When search teams scouring the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh ended their efforts to find survivors among the rubble of the former shopping centre and factory complex, a shocking 1,127 had been confirmed dead in what has become the worst industrial accident since the Bhopal disaster in 1984. The vast majority of the dead were workers employed by a number of textile factories which produced cheap clothes for Western retailers including Bennetton, Bonmarche, Mango, Matalan, Primark and Walmart. While inquiries continue to get to the bottom of what happened and apportion blame, a flurry of debate has commenced, once again, about the moral dimensions of Western companies having garments manufactured in places where cheap labour allows people like Mohammad Sohel Raza, the owner of the ill fated building, to make handsome profits in the garment industry. After initially trying to flee to India, Rana was apprehended at the border and brought back to Dhaka to face criminal negligence and murder charges. Many of the relatives of workers who died are publicly calling for the death penalty.
What has infuriated many about the Rana Plaza disaster is the fact that Sohel Rana is closely connected to the ruling Awami League and a member of the party's youth wing. To many, his success is due to connections among the country's elite and the impunity with which he told workers to return to the complex the day after cracks in the wall were reported smacks of criminal disregard for the welfare of poor workers.
After weeks of often violent street protests, the government has set up a commission to look into raising safety standards in the garment industry, worth some £ 12.5 billion a year, and raising the minimum wage, currently at 3,000 taka (£ 25) per month. But while the demand for cheap clothing in the industrialised West remains strong, the army of Bangladesh's 4 million odd garment workers is likely to swell and the lure of profit will continue to push factory owners to cut corners.