Rescue workers at the collapsed Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, gave a brief cheer last Sunday as they heard the building’s owner had been arrested.
But the moment passed quickly and they soon went back to the grim task of retrieving bodies from the rubble.
Already more than 350 garment factory workers are known to be dead. With 900 people still missing that toll is sure to rise.
The multi-storey building housed five factories and employed thousands of people.
Property developer Sohel Rana only had permission to build five floors, but greed had got the better of him. He added an extra three storeys, knowing that his political connections made it unlikely he’d ever be prosecuted.
Workers alerted their managers to a huge crack in the building on Tuesday of last week. This was where they produced clothes for companies including Primark, Matalan, Wal-Mart, Mango and Benetton.
They held a brief walkout—then returned to work after bosses threatened to dock their wages.
The building collapsed the following day, and anger spread among workers across the city.
As hundreds downed tools to demand justice for the families of the dead and injured, the bosses and their friends in government feared the worst.
They were not worried that hundreds were dead and buried, but that strikes could spread across city and beyond.
They mobilised the Rapid Action Battalions of militarised police that are regularly used to attack pickets in an attempt to “lock down” the surrounding areas. Owners closed down nearby factories in an effort to stop walkouts. They failed.
Thousands of workers rampaged through industrial districts around Dhaka on Friday, blocking roads and vandalising factories. Rioting has spread across the city.
In the south eastern city of Chittagong hundreds of garment workers took to the streets and burnt out vehicles.
Eight major workers’ organisations called a day of strikes on Sunday.
The protests forced the two largest garment bosses’ associations to close their factories all weekend so workers could help in rescue efforts—something they had initially resisted.
Bangladesh’s government is keen to distance itself from Rana. Its information minister Hasanul Haque Inu said “I wouldn’t call it an accident. I would say it’s a murder.”
But the government’s main concern is to ensure that business continues at the thousands of other garment factories, which account for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports.
The Rana Plaza collapse is the worst in a series of accidents—over 100 workers were killed in a fire just last November.
The government knows that improving workers’ safety and pitiful wages will undermine the country’s competitiveness.
This fact is also well understood by the multinational firms that outsource the production of sweatshop clothes.
Primark, whose supplier Simple Approach was on the second floor of Rana Plaza, has so far refused to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement (BFSA).
The BFSA was drawn up by unions after the deaths of 112 Bangladeshi workers in the fire last November.
It says independent building inspections should be published so that multinational firms cannot pretend that they don’t know about factory conditions.
Last week, Primark announced a 24 percent leap in sales and 56 percent jump in profits to £238 million.
As the company’s shareholders rubbed their hands together with glee, thousands of workers mourned their losses—and took to the streets in fury.
The outrage also looks set to feed into a protest against the Bangladeshi government in London this weekend.