The death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh swelled to more than 1,000 workers, cementing its place among a grisly lineup of the world’s worst industrial disasters and reinforcing calls that the tragedy lead to lasting change.
The casualties in Bangladesh are greater than in the infamous Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York or the Texas City, Texas, ship explosion that ranks as the deadliest in the U.S., and move the collapse into a virtual tie with the worst such catastrophe in Europe.
Whether the Rana Plaza disaster leads to new rules may depend on companies and governments in the U.S. and Europe because Bangladesh itself lacks a strong union presence, said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“What took place in the factory in Bangladesh was unspeakably horrific,” said Shaiken, who focuses in part on labor history. “The horror was so extreme that I think it will galvanize the possibility of change. It doesn’t mean it will happen, but we can point to historic moments where tragedies of this scale led to change.”
The death toll has been mounting rapidly since the Bangladeshi army has been retrieving bodies from the rubble of the eight-story building that came crashing down on April 24. At least 1,045 were killed and more than 2,000 people were pulled alive out of the wreckage, sometimes after amputations.
The owner of the building, where garments were made for Loblaw Cos.’ Joe Fresh brand and for Associated British Foods Plc’s Primark, has been arrested, and the government has since closed 18 other factories.
Western retailers have resisted signing agreements to improve safety and work conditions in the country’s garment industry over the past two years even after numerous fatal accidents, often the result of fires. The U.S. and European Union are now considering steps to penalize Bangladesh and its manufacturers unless factory improvements are made, and the notoriety of the Rana Plaza collapse has drawn some shoppers’ ire as well, adding to the pressure.
“Without a powerful economic interest lined up behind making changes, nothing will happen,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of labor economics at New School for Social Research in New York.
After the Triangle conflagration that killed 146 in New York in 1911, insurance companies fed up with huge payouts were a primary force driving safety and occupancy protections for U.S. workers, she said. Coal miner unions were instrumental in pushing through rules that cut deaths from thousands a year in the early 1900s to 20 last year.
A 1984 leak of methyl isocyanate gas in Bhopal, India, is considered the worst industrial accident, though most of the thousands of people estimated to have been killed were residents, not workers. A 1906 mine disaster in Courrieres, France, killed more than 1,000 workers, including children, to rank as Europe’s worst industrial disaster. In the U.S. an explosion of a ship carrying fertilizer in 1947 in Texas City, Texas, killed 581 and ranks as the worst American industrial accident.
As retailers shifted more production in recent years from China and other countries to Bangladesh for its lower costs, factories grew, sometimes haphazardly, like the Rana Plaza that added floors on top of an existing building.
The dangers from poor construction, flammable materials and few safety standards were well known. A November fire at another factory killed 112 workers and an incident on May 9 in the capital Dhaka claimed at least eight lives, adding to the hundreds killed across the country in preceding years.
Retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and J.C. Penney Co., along with labor activists, have been considering an agreement to improve factory safety in Bangladesh for at least two years.
“There were companies giving the agreement the cold shoulder a month ago that suddenly became very interested in talking,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor monitoring group in Washington. None of them have yet signaled they will sign, though.
The agreement, with an estimated price tag of $3 billion spread over five years, would require companies to agree to pay more to factory owners for safety upgrades. The document calls for immediate inspections to ensure the structural safety of all factories and for the installation of fire-safe stairways.
Last year, Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp. and Tchibo GmbH, a German coffee-shop chain that sells clothes, signed with the understanding that two more companies must join the agreement before it’s enforced, he said.
An online advocacy group called Avaaz said it has 828,000 signatures on a petition and seeks to get 1 million by May 15. The petition calls for Gap Inc. and Hennes & Mauritz AB to sign the pact.
The 27-nation European Union is considering action under its trade rules. Before the building collapse, the U.S. Trade Representative was considering revoking the preferred trade status of Bangladesh because of the treatment of workers. The U.S. could take action next month.
The garment industry accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports and employs more than 3 million people, Moody’s Corp. said in a May 9 statement that called political tensions and the disasters in the industry a credit negative.
“There’s some chance that this event may be one of those tipping points like we had in the U.S. years ago with the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that joins forces between the people in Bangladesh and the Western consumers and even Western governments,” Pietra Rivoli, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said in a phone interview.
“There is a segment of consumers that care about social issues whether those are labor or environment or what have you.”
The Bhopal disaster in India prompted the U.S. to create the Chemical Safety Board and the Risk Management Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, said Paul Orum, an independent consultant who has published reports on chemical safety for the Center for American Progress in Washington. There was also an explosion at a Phillips Petroleum Co. refinery in 1989 that had an impact on the U.S. Clean Air Act provision, he said.
The full effects of a disaster aren’t always evident for years, said Berkeley’s Shaiken. One of the witnesses to the Triangle fire was a social worker named Frances Perkins, who went on to become President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Labor secretary from 1933 to 1945 and played a role in many of the labor rules in place today, he said.
“Sometimes these things take time,” he said.
Public pressure also could prompt retailers to shift production to other countries, rather than pay higher costs for improvements or risk being associated with the tarnished reputation of Bangladesh.
Walt Disney Co., the world’s largest entertainment company, removed Bangladesh in March from a list of countries where partners can produce clothing and merchandise, according to a letter to licensees. Pakistan, India, Cambodia or Vietnam are among the nations that could pick up business from Bangladesh.
Even in the U.S., attempts to improve industrial practices after catastrophes aren’t always effective. Legislation after the 2010 Massey Energy Co. collapse that killed 29 coal miners stalled in Congress. Environmentalists have been critical of the effectiveness of rules that followed the explosion of a BP Plc. drilling platform that killed 11 people that same year.
Besides governments, consumers sometimes force change, Nova said. Nike and other athletic shoemakers switched to using water-soluble glue in their shoes from more toxic alternatives under consumer pressure, he said.
The rising death toll in Bangladesh -- and the images from the disaster -- may help keep the tragedy in the public eye, Liana Foxvog, organizing director for International Labor Rights Forum, said in a phone interview.
“There is certainly a growing awareness,” Foxvoq said. “I think it comes down to a critical mass of people taking action.”