Made in Bangladesh: Greed, Globalization and the Dhaka Tragedy, Part 1

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Hauke Goos and Ralf Hoppe,  July 5, 2013 (Photo Gallery 1: How Demand for Cheap Clothes Turned Deadly, Photo Gallery 2: Life as a Bangladeshi Factory WorkerTranslated from the German by Christopher Sultan).

On April 24, a textile factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing over 1,100. A government investigator has presented his results to SPIEGEL. They tell a harrowing story of a disaster caused by greed and the pressures of globalization.  

On the morning of April 24, 2013, at about 8:45 a.m., the Rana Plaza, a nine-story building housing factories and offices, collapsed in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. More than 3,500 people were in the building at the time, and 1,129 died in the wreckage. Mainuddin Khandaker, a senior official at the Ministry of Home Affairs, began his investigation that evening.

Six weeks later, Khandaker is sitting in a carved wooden armchair in his living room. A soft-spoken man in his early 60s who wears gold-rimmed glasses, he lives in Dhaka’s government district. It’s been dark outside for a while, and a single fluorescent tube, surrounded by fluttering moths, is the only light in the room. Khandaker is balancing a bowl of dark berries on his knees.

In the last few years, he has investigated more than 40 cases of factories that either collapsed or burnt down. But none of those accidents approached the scale of Rana Plaza, the biggest industrial accident in the country’s history. The 493-page report Khandaker wrote contains witness statements, photos and structural engineering calculations. It will probably remain under lock and key. An investigative report on the textile industry has never been published in Bangladesh, he says.

Khandaker goes into the next room and returns with a stack of paper, the summary. He eats a berry from the bowl and carefully spits the seed onto the saucer. “Time pressure, lots of money, a lack of scruples and greed — everything came together on that day,” he says.

Dhaka, Basti Madjipur, April 24, 5:30 a.m.: … //

… Dhaka, Madjipur Bazar Road, Rana Plaza, 7:30 a.m.:

A few hundred people had gathered in front of Rana Plaza. Mohammed Badul, the man who was saving for a barber shop, was there, and so were Fahima and Abu Said, the couple that doesn’t even own a mattress. They were afraid. Their shift was to begin in half an hour — that is, if it began at all.

Rana Plaza was taller than the surrounding buildings, with lower floors that were sided with a reflective blue glass material. Eight floors were already occupied, and construction had recently begun on a ninth. The words “Rana Plaza” were written in decorative letters above the entrance.

A branch of Brac Bank was on the second floor, and a sign indicating that the bank was closed had been hanging on the door since the day before. Not a good sign, Fahima thought to herself.

There were 10 million taka in the bank vault. The bank employees were in such a hurry to get to a safe place that they had left the money behind.

Sohel Rana was standing at the entrance, talking insistently to the factory owners. He told them that a few cracks were nothing to fear, and that someone would take care of the problem. On the previous day, managers had shut down all five textile factories and sent home some 3,500 people — including Fahima, Mohammed Badul and the two sisters, Shefali and Shirin — in the middle of the day. Then experts came and inspected the cracks.

Could the shift begin? Or was the building beyond repair? Many people were sent to their deaths because Rana was the person who ended up making that decision.

Born in Dhaka after his father moved there in the early 1980s, Rana grew up in the city, where he attended the Adhar Chandra High School. “Making money was the most important thing to him,” says Khandaker, the investigator. To achieve his goal, Rana bought some land.

When he was mapping out his career, Dhaka was already a sprawling city. Hundreds of thousands migrated there from the countryside each year, and new factories were constantly being built. These workers needed housing, and the manufacturers needed production facilities.

Rana’s father had property early on, and his son bought more. It was swampy land, which meant that it was cheap. Rana had the swamp filled with sand and garbage, and in 2007, he began the construction of a multistory building there. Rana Plaza was to be the beginning of a great career.

Normally, the approval of six government agencies is required to build a factory in Bangladesh: the Ministry of Industries, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the office of fire safety and civil protection, the office of the environment, the Board of Investment, and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Rana circumvented these requirements by declaring the plaza as an office and retail building. He used his father’s contacts and donated money to the campaign of a member of parliament to get it approved. That’s how the Bangladeshi system works. A country growing as quickly as Bangladesh can’t spend too much time on regulations. Once a building has been erected and is filled with machines and people working to bring money into the country, no one asks about permits.

Rana opened the building in 2008. It had been built hastily with thin subfloors, and the bricklayers had apparently never built such a tall building before. Too much sand was added to the concrete, and the ground was too soft – all problems that investigator Khandaker would later discover.
(full text).

Part 2: Dhaka, Rana Plaza, 7:55 a.m.;

Part 3: Dhaka, Rana Plaza, Late Afternoon.

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