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A fire in a Bangladesh factory last Thursday killed at least 52, some of them children as young as 11 years of age, according to relatives and neighbours. “Emergency services told Al Jazeera they had recovered 49 of the bodies at the Hashem Food and Beverage factory in Rupganj, an industrial town 25km (15 miles) east of the capital, Dhaka. Three people also died after jumping out of the building.” The police chief of Narayanganj district in which the factory was located, Jayedul Alam, was quoted saying that multiple fire and safety regulations had been breached and that, at the time of the fire, the entrance/ exit had been padlocked, the latter also confirmed by firefighters.
Those who died were workers, part of the world-wide slaughter of workers to satisfy the greed of a few. Every second, every minute of every day, all over the world, workers are killed or mutilated by the capitalist system in accidents at work. They are “accidents” only in the sense that the employers in most cases did not deliberately set out to kill the workers – they merely required them to work in conditions and without precautions that risked – no, ensured — accidents would happen. In fact, as a safety blog writer recommended (see Sources), we should stop calling them accidents – let’s call them mishaps instead, incidents that could have been avoided. And a proportion of those mishaps that were bound to occur would be fatal.
Those left behind to mourn a sibling, parent, partner, friend or – heavens above – a child, are of the workers also. Gone too, an income, a precarious investment in survival. The ripples of the “accident” spread outward through family and worker neighbourhood, ripples that very rarely, if ever, reach the rich neighbourhoods, the place where live those who profit from those workplaces.
From time to time here in the “western world” or the “North” as this sector, more in economic terms than political is variously described, we hear of such disasters in the “other” world, such as that at Rana Plaza in 2013. These are the places around the world where smaller-to-medium local capitalism is at work alongside foreign mega-capitalism. Many of the brand-name products we consume, wear or use are manufactured or processed in those countries. For the capitalists to make the profits their system requires and to compete with one another, consumption needs to be high and therefore the prices to be relatively low. And the wages – much, much lower. And safety conditions? Negligible.
In November 2012 a blaze at Tazreen Fashions in Dhaka, which makes clothes for foreign clients including C&A, Walmart, Sears, Disney and others, killed 112 workers. Commenting on the background to the disaster, in a Guardian article in 2012, journalist Scott Nova, (see Sources) stated:
“In the last two years, fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan have taken the lives of nearly 500 apparel workers, at plants producing for Gap, H&M, JC Penney, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, the German retailer KiK and many others”. Nova went on to comment (in 2012): Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest apparel producer. It did not attain that status by achieving high levels of productivity, or a strong transportation infrastructure; it got there by being the rock-bottom cheapest place to make clothing.
“This derives from three factors: the industry’s lowest wages (a minimum apparel wage of 18 cents an hour), ruthless suppression of unions and a breathtaking disregard for worker safety. The industry in Bangladesh has been handsomely rewarded for its cost-cutting achievements, with an ever-rising flood of business from western brands …… And local factory owners understand that if they do not continue to offer the lowest possible prices, those brands will be quick to leave.”
Added to that is the apparel industry’s indulgence in “fast fashion”, in order to boost consumption still further. No longer is the year divided into four seasons but “52 micro-seasons”. “Fast fashion giants H&M and Forever 21 receive new garment shipments every day. Topshop features 400 new styles every week, while Zara releases 20,000 designs annually” (see Green America link in Sources). To keep up with that demand requires a frenetic level of production, albeit at lower quality, layoffs when each ‘micro-seasonal” demand is filled and of course, even less concern with safety conditions. The factory fire last Thursday is only the latest in a long list and there will be many more.
But lest we think industrial mishaps are a problem only somewhere else, it would be useful to remind ourselves that even in our relatively under-industrialised economy in Ireland, workplace accidents continue to maim and kill. According to the Irish state’s Health & Safety Authority: “Regrettably, 47 fatal work-related accidents were reported to the Authority in 2019, representing a substantial increase from 2018, which was the lowest year on record with 39 fatal accidents. … The number of work-related non-fatal injuries also increased in 2019, with 9,335 reported to the Authority.” And: “the 39 fatalities recorded in 2018 was one of the lowest numbers of workplace fatalities on records. However, despite the current pandemic circumstances, it would appear that 2020 is heading for number in the mid to late 40s.”
As we may imagine, construction comes high on the mishap list but so also do factories, agricultural work, transport and fishing and mishaps occur also in hospitals and care homes, shops, restaurants and even offices. The Covid19 pandemic revealed that many areas of occupation are necessary for our daily lives but are also vulnerable. And revealed also how slowly and inefficiently protective measures for those workers were taken by their management levels or sadly, enforced or even monitored by trade unions.
