How can we prevent Bangladesh and West Texas-style workplace disasters?

How can we prevent Bangladesh and West Texas-style workplace disasters?


By Kathleen Geier , Washington, D.C.

News about the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh continues to unfold. According to the latest count, at least 362 people have died, but that toll is certain to rise. Hundreds more workers are unaccounted for, andat least 2,500 workers have been injured. The owner of the factory buildinghas been arrested, thousands of angry demonstrators have taken to the streets of Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, and hundreds of thousands of workers have walked off the job in protest.

Over at In These Times, the excellent Michelle Chen offers a comprehensive overview of the disaster. The entire piece is a must-read, but I wanted to highlight two especially important points Chen makes. One is that though the Bangladeshi garment industry is profoundly to hostile unions, a unionized workplace or more heavily unionized workforce in general could have prevented the tragedy. Chen cites this statement by Human Rights Watch:

 According to labor organizers in Dhaka, none of the factories located in the Rana Plaza building were unionized. Weak enforcement of labor laws in Bangladesh contributes to impunity for employers to harass and intimidate both workers and local trade unionists seeking to exercise their right to organize and collectively bargain.

Chen notes that activists are identifying the multi-national corporations and labels “associated with Rana”:

They include U.S.-based The Children’s Place and Cato Fashions, France’s Tex (Carrefour brand), Benetton, Spain’s Mango, and Canada’s Joe Fresh, Germany’s NKD and others. Walmart says it had no “authorized” supplier at Rana but one of the factories listed Walmart as a client, reports the Associated Press, and other companies have scrambled to distance themselves from the facility.


Chen points out that the geographic distance of these companies from the site of the tragedy gives them cover and plausible deniability. But their claims of ignorance and disavowal of responsibility are disingenuous in the extreme:

While companies feign ignorance and puzzlement over “what went wrong” at Rana, they’ve already proven that they’re well aware of the root problem. They shipped their manufacturing overseas specifically to avoid protective regulations and thus keep overhead and labor costs unfathomably cheap. Conversely, corporations could reverse this vicious trade-off between rights and profits by investing heavily to improve working conditions and strengthen safety enforcement, as well as monitoring under a program like the Bangladesh safety agreement. But that would mean expending the very same resources that they’d worked so hard to hoard by contracting with the cheapest and most dangerous workplaces in the world.

As Chen reported just last week, before the disaster took place, activists in Bangladesh and the U.S. are joining forces in a campaign to “End Death Traps.” Bangladeshi activists currently on a multi-city tour of the U.S. are demanding that Walmart and other multi-nationals agree to a new worker safety monitoring system:

Unlike the current, voluntary standards for corporate social responsibility, which are overseen by organizations closely tied to industry, the new system would be overseen by independent civil society groups.

Meanwhile, back in the States, we have our own serious problems with dangerous workplaces. The death toll in the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion has risen to 15, with at least 200 more injured. As with the Bangladesh tragedy, there is little doubt that unionized workplace might have saved lives.

Unlike the case in Bangladesh, though, we do have decent (albeit far from perfect) workplace safety laws and a system in place for enforcing them. The problem is that the system lacks teeth, because it is woefully underfunded and poorly organized. In These Times’ Mike Elk notes that OSHA is so budget-starved that, on average, it can afford to inspect a workplace only once every 129 years.

Elk also reports that because information about dangerous working conditions is not shared between government agencies, serious but preventable problems are ignored. He writes:

At least three state agencies— the Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Office of the Texas State Chemist—did know that the plant had a large stockpile of ammonium nitrate. However, they did not share that information with OSHA or DHS. Representatives from the TCEQ and the chemist’s office told reporters that their role in regulating the plant was not to ensure fire safety, but to handle other issues, such as the possibility of environmental contamination.


The grotesquely disproportionate amount of resources our government devotes to anti-terrorism, as opposed to workplace safety, is bizarre. Here’s Elk again:

“Workplace incidents cause far more deaths every year in the U.S.—some 13 a day—than terrorist acts, yet our government agencies spend untold millions on terrorism prevention, while largely ignoring the risks of industrial catastrophes,” says National Council for Occupational Safety and Health Executive Director Tom O’Connor. “I would hope that the West Fertilizer plant explosion will cause us to reconsider those priorities.”

