An Eye for an Eye: The Death Penalty for Injustices in the Garment Industry

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The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse

On May 25, 2015, over two years after the collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar Upazilla, Bangladesh, owner Sohel Rana was charged with the murder and death of more than 1,000 factory workers. Along with Rana, 40 others involved in the case were also prosecuted with the same charges, including Rana’s parents, Abdul Khaled and Morzina Begum. The tragedy was considered the country’s worst industrial disaster and raised international attention in regards to factory worker’s safety conditions and regulations. As in, safety wasn’t a consideration at all.

According to Fashionista, “Cracks had appeared in the building the day before, raising alarm from workers and an engineer who inspected the structure, but the owners forced workers to enter under threats to withhold wages if they didn’t.”

Lead investigator, Bijoy Krishna Kar, commented on the factory owners stating, “They [Rana and the factory owners] discussed and decided to keep the factory open, they sent the workers to their deaths with cool heads.”

The Wall Street Journal writes that under Bangladeshi law, homicide carries a maximum sentence of life but Rana Plaza collapse lead investigator Kar says that “if found guilty, the accused could face the death penalty.” Part of this decision could be accredited to the number of those convicted, or being convicted for multiple charges, such as violating the building code.

Is putting the accused up for death the best solution? What exactly does this mean for the development of the garment industry moving forward? Or even more directly what does this mean for the men, women, and families affected by the incident?

Mili Khatun, a 25-year-old Rana Plaza factory worker, doesn’t think it means much.

When interviewed by the New York Times, Khatun expressed her doubt in the prosecution of all those involved in the case.

“I wanted punishment of the culprits, I wanted justice. I am not alone, all the victims wanted the same thing,” said Ms. Khatun. “I have doubts that the culprits will be punished.”

Debra Johnson, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator and strong promoter of ethical fashion practices doesn’t believe in the death penalty.

“I do believe that compensation should be paid to the families that suffered due to the actions of the factory management. If the workers felt they had no choice but to enter the factory, the next question becomes who is driving the choices made by management? Is it their fault or have they succumbed to a similar pressure driven by the low cost of production demanded by big brands.

Johnson may be against the death penalty but faults the corporations using these factories.

“I think the brands that were using the factory to produce their products should be held responsible. It is up to them to ensure that their factories are safe to work in. Those who profit the most should be held the most responsible,” says Johnson.

The Wall Street Journal writes that those international retailers buying from Bangladeshi garment factories did in fact form two parallel safety plans to inspect and upgrade more than 2,000 factories as well as contributed to a fund to compensate survivors and victims’ families. Retailers and brands on this list were compiled by the Clean Clothes Campaign who created an online list displaying each global brand, associated or non-associated with the factories at Rana Plaza, that have donated to the families affected.

You can see the entire list here.

For some the death penalty may seem like an easy way out for those accused, for others too harsh a punishment. Whatever the verdict, it should serve the purpose of influencing international governments to strengthen policies ensuring the safety and the rights of factory workers.