IMPUNITY OR CRIMINAL PENALTY?
It is reported that the owner of the burned Bangladeshi factory and a number of his sons have been arrested. This is to be welcomed and hopefully the prosecution of those responsible will be followed through. Prosecution of employers responsible for mishaps is one measure that can be taken to extend the protection of workers but the process is rarely in the hands of the workers and in addition deals with structures that are more aligned with the interests of employers than they are with those of their workers.
Such procedures that have been tried have usually been under civil1 law and involved claims for financial compensation alleging negligence; however increasingly criminal law is being invoked, as is presumably the case with the Bangladeshi factory.
Years ago I was associated with a militant organisation by the name of The Construction Safety Campaign.2 If I recall correctly, at the time, one worker was being killed every week on a construction site in Britain, with injuries on a daily basis.
The CSC maintained that every time a fatality occurred on a construction site, work should cease for the whole day. It is indicative of the attitude of the big construction companies and indeed of many subcontractors that such a demand actually required voicing.
Among their other demands was that whenever there was such a fatality, that the main contractor be charged with manslaughter, i.e the crime of being responsible for an unintended fatality through action or inaction. Such a demand was very reasonable but was seen as almost revolutionary at the time. But a few years later a construction company boss did indeed stand trial for manslaughter and, although he was acquitted, a precedent had been set. However it remained a difficult process to even have the employer charged, to say nothing of convicted.
It was not until 2008 that legislation was specifically enacted to facilitate the charging of companies when individual company directors proved difficult to charge with manslaughter in the event of fatalities in their workplaces. The first case under the new legislation took place in 2009 and the sole company director in this case was also charged separately under common law with manslaughter. Seeing alleged culpability of the employer in this case, that he had required a geologist to work in an unshored trench deeper than his own height which, when collapsed, suffocated the geologist, reminded me of the claim of the defendants in the Shrewsbury 24 trials arising out of the 1972 construction strike.3
CONTINUING SLAUGHTER? 6,000 DEATHS A DAY.
“The ILO (International Labour Organisation) estimates that some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year; this corresponds to over 6000 deaths every single day. Worldwide, there are around 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses annually.” (see Sources)
Capitalism kills. It kills and maims millions of workers by workplace mishaps, overwork, diseases, psychological stresses, environmental disasters – and let’s not forget wars.
Revolution, we are often cautioned, is chaotic and entails death and injury to many – most of which will be workers, whether in the revolutionary forces, or enlisted by the system, or in one way or another swept into the casualty figures. This is all true. But Revolution killing as many as capitalism? Hardly. And after successful Revolution, production can be organised to eliminate mishaps and unhealthy working conditions. At least, with the mechanisms in the hands of the workers, they have the possibility of removing workplaces from danger or, where danger might be inevitable, to reduce it greatly. Industrial mishaps, let’s not forget, are avoidable.
While we work for revolution and a society under the control of the workers, we have a duty to ourselves and to our dependents to work to reduce the occurrence of mishaps. We can do this by improving conditions and prevention in our own workplaces, by reporting health and safety violations elsewhere to the relevant authorities and by demanding reparations and improvements from the companies whose products we consume through their use of production facilities abroad – such as firetrap sweatshops4.
Under legislation in Ireland and the UK, workers are entitled to elect health and safety representatives, with which management are obliged to consult. These may be coincidentally representatives of a trade union but they need not be even union members – the legal right to health and safety representation is separate from the question of trade union representation. Of course, raising issues of concern that would cost the management time and money to address may necessitate the H&S representatives to ensure they have trade union protection, legislation notwithstanding.
In a workplace years ago, wishing for a period of relative calm, I declined nomination as trade union shop steward and instead accepted that of staff health and safety representative. Quite quickly I found myself in more arguments with local management than the union representative needed to be and across the organisation too, as I pushed for Risk Assessments to be carried out, as we had done in my workplace, examining every operation. The organisation’s Health & Safety Committee agreed the need for the assessments but failed to push for them and unfortunately so did the trade union itself. Health and Safety representatives may find themselves struggling not only with Management but also with their own trade union structures (and at times with their own co-workers). Nevertheless, comprehensive workplace risk assessments are the only reasonable way to avoid or limit mishaps.
