Mur­der charges filed in deaths of 1,100 Bangladeshis

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Shashank Ben­gali and Mo­hi­ud­din Kader

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Two years af­ter a gar­ment fac­tory build­ing col­lapsed, killing more than 1,100 peo­ple and drawing world­wide at­ten­tion to danger­ous con­di­tions in Bangladesh’s ap­parel busi­ness, au­thor­i­ties Mon­day charged 42 peo­ple with mur­der in the coun­try’s dead­li­est industrial dis­as­ter.

The ac­cused in­cluded the owner of the Rana Plaza fac­tory com­plex, So­hel Rana, and na­tional and lo­cal of­fi­cials who over­saw build­ing safety and in­spec­tions. Rana and oth­ers ini­tially had been ex­pected to face lesser charges of cul­pa­ble homi­cide, but the mur­der charges mean they could face the death penalty, if con­victed.

Au­thor­i­ties said the sever­ity of the charges was due to the scale of the dis­as­ter, a sig­nal that Bangladesh was se­ri­ous about re­pair­ing the im­age of its trou­bled gar­ment ex­port in­dus­try, the sec­ond largest in the world and sup­plier to such ma­jor

U.S. com­pa­nies as Gap, Fruit of the Loom, Tar­get, Wal-Mart and Macy’s.

Cheap, sub­mis­sive la­bor has pro­pelled Bangladesh’s $20-bil­lion cloth­ing in­dus­try, the source of 80% of the coun­try’s ex­ports. Many of the gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor’s 4 mil­lion work­ers are women, which has also driven so­cial change in the over­whelm­ingly Mus­lim na­tion.

Since the dis­as­ter, of­fi­cials have launched a new in­spec­tion regime for fac­to­ries, raised worker pay, al­lowed unions to reg­is­ter for the first time and pledged other re­forms. Ma­jor ap­parel re­tail­ers and brands in the U.S. and Europe formed con­sor­tiums to mon­i­tor safety at fac­to­ries that pro­duce their clothes — a sign of how Bangladesh has be­come a cru­cial sup­plier, par­tic­u­larly to low-cost brands.

“They see this as a nec­es­sary step to main­tain the at­trac­tive­ness of Bangladesh as a source coun­try, par­tic­u­larly for the U.S. and Euro­pean mar­kets that are strate­gi­cally im­por­tant to the in­dus­try,” said Sarah Labowitz, co-direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Busi­ness and Hu­man Rights at New York Uni­ver­sity’s Stern School of Busi­ness.

“The brands need Bangladesh too, be­cause no other coun­try can com­pete on vol­ume and cost,” Labowitz said. “So we are at a mo­ment where dra­matic change is pos­si­ble be­cause it’s in the in­ter­ests of both Bangladesh and in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies.”

Yet of the 42 ac­cused on Mon­day, some two dozen are fugi­tives — a re­minder of the chal­lenges Bangladesh faces in pros­e­cut­ing sus­pected abuses in an in­dus­try be­set by prob­lems.

Even af­ter the min­i­mum wage for gar­ment work­ers was nearly dou­bled, it re­mains just $68 a month, one of the low­est in the world.

Scores of new unions have been formed, but work­ers say some who tried to union­ize have faced in­tim­i­da­tion, threats, dis­missal and phys­i­cal at­tacks by fac­tory man­agers. Few unions have been able to reach col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments with em­ploy­ers.

“Bangladesh de­serves credit for giv­ing unions the lee­way they need to or­ga­nize,” said John Sifton, Asia ad­vo­cacy direc­tor at Hu­man Rights Watch. “But the most im­por­tant thing is to cre­ate in­sti­tu­tions that give nascent unions a rem­edy when fac­tory own­ers ig­nore them, crush them or oth­er­wise make them in­ef­fec­tive.”

Work­ers have long been vul­ner­a­ble to cor­rupt, po­lit­i­cally con­nected fac­tory bosses who face lit­tle over­sight.

On the morn­ing of the dis­as­ter in April 2013, au­thor­i­ties say, fac­tory own­ers and man­agers or­dered re­luc­tant work­ers to en­ter the ninestory build­ing a day af­ter large cracks had ap­peared in the struc­ture. Work­ers have said that some man­agers threat­ened them, in keep­ing with a feu­dal la­bor sys­tem in which they were of­ten sub­jected to phys­i­cal and ver­bal abuse, de­nied bath­room breaks and re­fused sick leave.

Eigh­teen of those ac­cused of mur­der were also charged with vi­o­lat­ing build­ing codes by adding ex­tra floors to what was orig­i­nally a five-story com­plex. About 2,500 peo­ple were res­cued from the build­ing af­ter it col­lapsed, many suf­fer­ing se­vere in­juries.

Rana, owner of the plaza com­plex on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal, Dhaka, and ac­tive in the Awami League, the po­lit­i­cal party that runs the coun­try, was ar­rested days af­ter the col­lapse while try­ing to flee to In­dia. He re­mains in po­lice cus­tody. Rana’s par­ents were also charged with mur­der, along with the own­ers of sev­eral other fac­to­ries in the com­plex.

De­spite pledges by Bangladeshi au­thor­i­ties and in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies, ex­perts worry that the root prob­lems that con­trib­uted to the huge death toll at Rana Plaza have not been ad­dressed.

Through two con­sor­tiums, Amer­i­can and Euro­pean brands and re­tail­ers such as Adi­das, Marks & Spencer and Abercrombie & Fitch have taken re­spon­si­bil­ity for mon­i­tor­ing work­place and fire safety at about 1,800 sup­plier fac­to­ries. But re­searchers say the to­tal num­ber of fac­to­ries in Bangladesh is closer to 7,000, in­clud­ing many small- and medium-sized op­er­a­tions that lie out­side the reach of in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies and Bangladesh’s own in­spec­tion regime — yet em­ploy half of the gar­ment in­dus­try work­force.

The gov­ern­ment has been busy train­ing in­spec­tors, but has not laid out a clear plan for how to help fac­to­ries pay for ren­o­va­tions that can reach into the hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars, con­tribut­ing to a sys­tem in which smaller, less well-funded fac­to­ries re­main danger­ous.

On Sun­day, the day be­fore the Rana Plaza in­dict­ments, a fire re­port­edly caused by a short cir­cuit broke out at a gar­ment fac­tory near Dhaka, caus­ing the top five floors of the seven-story build­ing to col­lapse. Own­ers said there were no ca­su­al­ties among the 3,000 work­ers, who were on their lunch break.

“I to­tally wel­come a crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion to ad­dress the ter­ri­ble crimes that hap­pened at Rana Plaza,” Sifton said. “But that’s not enough to pre­vent fac­tory dis­as­ters in the fu­ture. At the end of the day the real work in im­prov­ing Bangladesh’s la­bor sit­u­a­tion is in the smaller, mun­dane is­sues of la­bor re­form.”

Shariful Is­lam Zuma Press

HUN­DREDS WERE also in­jured in the 2013 Rana Plaza fac­tory col­lapse in Bangladesh. Fac­tory own­ers and man­agers or­dered re­luc­tant work­ers to en­ter the build­ing de­spite the ap­pear­ance of large cracks a day ear­lier.

AFP/Getty Images

FAC­TORY com­plex owner So­hel Rana tried to f lee to In­dia. He re­mains in po­lice cus­tody.

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