Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

Bangladesh is a country prone to natural disasters. Due to its location on a low-lying delta, Bangladesh sees more than its share of hurricanes and floods. However, last Wednesday, April 24, the country saw one of its worst man-made disasters. The collapse of an eight-story shoddy garment factory in suburban Dhaka, the capital city, killed over 375 workers. More than 500 people were still unaccounted for at the end of the past weekend.

The collapse happened while the factory was in operation Wednesday morning. While it is unclear how many workers were in the building at the time, the factory houses 3,122 employees. Despite the high death toll, rescuers, working day and night through heat, humidity and the occasional thunderstorm, pulled out dozens of survivors as late as Saturday and Sunday.

The rescuers drilled 25 narrow holes in the rubble to reach survivors. They formed a human chain to remove debris from the building. Any dead bodies discovered were brought to a nearby high school, where families waited anxiously for news of their loved ones. Victims who could not be immediately rescued received water bottles, food and even oxygen cylinders.

As the days dragged on and the probability of finding survivors dwindled to zero, rescuers began using heavier equipment to more quickly clean up the rubble. The use of heavy equipment was met with resistance from family members of missing workers, who protested for a longer rescue operation.

On Tuesday, large cracks and missing concrete appeared in the structure of the building and local police ordered an evacuation. A bank and some shops on the ground floor complied. The garment factories in the upper floors ignored the order after the building’s owner Mohammed Sohel Rana guaranteed the safety of the structure despite the top three floors of the building having been built illegally.

Rana ran away from authorities after the collapse. He was arrested near the Indian border in West Bengal state on Saturday. Authorities also arrested three other owners of two factories operating in the building. In addition, two government engineers, Imtemam Hossain and Alam Ali, who were involved in approving the building’s construction, have also been detained.

The Bengali government has responded swiftly to the tragedy, promising to bring building owners to justice, a call echoed by demonstrators in the streets of Dhaka.

“It is not an accident, it is a killing incident,” said Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu. “All, including owners and administrative officials concerned, must be put on the dock for the killing of people.”

Bangladesh’s Secretary for Housing and Public Works pledged to set up a government agency to monitor building code and safety compliances.

The garment and textile industry is a backbone of the Bengali economy. Third in the world after that of China and Italy, the industry brings in $20 billion per year. Working conditions are poor for workers and wages are low. Most of the products from Bengali factories eventually make their way to stores in western countries. So far, only Primark has said that it was receiving products from a factory in the collapsed building.

Frequent disasters in Bangladesh like this one have drawn attention to the plight and vulnerability of factory workers and the gross negligence of safety regulations. In November 2012, a fire in a factory claimed 112 lives. Also in suburban Dhaka, a building collapse in 2005 killed over 70 people.