For the love of Reshma

On 10 May young mother Reshma Begum was pulled from the ruins of the Rana Plaza shop and factory complex fully seventeen days after it collapsed onto its circa 3,120 occupants. Rana Plaza was an illegal building. Its owner added floors without permission. Perhaps because of the owner’s political connections and economic import of the garment industry (which accounts for 77% of Bangladesh’s exports and is worth $20 billion) surveyors turned a blind-eye. When cracks appeared (due to a combination of poor materials and vibration from generators and sewing machines) Sohel Rana told tenants the building was safe. Mr Rana is now in custody along with four factory owners.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister seems to be in denial. Asked by CNN to comment on the disaster Sheikh Hasina ventured: “Anywhere in the world, any accident can take place …. You cannot predict anything”. Incorrect. The Rana Plaza disaster was foreseeable for these reasons: First, surveyors turned a blind-eye to sub-standard materials and illegal storeys. Secondly, the design was unable to withstand continuous heavy vibration. Thirdly, the potential for self-interested collusion between the Rana Plaza’s owner and local/central government officials was overlooked. Fourthly, packing over 3,100 persons into an unsafe building ensured that any mishap (fire, gas explosion, collapse, etc.) had the potential to kill many if not all of the occupants. Fifthly, garment factories in developing countries have a poor safety record. In September 2012 a garment-factory fire killed 262 in Pakistan. In November 2012 a fire at the Tazreen Fashions Factory in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka killed 112 people. There have been numerous opportunities to learn lessons and improve safety. Those opportunities have not been taken. As risk expert Professor Brian Toft would say, there has been no active learning. Finally, cost-cutting and disaster are linked. The Rana Plaza was built as cheaply as possible. Sohel Rana added storeys to maximise his return. Rana’s tenants crammed as many machines and workers into the building as possible. By doing this they created what disaster-expert Professor Charles Perrow would call a tightly-coupled interactively complex system with too little ‘slack’ or ‘play’ to be able to withstand a serious shock (like a fire or loss of a supporting column). Resilience comes at a price: forethought; careful design; quality-control; testing; adjustment; high management standards; an effective inspection regime; money.

Who is culpable?

Everyone bears some responsibility for the loss of over 1,120 lives in the Rana Plaza collapse. The culpable include:

1.    The government and local authorities of Bangladesh
2.    The capitalist who funded the development
3.    The banks and/or investors who lent the capitalist the money
4.    The architects, engineers and constructors who used sub-standard materials, failed to factor-in the structural impacts of machinery, and added floors without approval
5.    The tenants who saw nothing wrong with cramming as many workers as possible into the Rana Plaza
6.    The clothing retailers who became obsessed with supply-chain cost-cutting
7.    The logistics companies who transported the finished goods regardless of their origin
8.    The consumers who failed to consider the human consequences of their lust for ever-cheaper clothing

Several Western companies are implicated in cost-cutting. No doubt some of these would say they are merely responding to consumer demand. It does not have to be like this. Walt Disney Company has decided not to source garments in those counties at the bottom of the World Bank’s governance league table. Disney will no longer buy from Ecuador, Venezuela, Belarus, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Disney will only buy from countries near the bottom of the league table if they subscribe to the International Labour Organisation’s Better Work programme that seeks to improve workers’ health and safety.

What can we do?

Times are hard so it is no surprise that bargain-hunting is de-rigueur. After all, who in their right mind would spend more than they absolutely have to for a cocktail dress or pair of jeans? Ethical consumerism comes at a cost. It means checking the label. It means keeping abreast of which countries languish at the bottom of worker health-and-safety league tables. It means foregoing that extra round of drinks or that expensive meal with your partner so you can pay a realistic amount for the things you wear. Only by doing this can you help begin to solve the problem of worker-exploitation in the developing world. I look at it this way. My own bargain-hunting instincts mean that I am no less responsible for the deaths of over 1,120 Bangladeshi garment-workers than Sohel Rana. A sobering thought.

By Dr Simon Bennett, Director, Civil Safety and Security Unit, University of Leicester.

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