The death toll in Bangladesh has topped 200 after an eight-story garment factory building collapsed with thousands of workers inside. More than 1,000 people were injured, and an unknown number of workers are still trapped in the wreckage. Cracks had been found in the building, but workers say the factory owners forced them to go to work anyway. Protests broke out in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka today as angry workers blocked key highways, marched on several factories, and rallied outside the headquarters of Bangladesh’s main manufacturers group. The disaster comes exactly five months after a massive fire killed at least 112 garment workers at Bangladesh’s Tazreen factory, which made clothing sold by Wal-Mart, among other companies. We’re joined by two guests: Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Charlie Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show looking at Bangladesh, where around 200 people died Wednesday after an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed near the capital Dhaka. More than a thousand people were injured. An unknown number of workers are still trapped in the wreckage. Most of the dead were young female garment workers. Cracks had been found in the building on Tuesday, but workers say the factory owners forced them to go to work anyway.
RIA BEGUM: [translated] We didn’t want to go up in the factory this morning, but the management forced us to go up and said there was no problem with the building. Just after that, I sat at my table to work, and the building just collapsed. I couldn’t even leave. I was trapped at my table.
JWEEL ISLAM: [translated] I started my work at 8:00 this morning. At about 9:30, I suddenly heard a strange sound, and I saw the building was collapsing. I then ran through a stairwell and jumped down. I lost consciousness, but I was rescued by others.
HALIMA KHATOON: [translated] Inside at about 9:10 a.m., the building collapsed, and we were trapped inside since then and up to now. It is 10:18 p.m. Eleven hours, we were trapped. We did not want to enter the building, but the owners pushed us to get in and work.
AMY GOODMAN: Protests broke out today in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Angry workers have blocked key highways today, marched on several factories, and rallied outside the headquarters of Bangladesh’s main manufacturers group in Dhaka.
The disaster comes exactly five months after a massive fire killed at least 112 garment workers at Bangladesh’s Tazreen factory, which made clothing sold by Wal-Mart, among other companies.
We’re joined now by two guests. Kalpona Akter is with us. She’s executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, started work in garment factories when she was 12 years old. She is usually in Bangladesh but currently in the United States to call on retailers like Wal-Mart, The Gap and Disney to take the lead in improving working conditions in Bangladesh. And Charlie Kernaghan is with us, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, which has an office in nearby Dhaka. His group identified Children’s Place and Cato as among the clients of the collapsed factory.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Kalpona. I mean, the workers had refused to go to work. Then they were told if they didn’t show up the next day, that they would lose their jobs?
KALPONA AKTER: Yes. That, workers had been told. On Tuesday, when workers saw the crack in the building, they denied to work, so they left the factory in the afternoon. But on the Wednesday morning, they were forced to go inside the factory, and someone with a hand mic said, "One crack doesn’t matter. The factory will be—there will be nothing happen." And they were forced to keep working. And after this announcement, within 30 minutes the building collapsed. And as you know, it is more than 200 died, and we are just waiting to count more bodies. We don’t know that when it will stop what number it will stop, because many of them are entrapped.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kalpona Akter, some of the press reports say that there had been a—there was a bank in the first floor of the building, as well as some other commercial establishments, that after the crack was discovered Tuesday did close down, but meanwhile the factory—the factories above the first floor stayed open? Is that accurate?
KALPONA AKTER: Yes, it was accurate. Like, the bank did move their staff, so there wasn’t any staff from the bank. And in the other stories, there was shops; those was closed. But the workers themselves, they were forced to go. And I had a chance to see a video of the building owner, who was saying, "Oh, it doesn’t matter. There is a crack only. And engineers, they came, and they said workers can work," which is a lie, which is lie. This building was totally damaged, and it wasn’t ready to work—I mean, ready to have a factory even.
AMY GOODMAN: And how large was this crack, that so many people noticed it?
KALPONA AKTER: It was large. The crack was like from fifth floor to, yeah, above to the downstairs, so it was a big crack.
AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Kernaghan, as you learn more about what has taken place in Dhaka—your organization has been working on clothing, U.S. clothing manufacturers in Dhaka now for years—explain what you understand at this point. Again, the casualty figures over 200, the numbers rising of dead, and a thousand people injured.
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Yeah, it’s been confirmed 210 deaths. There are 700 or 800 workers still trapped inside the factory. It’s 100 percent certain that the death toll is going to rise very rapidly. The workers were hearing people screaming and yelling in the morning. That lasted to about noon. Everything has gone quiet now. And the army and the government is saying they’re going to need five or even six days to really evacuate everyone. So, this is a huge tragedy that should never, ever have happened.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Charlie, could you put this, this tragedy, in context in terms of the role that Bangladesh, especially, has been playing in the world production, industrial production system over recent decades?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, Bangladesh now is the second-largest garment exporter in the world, right after China. And as a matter of fact, the Chinese garment factories are moving to Bangladesh because of the low wages, 14 cents an hour up to about 24 cents an hour. The workers are hard-working; they work 14 hours a day. They’ll work often seven days a week. Bangladesh is sacrificing all of these young women, who are just being brutalized, starvation wages. There is no right to organize in Bangladesh. There are no unions with collective contracts. Every time the workers try—like Kalpona mentioned, every time the workers try to organize, they’re beaten. They bring in gang members. They threaten them. Something has to change. And the labels, you know, like a Wal-Mart, you know, maybe they’ll pay nine cents for a garment. I mean, that’s all they care about. So, this thing is completely out of control, and unfortunately there’s so much corruption that this is a sinkhole.