Practice fire procedures or drills are necessary too. In another workplace, this time as a manager myself, we made recorded fire checks on every shift and stepped up fire drills from every six months to monthly, from always announced to some unannounced. Who would remember was required after six months? Had there been changes in the building, procedures or staff since the lat exercise? On one of our early drills, the observer we had detailed to follow with checklist and notepad found problems that had never been recorded previously and which required our team to take remedial measures. On the occasion of another drill, I learned that the front entrance had been used instead of the emergency exit. Investigation revealed that in the passage way towards that emergency exit, one of the staff had placed his bicycle for safe-keeping – and he was the staff health and safety representative!
The election of workers’ representatives and the monitoring of their performance in those roles is the responsibility of the workers, not management. All I could do was to instruct the person to remove the bicycle and to make all staff aware that the placing of any obstruction in the emergency exit passage way was a serious disciplinary offence.
As most of us around the world are workers, it is necessary for us to express internationalist solidarity towards one another. Note I said “necessary”, not just desirable. When our labour power is at the mercy of employers who move factories around the world, or contract factories anywhere they find sufficiently profitable, our gains in separate countries can be undermined, we can be undercut and made unemployed. The effective response to these threats lies in internationalist solidarity, so that we assist workers in other lands in their organisation and we target their exploiters when we find them nearby.
In 2015 I joined a picket of major French clothing company Benetton’s shop in the Stephens Green Shopping Centre, Dublin. We also did a sit-in inside the shop, defying threatening behaviour of the Centre’s security staff and likewise the threat to call the police. A subsequent picket and sit-in also took place (see Sources). Benetton was one of the many foreign companies exploiting the workers of Rana Plaza and, after the disaster there, had promised to pay financial compensation to the relatives of the workers killed there. Such offers are often made in similar situations for public relation reasons, usually without admitting culpability. At the time their store in Dublin was picketed, Benetton had still not paid the compensation promised two years earlier.
In contrast to fascists and other racists who advocate protecting our own native workforce above all else, we should extend solidarity to all other workers who are being exploited. When all workers are achieving protection from the worst working conditions and lowest wages, it will be that much harder for our employers to use one section against another. In the past, our employers in every business, industry, city or country tried to treat with us as individual workers but we found that banding together was the only way to improve our conditions and remuneration for all. Internationalist solidarity is the application of that lesson on an international level — the same level as that on which our exploiters operate.
1 Civil law deals with matters like company law, family law, personal injury cases, libel and slander. A number of penalties including financial damages can be imposed and awarded by the judiciary in such cases but not prison terms (however failure to comply with penalties imposed can result in imprisonment for “contempt of court”).
2 I got a bit of a scare when attending one of the CSC’s pickets which was of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, prior to a meeting inside booked by an MP and which we were going to attend. As we went through the security sensors, the construction worker I had been talking to set off the sensor alarms. As we were both political activists and I was Irish in Britain at a time of IRA bombings there, this made me very nervous. The construction worker began pulling nails and screws out of his pockets and piling them into a tray while I grinned nonchalantly at the security police. His pockets emptied, he went through again – and set the alarms off once more. I was sure we were going to be taken into a room and strip-searched. However, once they ascertained that it was the steel toecaps in his construction boots that were setting off the alarms, we were allowed through, me wanting to punch my comrade a number of times.
3 During their trial for alleged intimidation in flying pickets from construction site to site during the 1972 construction strike in Britain, some of the Shrewsbury 24 gave evidence that among the violation of health and safety regulations they had witnessed at sites they had picketed was workers being obliged to work in unshored trenches deeper than their own height. Twenty-four construction trade unionists were charged with serious crimes as a result of their activism during the strike and twenty-two were convicted across three trials in 1973 and 1974 with six, including the later actor Ricky Tomlinson, being sentenced to years in prison. The convictions of all 22 were overturned on appeal earlier this year but a number had died in the intervening years.
4. In view of the reality, it is shocking that a fashion clothing company should call itself, even in some attempt at irony, “Firetrap”. This company is now part of the Fraser Group, with factories in much of the world producing clothing, in particular sports wear. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firetrap
Recent Bangladesh factory fire: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/10/murder-bangladesh-factory-owner-held-after-deadly-fire
Rana Plaza disaster 2013: https://www.corpwatch.org/article/benetton-others-tied-bangladesh-factory-disaster-400-killed
Number of other factory fire disasters: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/13/apparel-industry-outsourcing-garment-workers-bangladesh
Dublin Benetton picket and sit-in:
First case under (2008) UK law on corporate manslaughter: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/jun/17/mudslide-corporate-manslaughter-charge
Shrewsbury Twenty-Four: https://www.thejournal.ie/shrewsbury-24-ruling-ricky-tomlinson-5389409-Mar2021/
Health & Safety worker representation: Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act (2005): https://www.hsa.ie/eng/Topics/Safety_Representatives_and_Consultation_/