Australasian Spartacist No. 220
Capitalist Profit Drive Kills
For close to four weeks the world watched as the bodies of garment workers were pulled from the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh. On 24 April, the structure collapsed on more than 3,000 workers toiling in five sweatshops. Mostly young women, they had resisted going to work after walls in the building began to show cracks the previous day. “Management forced us to go up and said there was no problem with the building,” recounted one survivor. “Just after that, I sat at my table to work, and the building just collapsed” (Democracy Now!, 25 April).
Despite heroic efforts by firefighters and other rescue personnel to find survivors, the total number of dead is now believed to be 1,129. This toll makes the Rana Plaza disaster the worst in the history of clothing manufacture and the most deadly industrial disaster since the leak of poisonous gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984, which killed at least 20,000 and left 600,000 permanently injured or sick.
Mass protests erupted as news of the disaster spread, with hundreds of thousands of outraged workers walking out of plants in and around the capital city, Dhaka. Highways were blockaded and two factories whose bosses refused to shut down production were set ablaze. Protesters marched on the headquarters of the garment manufacturers association, chanting: “We want execution of the garment factory owners!” When police firing rubber bullets and tear gas could not quell the crowds, the industry announced on 26 April that all factories would be shut for the upcoming weekend. The Rana Plaza building owner was subsequently arrested trying to flee across the border into India.
The giant retailers who subcontract production to the Savar sweatshops—e.g., the American J.C. Penney, the French retailer Carrefour and the British Primark—expressed “shock” about the collapse and denied any complicity. But the depraved indifference exhibited by the capitalist magnates to the lives of those they exploit plumbs new depths when it comes to the semicolonial world, where the U.S. and other imperialist powers have imposed the most wretched conditions. The 5,000 factories in Bangladesh that produce garments for major North American, Australian and European brands are a cornerstone of the country’s economy. The millions of workers toiling in near-slavery in these deathtraps are paid the lowest wages in the world for that industry—as low as $37 a month, far below subsistence, even after working 15-hour shifts.
The long trail of capitalist industrial murder in Bangladesh includes an earlier building collapse in Savar that left 73 workers dead and a fire at Tazreen Fashions in nearby Ashulia last November that took more than 100 lives. At Tazreen, a source for Wal-Mart and Sears, managers blocked the stairs to keep workers at their sewing machines even as flames spread on floors below. On 8 May, a fire in a Dhaka garment factory killed eight.
Despite occasional crocodile tears, the truth of the matter is that the multinational corporations call the shots and are well aware of what it takes to produce clothing at the prices they contract for, aiming to squeeze out the maximum profit. If orders go unfilled, they pick up stakes and move elsewhere. The local bosses are simply the whip hands, lining their own pockets in the process.
To facilitate their many crimes, the garment bosses, aided by the government in Dhaka, brutally suppress unions, the only effective safeguard workers have against the rapaciousness of the capitalist profiteers. Trade unionists are banned from organising in the factories and are frequent targets of arrest, torture and killing. A key organiser of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, Aminul Islam, was murdered a year ago. As a result, labour unions are almost nonexistent in the garment plants; none of the Rana Plaza factories was unionised. Nevertheless, a number of strikes have swept the industry in recent years (see “Women Garment Workers Fight Starvation Wages,” Workers Vanguard No. 974, 18 February 2011). Now, in a purely face-saving move, the Bangladesh government has announced that workers no longer need to ask for permission (!) to organise unions in their workplaces.
Organise the Unorganised!
The industrial murder at Rana Plaza is a searing indictment of the daily workings of capitalist-imperialism. The situation cries out for union organising drives—backed in action by the labour movement internationally—demanding decent wages and working conditions. These sweatshops are the first links in a “just-in-time” global cargo chain extending all the way to the retail stores in the imperialist countries, with key choke points at the ports and in the warehouses. Coordinated solidarity action could go a long way toward advancing the cause of labour in the semicolonial world and imperialist centres alike.
The bosses have always rolled the dice with workers’ lives, writing off the human toll as just another cost of doing business. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, mainly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women who could not escape because the bosses had locked the doors to the stairwells to prevent unauthorised breaks (not unlike at Tazreen a century later). The atrocity galvanised the labour movement in the city and spurred the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Today as well, such industrial carnage should be a clarion call to organise the unorganised.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on the planet and wages and working conditions there are much, much worse than in the advanced industrial world. But everywhere, including in the imperialist countries of Europe, North America and Australia, the capitalist principle of production for profit means deaths, maiming and sickness for workers.
A week before the Bangladesh catastrophe, a fertiliser plant exploded in West, Texas on 17 April. “There was this huge wall of black smoke and people were coming out of it,” said one survivor, “it reminded me so much of 9/11.” At least 14 people were killed, mainly firefighters who were battling a blaze at the plant when an enormous cache of ammonium nitrate is reported to have blown up. The blast, which measured 2.1 on the Richter scale and dug a crater 3 metres deep and more than 28 metres wide, injured over 200 people and damaged buildings in a five-block radius.
