Disaster strikes in Bangladesh as greed trumps worker safety

2— Pope Francis, at a Mass on Wednesday.

Pope Francis, who has been the leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics for just over a month, was speaking for all fair-minded, decent human beings in lashing out at the greed that caused the deaths of more than 400 Bangladesh garment workers when a building they were working in collapsed.

The disaster last week in Savar, on the outskirts of the capital city Dhaka, once again focused attention on the poverty-stricken nation and the produce-at-all-costs mentality that prevails in the garment industry that employs millions of workers and brings in more than a $20 billion in revenue.

But as the collapse of the illegally constructed eight-story building clearly demonstrates, the workers who earn about $38 a month — but are expected to churn out thousands of garments — are considered expendable.

There were five factories in the building, and although the owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, was told of cracks in the concrete, he insisted it was safe. Rana, who is politically connected and considered one of the most powerful men in Bangladesh, was arrested Sunday near the border with India.

He will be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work.

If this were an isolated incident it would be still be a shock to the senses. However, just five month ago, more than 100 garment workers were killed when a fire swept a building and the escape routes had been sealed shut.

Then, as now, the spotlight is on the government, which stands accused of not enforcing the very lenient building codes that are on the books and not imposing workplace-safety rules that are common in many developed countries.

Bangladesh has suffered mightily from natural disasters and, unfortunately, the people struggling to survive are the ones in harm’s way.

The garment industry supplies global retailers, who respond with just the right amount of sympathy and caring when disaster strikes.

But, the retailers, aware of the growing public sentiment against sweatshops in Third World countries, are also quick to distance themselves from the factories that are not their suppliers.

The Disney Company has already stopped buying clothing made in Bangladesh.

Britain’s Primark acknowledged that it was using a factory in Rana Plaza, but others, such as Wal-Mart, said none of their clothing had been authorized to be made in the facility.

Safe working conditions

Seeing as how Bangladesh is the third largest garment producer after China and Italy, all retailers have a responsibility to ensure that working conditions are safe.

As Pope Francis said in reaction to the 400 deaths and hundreds of injuries from the Rana Square disaster, only looking at personal profit “goes against God.”

And there is a lot of profit to be made, given the demand for cheap apparel worldwide.

Unfortunately, greed has become the guiding principle in Bangladesh and other poor countries, where business owners and government officials enjoy a cozy relationship that renders meaningless the laws on the books meant to protect workers.

The government in Dhaka can restore its credibility by seeking an international inspection of all the garment factories to determine if they are safe, and a review of the building codes to ensure that worker safety is a priority.

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