AMY GOODMAN: Charlie, the companies that you understand so far have been working in this particular factory where the building collapsed?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, it was—once the building collapsed, it was impossible for workers to try to go through and find the labels, but for certain, Primark from U.K., Joe Fresh from Canada. There was definitely Children’s Place. They said maybe that was two months ago that they were in that factory. Cato, which has 13 stores—1,300 stores across the United States, they’re involved. More and more is coming in. Wal-Mart is even saying that maybe they might have had—they might have had their clothing being sown in Ether Tex, which was one of the factories in this building collapse.
And it was absolutely just as Kalpona said and the others, is the workers were told that if they didn’t go in on Wednesday to work, that they would not be paid for the month, because the owners said, "We won’t have the money to pay for the whole month, and therefore, if you don’t go to work, you will not receive any pay for a full month." Nobody in Bangladesh, no worker in Bangladesh could ever go for a full month without wages. They go from hand to mouth. So, the workers were literally put in a trap.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, three of the companies that Democracy Now! contacted about the building collapse were wary of saying they actually had products being made in the garment factories housed there. In one statement, Wal-Mart said, quote, "We are investigating across our global supply chain to see if a factory in this building was currently producing for Walmart." Another company, Children’s Place, told us, quote, "[W]hile one of the garment factories located in the building complex has produced apparel for The Children’s Place, none of our product was in production at the time of this accident." And Dress Barn said it had, quote, "not purchased any clothing from [that] facility since 2010." Your response, Charlie?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, in the chaos, and not having access to the factory, which has completely collapsed, like I said, we do know that a label in the U.K., Primark, was in that factory. We do know that Cato, a U.S. company with 1,300 stores across the United States, they definitely were there. There were Canadian companies were there, Joe Fresh label. It’s going to take a little time to get this information out. Like you said, Wal-Mart may very well have been producing in Ether Tex, which was one of the factories that collapsed. But I think it’s going to take some time. The 700, 800 workers are still trapped. And, you know, the death toll is definitely going to rise. This is going to be like so tragic for the people of Bangladesh.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask Kalpona about another issue. It’s been five months since the horrific Tazreen fire that occurred, but there have been about 30 to 40 other accidents and fires in Bangladesh, in factories, just since that tragedy five months ago. What is the government doing to be able to assure basic safety for these factory workers?
KALPONA AKTER: After the Tazreen factory fire, there was a lot of promise or commitment has given by the government, but none of them has been accomplished. And just three weeks back or four weeks back, one Bangladeshi fire action plan has been signed, typewriter-signed by the government. But, you know, the time and the component it has, it is overambitious. So, literally, there is—no development has been done after the Tazreen fire which can prevent this death.
And in addition to the retailers, what Charlie was saying, I just wanted to mention there was another retailer from Italy. It’s called Benetti—Benetton, and they have retail stores in here. And these who—those logos of the labels we found, my colleagues has found, in the factory under the rubble, these retailers cannot just wash their hand and say, "We didn’t do production there." They have responsibility. They cannot just go away from this responsibility and say that "We didn’t sew, or we didn’t produce, make clothes in this factory."
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about a comment of Matthew Yglesias, the business and economics correspondent for Slate.com. He wrote a piece Wednesday called "Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That’s OK." He wrote, quote, "Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer," unquote. Your response, each of you, before we go to break?
KALPONA AKTER: OK. My response is, in Bangladesh, we really have—we already have some rules and regulation for safety which is not complied, because these factory owners are so strong. Ten percent of our legislators, of them, are the factory owners. So, literally, these laws doesn’t work, which is the reason that we are calling all these retailers to sign the legally binding Bangladeshi—for the Bangladeshi garment factories to sign the fire and building safety code agreement, which already been signed by PVH, like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and also Tchibo from Italy. I know there is differences in terms of the rules and regulation between U.S. and Bangladesh, which is OK. But, you know, whatever rules and regulation we have, that has to be complied.
AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Kernaghan?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, they have to do with an enormous amount of corruption across Bangladesh, including the government, but especially the garment factories. This is a deadly situation. The workers are going to have to have the right to organize a union. They’re going to have to have a voice. They’re going to have to be able to bargain collectively. Right now I would say the situation is completely out of control, and there are no rights that the workers are receiving. And this is just a spiral to the bottom, and it’s led by the big retailers like the Wal-Marts, that just all they want is to suck the blood out of these workers and pay them the lowest amount possible. Something has to change, and I think the American people, as we’re one of the largest recipients of these garments, we have to stand up and say enough is enough. These are young women. These are all young women, actually, in this factory, 18, 19 years old, that have been killed and that are trapped. This has to stop.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion, and we’ll be joined by one of the survivors of the Tazreen factory fire that made clothes for Wal-Mart and other companies. Charlie Kernaghan is our guest. He is with the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. And we’re joined by Kalpona Akter, well-known Bangladeshi activist. She’s with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. We’ll be back with them in a moment.