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April 30, 2013

Plenty of blame to go around for Bangladesh horror

After last week’s act of  “corporate terrorism” in Bangladesh, the irony is that worker advocates there are asking western consumers not to boycott the retailers or the clothing linked to the poor Asian nation’s garment industry.

They need the factories and the jobs. They just want them safer.

The Rana Plaza complex, an illegally constructed eight-story building that housed five garment factories and about 4,000 workers, collapsed Wednesday. Nearly 400 workers are dead and hundreds more are still missing, presumably buried in the rubble.

The media attention focused on the tragedy near Dhaka pales in comparison to the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon because Bangladesh in half a world away. But is it, given our global economy?

Of course, the answer is no. It is hardly possible anymore in the West, without effort, to find a product, food included, that is guilt-free, from iPhones to underwear. Consumers want products they can afford and the corporations want profits that soar, so manufacturing goes to Asia, where labor is cheap and plentiful.

Bangladesh employs about 3.6 million people in the garment industry, and is the world’s second-largest apparel exporter. Labor activists say the factories that collapsed produced clothing for JCPenney; Cato Fashions; Benetton; Primark, the low-cost British store chain; and other retailers.

But there is plenty of guilt to go around. The owner of the Rana Plaza was arrested Sunday in connection with the building collapse while trying to flee to India. He is facing charges of negligent, illegal construction and forced labor. Can you believe he illegally added three stories to a shoddily constructed building approved for only five?

About 700 workers have died in factory collapses and fires in the small region outside Dhaka in the past decade, including a fire five months ago that killed more than 100. That fire led to pledges to improve safety and working conditions in Bangladesh, but very little has been done.

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