A large industrial complex collapsed in Bangladesh on Thursday, with hundreds dead or stuck under the rubble. This was preceded in November by a massive garment factory fire that killed over a hundred workers. The fire started on the ground floor and spread upwards, leading several women to die after jumping from the roof, reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster in 1911 New York that was a catalyst for many modern labor reforms.
Worker outrage has led to direct action, something that is now common due to these disasters, as well as poor treatment and unpaid wages. These are irregular and difficult to control because of the issues creating organized unions.
The collapse highlights how union rights are essential in developing economies. Not just to counteract insulting wages (less than $40/month to start), but because collective power is needed to improve safety. Workers in Rana Plaza had seen cracks and damage to the complex, but they were not in the position to force management to address the problems.John Sifton of Human Rights Watch says:
the disaster highlights concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh. “Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, its workers would have been in a position to refuse to enter the building on Wednesday morning, and thus save their lives,”
Bangladesh is the rock-bottom labor market, for companies that think China and Malaysia have grown too costly. As with many export-driven countries, the government has given manufacturers incredible deals on land and created long tax holidays. In addition, there is lax oversight and a strong independence of companies conduct business on their own terms. Local labor activists are walking a lonely road, in which the powers that be are set against them; they have been beaten, arrested, and even murdered for their efforts.
Until labor organizations can exist free from corporate or government action, there will be another Rana Plaza. Even as I write this there are buildings cracked and creaking, full of flammable dust and lint, with the fire doors barred and filled with people working an insane amount for hardly any money at all. People who believe in labor justice should help support local workers create, expand, and use their collective power. Some organizations like the International Labor Rights Forum and the AFL-CIO are supporting and documenting the movement.
If Americans and Europeans do not see themselves in these tragedies, it is only because our generations have not paid the price. The bloody actions against miners, railroad workers, and the same garment workers who leapt from their burning factory in 1911 mirror what Bangladesh is experiencing. This is not just chaos in the developing world. It is a chance to see the horrors that activists fought and died for to end.