Will West Texas cause a radical reorientation in public policies about dangerous workplaces? Sadly, it is unlikely. When President Obama spoke at a memorial service for the West Texas victims, he didn’t so much as mention workplace safety. Members of Congress are calling for investigations into the West Texas disaster, but activists are pessimistic that we will see significant policy changes.

Our government, like Bangladesh’s, and like the owners of both these workplaces and the corporations associated with them, have blood on their hands. More inaction will only lead to more blood being needlessly spilled. But few people in power seem to care.


About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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5 Responses to How can we prevent Bangladesh and West Texas-style workplace disasters?

  1. eslkevin says:

    Death in Bangladesh and Texas: Will bottom-feeder industries and their corporate customers ever put people over profits?

    (A late 19th century sweatshop in the garment industry)

    How many tragedies will it take before the bottom-feeders of the global economy stop their relentless, immoral search for the world’s cheapest wages and decide that fair labor costs and safe working conditions are a part of doing business?

    When textile workers stood up against their bosses in New England and joined unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s, the industry packed its bags and moved to the U.S. South, where a new generation of oligarchs had succeeded antebellum plantation owners and promised a climate that may be post-slavery but not post-slave wages.

    After six decades of what North Carolina mill worker Eva Bradshaw once described to me as being “just dollar bills to them, not humans,” the South’s textile workers also stood up and joined the Textiles Workers’ Union of the America and its later emanation, the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

    Aided by the North American Free Trade Agreement and other government intervention on behalf of Big Business, the textile and garment industries’ response was to pack their bags and move south to Mexico, where instead of paying a veteran Carolina mill hand $11 an hour it could get a Mexican worker for $1.47 an hour.

    Then when Communist China decided that a capitalist underbelly works quite well with an authoritative regime that mouths Marx but tolerates little or no dissent among the proletariat, the textile and garment industries said, “Hmmmmmmmm.”

    Chinese workers earn a mere 64 cents an hour, industry leaders noticed, and soon their factories were off on the Orient Express of New Liberalism!

    Then those pesky Chinese workers started complaining. After all, they were living in the last bastion of the “workers’ paradise”, right? Protests, strikes and walkouts became regular events along southeast China’s industrial corridor in the 2000s. Finally Communist Party leaders realized they had to stop the constant turnover of Marx, Lenin and Mao in their graves and do something about workers’ demands. For example, increase wages and let workers elect their own union leaders instead of having the government appoint a factory manager to wear both hats.

    That wasn’t welcome news to the gypsy textile and garment factories. So next stop: Bangladesh, which now ranks only behind China in the garment business, a country where the typical garment worker earns the equivalent of $37 a month.

    That’s why it should be a surprise to no one that yet another horror has been dealt workers in these industries. A poorly built, eight-story structure that housed multiple garment factories in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed this week, killing at least 275 and injuring many more. An unknown number of people remain trapped.

    According to Bangladesh reports, workers were told to go to work despite the discovery of cracks in the building the day before the collapse.

    Just last November, 112 workers were killed after a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They burned to death in a building without fire exits. The factory produced apparel for Walmart and Sam’s Club as well as Sears, Disney, Sean Combs’ Enyce and other Western companies.

    Walmart and the Sears Holding Corp. have thus far opted out of joining a group of companies that have pledged to compensate victims of the Tazreen fire. In fact, Walmart apparently took a lead role in 2011 in opposing an effort to have companies step forward and fund improved safety measures among their suppliers in the South Asian garment industry.

    An estimated 700 workers have died in Bangladesh factories since 2005.

    Of course, the textile and garment industries don’t have a monopoly on poorly monitored plants that endanger the lives of workers. This became clear in Texas last week with the explosion of a plant owned by the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. The explosion killed 14 and injured more than 160.

    Labor writer Mike Elk has reported that the plant had no sprinklers, fire alarms and shut-off valves but it did have “1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate.”

  2. eslkevin says:

    Union: Proposed Texas pension changes break promise to public employees

    Members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 staged a mass call-in to protest the lowering of their pension and health care benefit proposed by two bills that were recently passed out of the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee and House Pension Committee.

