When the Rana Plaza garment factory building collapsed on April 24, crushing hundreds of workers under a pile of concrete and machinery that used to be an eight-story factory building, it was like lifting a rock in your garden and finding a snake’s nest full of baby rattlers. Something that most of the world preferred to keep out of sight was exposed to full view. The latest body count as of this writing is 640, but that is sure to rise as more bodies are pulled from the wreckage. Despite the tragedy of the collapse, there is hope that something else died in the wreckage too: the type of criminal negligence that leads to such catastrophes in the first place.
Bangladesh is the second or third largest exporter of garments in the world, behind only China and possibly Vietnam. Over three million people are employed in the country’s garment industry, which provides 80% of its export income. Women make up 70% of the garment industry’s employees, and a recital of the typical garment worker’s life would sound familiar to the girls in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who toiled in the water-powered mills erected in the 1850s by a group of enterprising New England capitalists. You will not be surprised to learn that one of the big events in that town’s history was the collapse in 1860 of the Pemberton Mill, in which 145 people died from both the initial collapse and a fire started in the largely wooden structure by an overturned kerosene lantern.
As engineering disasters go, the Bangladesh tragedy was not mysterious. In fact, the engineer who (perhaps irresponsibly) supervised the addition of three more floors to what was originally planned as a five-story shopping mall warned the owners of the factories inside that it was about to collapse and should be evacuated, when cracks were observed the day before the collapse. But these warnings were ignored, and shortly after the morning shift entered the building on April 24, it fell down. So far, the factory owners, the engineer, and several others have been arrested, but that won’t bring back the lives lost in this disaster.
The Rana Plaza accident tells us something about ignorance and authority. First, ignorance.