Sat, May 04, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Economic exploitation spills blood

The recent fertilizer plant explosion in Texas and the factory collapse in Bangladesh were not natural disasters, but the avoidable consequence of poor industrial management and a global economy in dangerous flux

By Deborah Orr  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Whether it is an explosion at a fertilizer factory in the US, or the collapse of a factory building in Bangladesh, industrial catastrophe tends to be reported almost as if it is a natural disaster.

An individual carrying out a mass shooting or planting a bomb — that is news, that is blameworthy, that is deserving of justice for the victims. However, when business is the culprit, finger-pointing is deemed less important. Which is odd, in a way.

Humanity may never quite be fully able to say which disturbed and angry people are truly dangerous, but good management of industrial risk is eminently achievable.

An explosion at West Fertilizer Co in Texas last month killed 14 people and injured many others. Just a terrible accident that could not have been foreseen?

Perhaps, but the factory had been fined by US regulators last year for its sloppy safety arrangements, eventually coughing up just US$5,250.

In 2006, the factory was investigated after an “odor complaint.”

It was found to have been using controlled materials without authorization. The filing of an application to use the dangerous substances legally instead of illegally resolved the issue.

In retrospect, these interventions by regulators seem pretty paltry, although the reasons for the accident has not yet been ascertained.

Nevertheless, the factory’s parent company, Adair Grain Inc, has been sued by insurance companies on behalf of a number of individuals, in a lawsuit that claims the company “was negligent in the operation of its facility, creating an unreasonably dangerous condition which led to the fire and explosion.”

The collapse of an eight-story clothing factory in Dhaka last week is a much greater disaster, with the death toll now more than 500. Estimates suggest that there may have been as many as 5,000 workers in the building.

Witnesses say they had been told to return to work after reporting that a crack had appeared in one of the walls. One cannot help wondering whether the building had simply never been built to withstand the weight of 5,000 people and their machinery.

Clearly, no heed had been paid by management to the deaths of 112 workers in a garment factory fire in a nearby suburb, Ashulia, in November last year. A day of mourning for the dead was declared in Dhaka, but a few months on, a bigger disaster with greater casualties has occurred. This time, a day of mourning was declared for the entire country.

It does not take a rocket scientist to work out what is going on in Bangladesh.

It is the second-largest exporter of clothing in the world after China. The secret of success in both countries is that cheap, skilled labor turns out clothes that are of excellent quality, yet retail at sums that are peanuts in the West.

Monthly pay in the Bangladesh garment industry can be as little as US$39 a month, while US$39 can buy two or three nice outfits on the high street in Britain. The high street retailer, Primark, has confirmed that one of its suppliers worked from the building, while Matalan says it had used companies in the building in the recent past.

Again, no surprise.

Pressure groups have been trying to name and shame Western suppliers into driving up health and safety standards among workers in the developing world for decades, with some success, but not as much as they would like to see.

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