    The two bills–CSHB 1882 and CSHB 1884–increase the age at which teachers, other public school employees, state employees, and higher education employees can retire with full benefits, substantially reduce pensions for those who retire when they reach a combination of 80 years of age and service but are younger than 62 years old, raise the employee pension contribution rate, and increase the number of years used to calculate the average final salary, which will lower most people’s pension benefit.

    CSHB 1884 also establishes tiered health care benefits for retirees. Only those retirees with at least 20 years of service would get full health care premium coverage. Those with less service would pay a percentage of their premium.

    The bills would provide a modest cost of living raise for retirees who have been retired for at least 20 years when and if the state’s two largest pension funds–TRS for teachers, public school employees, and public higher education employees, and ERS for state employees–are deemed to be fully funded.

    The two bills also increase the state’s contribution to the two pension funds.

    “A cost of living increase someday, maybe for some retirees and at least some increased state contribution now are both good, but they are not worth this bill’s extreme costs that are disproportionately at the expense of current and future employees and retirees,” said Reuben Leslie, a TSEU member. “The better way would be to invest some of the state’s budget surplus to fund a sustainable system that benefits the public and those who serve it.”

    In an email to members, TSEU organizing coordinator Seth Hutchinson, urged members to phone their legislators and tell them to oppose CSHB 1882 and CSHB 1884. He also said that the key to protecting pensions, health care benefits, and improving wages is to get fellow workers who aren’t union members to join TSEU and TSEU’s political action committee, COPE.

    Hutchinson said that CSHB 1882 and CSHB 1884 break a promise to employees. “Up until now, current state employees believed that they enter into an agreement with the state when hired, which is that if they committed their careers to public service that the state would ensure that they receive a decent pension when they retire,” said Hutchinson. “Both these bills change all that by restructuring active state employees’ pension funds.”

    Derrick Osobase, TSEU’s political director, said that since 2001, teachers and state employees have seen their benefits erode. Teachers had their pension benefit reduced in 2007; state employees had theirs reduced in 2009. In 2011, both saw their pension contributions increase. State employee health care benefits have been reduced twice, once in 2003 and again in 2010.

    CSHB 1882 and CSHB 1884 both demand more sacrifices from public employees at a time when the state has a budget surplus of $8.8 billion, a surplus that does not include an estimated $11.8 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

    Furthermore, both pension funds are financially sound. Both are above the 80 percent funded threshold that actuaries use to determine the financial health of a pension plan, and both have assets sufficient to pay current benefits for decades to come.

    But some right-wing groups have used the fact that the pensions aren’t 100 percent funded to declare them a danger to the state’s fiscal health. Bill King, a hedge fund operator who leads the so-called Texans for Public Pension Reform, in August 2011 told the Austin American Statesman that public pensions aren’t sustainable and that the goal of his group is to eliminate them.

    Reports to the Legislature, however, found that the two pension funds are sound and sustainable, and one of the reports said that eliminating them as King proposes would cost the state more money or result in reduced benefits.

    The reports also found that the state’s pension plans were a good deal for the public. They provide a secure retirement for hundreds of thousands of Texans at a modest cost–about 2 percent of the state budget for 2012 and 2013.

    Nevertheless, Sen. Robert Duncan, who chairs the State Affairs Committee told the Austin American Statesman that the pension cuts were needed stave off criticism from public pension opponents. He also said that accounting changes required by the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) also made the pension reductions necessary.

    But according to TSEU, a better way to address these challenges would be for the state to increase substantially its pension funding. ERS staff estimate that the state’s current contribution to the ERS pension is about 0.046 percent of the budget. Raising the contribution to a higher percentage that would lead toward full funding would raise the ERS pension contribution percent of budget to only 0.065 percent.

    Sen. Duncan also told the Statesman that the state has under funded the pension fund over the last two decades. For much of this time, the state contributed only the 6 percent minimum required by the Texas Constitution.

    TSEU members are urging lawmakers to keep their promise to public employees and provide the funds needed to make up for two decades of inadequate pension funding. “Tell your legislator that it’s unfair to cut pensions when funds are available to fund it,” said Hutchinson. “They need to keep the promise made to us when we started working for the state.”

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