Congress to agree on practically anything has meant for a real sort of deadlock, and inability to get legislation through. Something that we would be hopeful for, to happen in the future, but at this point there hasn’t really been legislative solutions on the horizon.

DB: And, I imagine free trade arrangements do not help the situation. Or do they?

BB:  We sure don’t think so. There is labor language in the TPP, for instance, but on the other hand the Trans Pacific Partnership would include Vietnam which is the one-party dictatorship where no independent organization at all is allowed in the country. So how is there going to be an independent voice, for workers, or for human rights advocates, in general?

DB:  Alright, Barbara Briggs, if people want to follow the work that you do, learn more about these kinds of subjects, what do you recommend?

BB:  Well, we have a web site, And [people can] sign up for our list serve, on the upper right-hand corner, of our home page. You can sign up. And we’re expecting to put out a number of public cases and campaigns over the next few months. And that is the real opportunity to act. And it’s in the pipeline.

DB:  Thank you for helping us remember what happened, this terrible disaster that happened 3 years ago, just this past April, which cost the lives of over 1,100 workers. A terrible situation, which we never want to forget.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of Flashpoints on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at

4 comments for “Free Trade and a Textile Fire Tragedy

  1. Erik
    July 14, 2016 at 08:12

    We should recall that this is just one aspect of the great tragedy of poverty in the developing world. There is also grossly inadequate nutrition, medical care, education, housing, and infrastructure.

    This is the equivalent of slavery, using economic force across national boundaries. It is pointless to lament economic slavery when we and our leaders are the real slavedrivers.

    Just as slavery could have been ended (and the civil war avoided) by the consumer states and nations, using price controls or taxation and product tracking to establish the funding, so the UN should require importers to pay a tax sufficient to radically improve the lives of these economic slaves, and oversee the improvements thereby financed.

    Before the Civil War, the abolitionist states did nothing to provide a means for producers to free their slaves without becoming non-competitive through unilaterally increased costs. That required an external agency of a size then inconceivable. But now there is no problem in arranging the liberation of economic slaves from this tyranny. Except the willing cooperation of governments and consumers in slavery.

    We need a “consumers union” run by the UN to demand import-tax-supported improvements to producer labor and life conditions.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      July 16, 2016 at 21:31

      The slave states wouldn’t have become uncompetitive, as their slaves would still have worked for them, as they would have nowhere else to go – after the American Civil War, the slaves can be said to have become serfs with the exception that they weren’t inherently tied to the land, and had freedom of movement. They would have had simply paid their former slaves low wages, as what happened in history. Britain replaced Southern cotton with Indian cotton, although they had to pay their workers. Granted they were not suffering from Southern competition, as there was a trade embargo by the North, but due to paying their workers, they would have higher productivity.

      Anyways, the conditions of the workers in Bangladesh show that the Arab Spring needs to spread there – the people should protest the poor working conditions, as well as the general corruption and poverty in Bangladesh. And I knew Wal-Mart treats its workers badly, but I didn’t know they were in complicit in the treatment of Third World factory workers. They’re even worse than I thought.

  2. Jay
    July 13, 2016 at 16:15

    Ah yes, just the kind of sweat shop labor, the NY Times’ Kristof and his wife support, with the idea that such labor is better than picking over a trash heap if you’re poor and living in Bangladesh or say Cambodia.

    Never seems to occur to these entitled brats at the NY Times that the whole building may be some kind of a death trap.

    Kristof sort of shut up on this “poverty relief” idea after this building collapse and then a friend of his from highschool, who hadn’t gone to Harvard, died young. But Kristof is still unconnected with the world, and this includes the world of sweatshops in NYC. Though those buildings are better built.

    • Erik
      July 14, 2016 at 09:33

      It is an old idea that the improvements brought by foreign industry to poor countries should excuse the poverty of their workers. There is just enough apparent truth in that to support the hypocrisy it masks. In fact of course, export industries establish cultures of economic tyranny, creating urban slums of persons displaced from agrarian societies, with attendant crime. They also create Relative Poverty (more degrading than low absolute standard of living) and insecurity and moral degradation despite raising wages. Until these effects are felt, the industry feels that it is doing more good than harm.

      See Oscar Lewis’ A Death in the Sanchez Family for this phenomenon in mid-20th century Mexico, where drift of distressed farmers into urban ghettoes in search of jobs, reduced them from ordinary cash-poor rural people to demoralized urban slum dwellers immersed in crime, prostitution, hopelessness, and violence.

      Export industries must give more than subsistence wages to the desperate, and the market must not be allowed to compete down their wages below the level at which decent living conditions can be assured.

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