Like Rana Plaza, this disaster was no accident but rather a testament to the murderous workings of the capitalist profit system, in which the bottom line trumps safety. West Fertilizer had been operating for years in flagrant violation of accepted safety standards. Cutting corners to save money is the name of the game for capitalist enterprise, and tragedy all too often follows. Texas, a “right to work” state with one of the lowest unionisation rates in the U.S., had more fatal workplace accidents in 2011 than any other state.
Australian Capitalism and Industrial Murder
In Australia, it is the same story of profit-driven injury, illness and death. In 2010-11, 374 workers were killed in workplace incidents. When work-related diseases are added, the death rate is reportedly well over ten times that.
From its earliest days, the Australian bourgeoisie has been marked by indifference to the lives of the workers whose labour it uses up and discards. In 1902, a gas explosion at the Mt Kembla Colliery killed 96 workers. Over the years coal mining has reaped fabulous profits for the mining bosses and a grim toll in miners’ lives. In an article reporting on the 1994 explosion at BHP’s Moura No. 2 mine in Queensland, which killed eleven men, we noted, “Over a 40-year period the death rate for underground coal miners in Australia was one in 40” (ASp No. 154, Spring 1994). This gruesome statistic doesn’t even count those working in the vast overseas operations of the mining giants like those in Papua New Guinea.
Capitalist disdain for worker safety has also been endemic throughout the construction industry. Sixteen construction workers lost their lives before the Sydney Harbour Bridge was completed in 1932. On 15 October 1970, 35 workers were killed and many more injured when Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge collapsed during its construction, largely the result of engineering and structural design failures. Before the disaster workers were given false assurances on safety, even though a similar bridge at Milford Haven in Wales had collapsed just four months earlier, killing four workers. Speaking at a 2010 event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse, survivor Tommy Watson recounted that when the workers who survived returned to work, they were dismissed. “We were left with no jobs, no counselling, and somehow we had to survive.” Watson, who later became a CFMEU construction union official, said, “The lies that were told, the way we were treated by engineers and by authority—I think it was disgraceful” (Australian, 15 October, 2010).
Capitalist governments at every level give the owners virtually free rein to run their factories, mines and building sites as ticking time bombs. The only real measure of protection workers have against their cutthroat exploiters is strong unions with union safety committees that can shut down dangerous operations on the spot. Such actions can mean defying the capitalists’ laws and often the armed might of their state, which are invariably brought down on the heads of workers, but virtually never on the capitalist bosses whose mines and factories maim and kill. This has been highlighted by the CFMEU’s ongoing struggle against the large Australian construction company, Grocon.
Last August when Grocon refused to recognise union safety representatives and tried to prohibit all signs of CFMEU presence at the Emporium building site in central Melbourne, thousands of angry construction workers rallied and shut down production for more than a week. In response, the Victorian Supreme Court declared the workers’ actions “illegal” while the state government unleashed a vicious police attack on the workers’ picket and, together with Grocon, launched legal action that threatens massive fines against the union. Instead of organising a concerted class-struggle fight to defend the union and union safety conditions, the class-collaborationist union tops called off the action to pursue negotiations with the company in a deal brokered by Fair Work Australia (see “For Class Struggle to Defeat Grocon/Baillieu Union Busting!” ASp No. 217, Spring 2012).
Late last month the Supreme Court of Victoria predictably ruled in favour of the company in its legal action against the CFMEU. While the courts target the union, construction workers continue to face the risk of injury and loss of life. On 18 February, crane driver Billy Ramsay plunged to his death at Grocon’s Emporium site. Then, on 28 March, at another Grocon site in central Melbourne, a poorly maintained section of wall and attached hoarding collapsed, crushing to death three passing pedestrians. On 30 April, 10,000 construction workers marched in Melbourne against cover-ups in investigations of the fatal wall collapse and to demand “Safety for Grocon Workers Now!” While this was a massive show of force, the union tops worked overtime to keep a lid on the protest by channeling workers’ anger into impotent pleas for the government to act over safety.
The unions are saddled with leaderships—in this country mostly loyal to the ALP—that abhor the kind of struggle that is necessary to defend workers and their lives and livelihoods. To overcome the contradiction between the material interests of the proletariat and the grip of the pro-capitalist union tops it will be necessary to forge a class-struggle leadership of the unions linked to a revolutionary vanguard party that fights for nothing less than proletarian class rule.
The capitalist rulers will try to do everything they can to increase profit margins, from busting unions and intensifying the exploitation of workers at home to exporting capital to countries where labour costs are cheaper. Against the chauvinist union tops and their “Australia first” protectionism, we reiterate the call raised by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848): “Working men of all countries, unite!” It is through a series of proletarian revolutions that the working people of the planet can seize the bourgeois rulers’ capital and build an internationally planned economy, lifting the masses of the semicolonial world from their miserable poverty and paving the way to a future of plenty for all.
Based in part on articles in Spartacist Canada No. 177 (Summer 2013) and
Workers Vanguard No. 1023 (3 May), newspapers of the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste and SL/U.S. respectively.