A workplace disaster in the Third World is nothing new. But the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh claimed more than 400 lives and injured at least 2,500, making it "the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry," as The New York Times described it. Hundreds are thought to be still buried in the rubble.
The scale and visibility of the accident have drawn worldwide attention and sparked protests in Bangladesh. Critics of the global apparel industry hope that the disaster might have an effect similar to that of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in the United States more than a century ago. A pair of guests on The Daily Circuit tried to put the current disaster in historical context.
"History can be a sad reminder," said Richard Greenwald, a professor and author in New York. "If you look at the Triangle Fire, at first there was all sorts of finger-pointing to the owners of the factory, to the building inspectors, the Fire Department and other city agencies. And what changed that was the protest of workers. Their continuing to protest, their getting out into the streets, put enormous pressure on the political system but also the consumer system. Because it was very hard to buy clothing, knowing this had just happened."
Greenwald said that "factory fires and collapses were fairly normal 100 years ago in industrial America. Workers' lives were fairly cheap." But even by the standards of the day, the Triangle fire was a shocker.
"The fire started on the eighth floor. With the amount of combustible materials, the fire spread rapidly. Many of the workers on the eighth floor were able to escape; they notified management on the 10th floor, and they escaped; and no one told the workers on the ninth floor. By the time they recognized something was happening ... there was no escape for them.
"The fire galvanized a movement, largely because of its visibility. ... The Triangle got media attention. In the age we're living in now, with social media and the 24-hour news cycle, the coverage that this event is getting, now, in some ways rivals the coverage the Triangle got. It's almost impossible to ignore what happened in Bangladesh. ... Everyone seems to be talking about it. That raises a certain level of awareness. That's important. And the continuing level of protests that are happening there and seem to be spreading and growing keep the issue front and center, as it did in 1911."
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, cautioned that there's an important difference between the 1911 fire and the 2013 collapse.
"The huge difference between what happened in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the situation that workers face in Bangladesh today is that in 1911 the U.S. apparel industry was all in the U.S.," he said. "The consumers were in the U.S., the retailers were in the U.S., the manufacturers were in the U.S., the brands were in the U.S. So the U.S. government had the power to take effective action, and the U.S. unions had the power directly through their own efforts to bring about change. We now have a global apparel industry. The workers are in Bangladesh; the factory owners, many of them, are based in Bangladesh. But the real power in the industry lies in the United States and Europe, where giant brands and retailers with billions of dollars in revenue call the shots."
Nova said that the scale of the disaster in Bangladesh may be enough to change the behavior of those corporations.
"We've had a long series of deadly fires that have killed hundreds of workers in Bangladesh, one fire after another. It's not about one individual and it's not about one country. It is about a global apparel industry dominated by major brands and retailers whose relentless drive for ever-lower prices and ever-faster production has placed workers all around the world at risk," he said.
"What drives change in terms of the behavior of major corporations is when those corporations start to fear that their most valuable asset, their brand image, may be permanently damaged by their association with these kinds of labor rights abuses. And I think we are coming to a point, in part because of the indescribable horror of this building collapse last week, where the major players in this industry that are huge producers in Bangladesh ... will come to understand that if they do not take meaningful action to address the grievous safety issues that threaten workers all across that country, that it is their brand image, their reputation, that has the potential to be severely damaged. And when they recognize that, we will finally see action."
Greenwald said that consumers should find in the disaster a motive to change their behavior as well.
"There's a moral imperative," he said, "because all of us are purchasing goods that are made under atrocious conditions. And we're able to do it because we don't see what happens, we don't read about it. We don't want to know about it. And there's a system of production that is designed to hide all of that from us. I think what this disaster does is, it uncloaks the system. And you see: For your inexpensive clothing, there's a cost. You may not be paying it, but someone is, and they're paying for it with their lives in this case."
Nova agreed that consumer action could make a difference. "What matters to the brands and retailers is their fear that consumers will turn away from their brand if they are associated with these kinds of abuses," he said. "And only when brands and retailers have that fear do we see real change in their practices. ...
"What we have here is a catastrophic failure of moral responsibility, not just by the government of Bangladesh, not just by the man who owned this factory, but by the brands and retailers who have chosen to produce in Bangladesh, and who have now made it, despite the horrendous working conditions and incredible dangers for workers ... the second-largest apparel producer in the world after China, exactly because it's the rock-bottom cheapest place to make clothing."
What's necessary, he said, is a "willingness of brands and retailers to act responsibly, pay higher prices for clothing, and ensure that their factories in Bangladesh operate in a reasonable manner.
"If we can generate sufficient pressure on the big brands and retailers to do that, then yes, genuine change can be achieved, not just in Bangladesh but in other countries that face similar problems like Pakistan and India and Vietnam and so forth. ... We've got to hold companies ... accountable for the fact that they've gone to Bangladesh, are paying slave wages, are disregarding the safety of workers and profiting from this."
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE DISASTERS IN BANGLADESH:
• Bangladesh factory disaster: How culpable are Western companies?
"The horrible collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh has renewed questions over whether Western companies should be held accountable for lax safety standards in the factories where their products are made." (CBSNews.com)
• Bangladeshis Burn Factories to Protest Unsafe Conditions
"Thousands of garment workers rampaged through industrial areas of the capital of Bangladesh on Friday, smashing vehicles with bamboo poles and setting fire to at least two factories in violent protests ignited by a deadly building collapse this week that killed at least 340 workers." (The New York Times)