Bangladesh Building Collapse: Why It Should Scare Americans

ByJulia Phillips

More than 1,000 bodies of garment workers have now been recovered from the collapsed Rana Plaza factory, which crumbled last week outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Despite Rana Plaza's death toll, which marks this tragedy as by far the worst industrial accident in the country's history, Bangladeshi Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith told newspapers that he did not think the collapse would have a "really serious" impact on the garment industry. He's right: as long as our international demand for cheap goods stays high, we can't enact significant change for the workers who suffer to satisfy us.

As recovery of the dead continues, American and global brands like Target, Walmart, and Gap are under fire for their Bangladesh-sourced goods. Two U.S. clothing labels, New Wave Style and Zad Enterprises, have already been plucked from in Rana Plaza's rubble. The Walt Disney Co. has announced that it is pulling out of the country entirely. Still, our demand for ready-to-wear clothes at low prices hasn't lessened. News out of Dhaka makes the cost of this multibillion-dollar industry very clear: Our appetite is killing thousands of workers, almost all women and most of them the same age as those of us shopping for affordable factory-sewn jeans.

Women, most of whom are under thirty years old, make up 80% (1.5 million) of Bangladesh's garment workers. Decades of studies of the ready-to-wear garment industry, which rose up in the 1980s and now accounts for more than three-quarters of Bangladesh's total exports, find that employers prefer to hire women workers, who are perceived as docile, nimble, and willing to take lower wages; a woman garment worker earns 60% of her male colleague's salary. Still, growing numbers of migrant and rural Bangladeshi women turn to garment work to combat extreme poverty. Earning $40 a month, they are their families' breadwinners and the drivers of Bangladesh's much-lauded recent economic growth. For many women workers, this is their first job — a sobering thought when we know that, for many Rana Plaza employees, it is also their last.

This building collapse is only the latest in a long series of tragedies. Last November, 112 garment workers died in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory near Dhaka. To many Americans, the fire at Tazreen might have seemed eerily reminiscent of New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911: more than 100 people, mostly disenfranchised women, dead in a cramped factory with no exit. Both fires were met with horror and public protests. Workers and legislators in 1911 New York and 2012 Dhaka demanded justice — safer conditions, shorter hours, better wages.

America has responded to a century of these calls for justice by outsourcing its inhumanity. We still want our cheap clothes — we just don't want them covered in soot from a fire on Washington Place in Manhattan anymore. Instead, we take them thick with blood, dust, and ash from Rana Plaza, Tazreen Fashions, Smart Export Garments, and more. Kalpona Akter, the executive director of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, is sick of international hypocrisy. As she told reporters, "American companies, they know this is happening. We've told them: Remember these human faces. You killed these girls." Companies and consumers must finally hold themselves accountable. How many more girls will we kill to get our hands on a cheap shirt?