When the Rana Plaza garment factory building collapsed on April 24, crushing hundreds of workers under a pile of concrete and machinery that used to be an eight-story factory building, it was like lifting a rock in your garden and finding a snake’s nest full of baby rattlers. Something that most of the world preferred to keep out of sight was exposed to full view. The latest body count as of this writing is 640, but that is sure to rise as more bodies are pulled from the wreckage. (Ed: It is now more than 1,100.) Despite the tragedy of the collapse, there is hope that something else died in the wreckage too: the type of criminal negligence that leads to such catastrophes in the first place.
Bangladesh is the second or third largest exporter of garments in the world, behind only China and possibly Vietnam. Over three million people are employed in the country’s garment industry, which provides 80 percent of its export income. Women make up 70 percent of the garment industry’s employees, and a recital of the typical garment worker’s life would sound familiar to the girls in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who toiled in the water-powered mills erected in the 1850s by a group of enterprising New England capitalists. You will not be surprised to learn that one of the big events in that town’s history was the collapse in 1860 of the Pemberton Mill, in which 145 people died from both the initial collapse and a fire started in the largely wooden structure by an overturned kerosene lantern.
As engineering disasters go, the Bangladesh tragedy was not mysterious. In fact, the engineer who (perhaps irresponsibly) supervised the addition of three more floors to what was originally planned as a five-story shopping mall warned the owners of the factories inside that it was about to collapse and should be evacuated, when cracks were observed the day before the collapse. But these warnings were ignored, and shortly after the morning shift entered the building on April 24, it fell down. So far, the factory owners, the engineer, and several others have been arrested, but that won’t bring back the lives lost in this disaster.
The Rana Plaza accident tells us something about ignorance and authority. First, ignorance.
Over the last five centuries, the majority of the world’s increasing number of citizens have moved from living on the land, eating what they themselves (or people they know) have grown, and having little if any dealings with persons farther away than a few miles, to today’s inconceivably complex interconnected world where information, money, and goods intermingle in ways that are both beneficial and profitable. The simple fact that the world now supports over seven billion people is largely due to the improvements in living conditions brought about by engineering and science applied in a world-economy context. But the same forces that can benefit billions can also produce conditions in places like Bangladesh that are exploitive in the extreme.
If you lived in the fourteenth century AD and the baker at the shop around the corner where you bought your bread habitually beat his cooks, you at least stood a chance of hearing about it. But if the bargain-discount top of the type my wife likes to buy is made halfway around the world by a Bangladeshi company that sells to another Bangladeshi broker, who contracts with a wholesaler in the US to distribute clothes to retailers under a number of different labels, it would require the diligence of an investigative reporter and the acumen of a forensic accountant to discover the true origins and conditions under which that particular piece of clothing was made.
In the absence of forces other than economic ones, the goods are going to go to the highest bidder, and the work is going to go to the lowest-wage employer. Many of those employers happen to be in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is reportedly US$38 a month.
Such figures must always be taken in context. Even the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs are sometimes freely chosen by workers who would rather slave in a hot, hazardous city job than risk starvation at a subsistence farm in the country. (Sometimes, however, the workers are hired under false pretences and kept as de facto slaves, which is even worse.) So by and large, most of the millions of garment workers in the Bangladesh factories may consider themselves better off than their parents, who probably lived in the countryside and may not always have known where their next meal was coming from.
Nevertheless, the contrast between the urban US soccer mom buying cheap clothes at a bargain outlet in Wichita, Kansas, and the women in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who slaved from dawn to after dusk (sometimes reportedly pulling 24-hour shifts) to make those clothes, could hardly be exaggerated. And that is why there is a great silence on the part of most sellers and manufacturers about the conditions under which their garments are made, except for the simple label “Made in Bangladesh.” Now, with the Rana Plaza disaster, that veil of ignorance has been breached, and anyone who is paying a modest amount of attention will not read such a label without at least wondering about whether this piece of clothing was made in a sweatshop like the one that killed hundreds last month.
Next, about authority. The authorities in Bangladesh have not exactly covered themselves with glory either before or after the disaster. They have pledged to increase inspection of potentially unsafe factories, to recruit more government inspectors, and to allow collective bargaining, among other things. But pledges are one thing and actions are another. It is obvious that whatever building codes were on the books in Dhaka, the suburb where the Rana Plaza was located, were either inadequate or inadequately enforced. In the absence of governmental or other countervailing authority, the ironical Golden Rule applies: those with the gold make the rules. In this case, when the building engineer told the factory owners to evacuate, he was overruled, despite the fact that if he (or government agents) had had the authority to implement an evacuation unilaterally, the tragedy might well have been averted.
As we in the US learned in numerous fires and mill collapses in the 1800s, the entire absence of any regulation of working conditions leads to a situation in which profits overpower all other considerations, and the system will provide economic incentives that push some owners to allow hazardous and exploitative conditions to go to the limit of disaster. It happened here until laws were passed making such limit-testing illegal, and it will continue to happen in places like Bangladesh until authority structures are in place that provide harsh and prompt penalties for safety violations, so that it is not only immoral, but unprofitable, to operate in a way that endangers the lives of one’s employees.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics.