The house of cards: the Savar building collapse

The house of cards: the Savar building collapse

A detailed account and analysis of the latest human disaster in the Bangladeshi garment industry - a poorly constructed factory building collapses...

At around 9 a.m. on Wednesday 24th April an eight storey building collapsed in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka. Within two minutes the Rana Plaza structure was a mass of rubble, twisted metal, machinery and crushed and trapped bodies. The building housed a shopping centre on the lower floors with five garment factories located on the third to eighth floors. Those present in the neighbourhood described the collapse as like a deafening earthquake. The full horror of the disaster was quickly apparent; with thousands of mainly female garment workers inside the building, those local people who rushed to the scene could see crushed body parts amid the wreckage and hear calls for help from the ruins.

Those first on the scene were mainly local workers – relatives of those trapped, fellow garment workers from nearby workplaces or other shifts, rickshaw drivers, shop workers etc. They quickly began desperately trying to reach survivors, using any available tools and forming chains to shift rubble as best they could. When the emergency services arrived they continued to help with rescue efforts as the enormity of the disaster became clear.

Over 3,120 workers from the five factories were thought to be in the building when it collapsed. While many were rescued, an estimated 315 are counted dead with over 1500 injured, many seriously – and these numbers will certainly rise. In a country with a long history of similar incidents, the Rana collapse is the country’s worst-ever industrial tragedy.


The reasons for this slaughter are depressingly predictable; in the cost equation between periodic loss of workers’ lives and effective workplace health & safety measures the cheaper option always wins out. For the capitalists involved – the factory bosses and the international buyers for the Western clothing brands - this is entirely rational. All involved know that workplace deaths from factory fires and building collapses are inevitable under present conditions in Bangladesh - and that these conditions contribute greatly to the low costs of wages, price and profits. The country is the world’s cheapest supplier of clothing. The details of the disaster show the operation of this logic at work...

Rana Plaza building - Tuesday 23rd April; workers are asked by management to leave their factories after cracks appear in pillars, floors and walls. (There are also reports that workers refused to continue work and walked out.) The appearance of the cracks is reported on a local TV channel. The building owner, Sohel Rana, later states that an engineer has pronounced the structure safe and that workers should return to work the following day.
Wednesday 24th April; workers return for the 8a.m. shift. At around 9a.m. there is a sudden jolt and - with the ground shaking like an earthquake and a deafening thud - in two minutes the eight storey building collapses, killing, maiming and trapping thousands. Local people rush to the site and begin desperate rescue efforts immediately.

Mahmudur suddenly felt a jolt. Within a moment, he noticed his colleagues running back and forth, screaming. It took Mahmudur little time to understand that something ominous was going to happen.
As soon as he along with others moved 20 feet towards the staircases, the building began collapsing, giving him the feeling of a lift going down.
“Darkness engulfed the entire place with thick clouds of debris. I heard screams around me. My heart started pounding,” said Mahmudur, a quality inspector of Ethar Tex Ltd on the fifth floor.
“I lay down near a pillar, thinking that perhaps I was going to die. We were being roasted inside,” he said. The roof curved and fell on him, leaving a space of three feet above him.

Why did most workers reluctantly return to the building despite the dangers? The industry pays probably the lowest industrial wages in the world. Most were owed several weeks wage arrears and were threatened with the sack if they refused to return. Once workers are sacked it becomes difficult to recover unpaid wages – this is one of the most common sources of conflict in the garment industry. Some workers were also routinely docked three day’s wages for missing a day’s work.

In contrast, the management of a local bank branch housed in the ground floor shopping mall had taken note of the safety concerns and evacuated the branch, so avoiding injuries.

How did such an unsafe structure ever come to be built? This is a common occurrence in Bangladesh. A combination of corruption/bribery, lack of regulation and naked capitalist greed in a young booming industry means it is all too easy to construct buildings using poor architecture, too-cheap materials and inappropriate sites. The capital Dhaka is full of them. And the Dhaka region is very vulnerable to earthquakes – so if/when the statistically probable major quake hits Dhaka the Rana Plaza scenario will likely be multiplied city-wide(1)...

The history of the Rana Plaza illustrates at a micro-level the cowboy capitalism of the Dhaka (un)real-estate nightmare. Some years ago Rana’s father migrated to the city and worked in a small mustard mill. In 2003 he began trading in land. Rana was given a small plot by his father where he set up ’Rana Oil Mill’ in a tin shed. Just behind the plot was a large pond; Rana intimidated the owner into selling it to him. These two parcels of land became the site of the ill-fated Rana Plaza.

Alongside his land-grabbing career, Rana also entered local politics;

Rana became a political activist and a cadre of the ruling Awami League under direct patronage of its top local leaders.
“Sohel Rana is known as an Awami League muscleman in the area and he maintains gangs of youths,” said another local businessman. “Savar area is known for drug trade and various sorts of illegal activities controlled by several gangs. Extortion, drug trade and illegal land brokering are some of the activities of these gangs,” he added.
Other local sources also said Rana nurtures gangs of youths in Savar area and organises anti-opposition processions. He is mainly used by local lawmaker Murad Jong in retaining domination in the commercial areas of Savar.
Rana amassed wealth in the 10 years. He has another four-storey market in Savar and a house nearby. He owns two brick kilns in Dhamrai and recently he grabbed several acres of land in the area.

Rana gained planning permission in 2008 for a five storey structure which was duly built. The construction was not supervised by architects or engineers to assess its quality. 60% of the building was constructed on the site of the acquired pond which had been filled in, compromising the stability of the structure from the start.

By 2010 Rana’s political career had progressed and he was now a local convenor for the Juba League, the youth wing of the ruling Awami League. With his increased political clout he then felt free to add three more floors to the Plaza – but with no planning permission or supporting walls. Workers reported that the building would sometimes shudder and jolt when generators ran. Yet at the time of the collapse the greedy Rana was even having a ninth floor added to this house of cards.

* * *

The workers’ response

As noted earlier, garment workers had been some of the first rescuers on the scene. Many have also donated blood for victims in the city’s overwhelmed hospitals.

Thursday 25th April; fearing trouble, managers in Dhaka’s main industrial areas shut many factories; in others workers walk out in solidarity with the Rana Plaza victims and to protest their dangerous working conditions. Hundreds of thousands of workers barricade several main highways for several hours, fight cops and vandalise factories. Two factories and several shops are set on fire. A smaller group of 1,500 manage to break away and lay siege to the (illegally built) HQ of the BGMEA garment employers’ federation, pelting the building with rocks and smashing windows and vehicles.

Workers are demanding the prosecution of the factory owners and of Rana.

Friday 26th April; clashes between relatives and cops occur at the Rana Plaza site due to frustrations at the perceived slowness of the rescue operations, hampered by insufficient modern rescue equipment. 2,500 people have so far been rescued. Hundreds of workers are also involved in clashes in various other parts of the city, with over 200 cars trashed; cops respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. As a ‘precautionary measure’ the BGMEA announces that all garment factories will remain closed for the weekend.


The usual statements of concern, regret, condolences, compensation and assurances of reform will be wheeled out again by all those who profit from the carnage; the government, garment bosses, foreign buyers and Western retail chains. The garment bosses’ federation, the BGMEA, will insist again that this incident is exceptional and measures are being taken to continually improve workplace safety. Government will say again that construction standards and their enforcement are improving. Yet the BGMEA’s own present headquarters was illegally built on stolen land, is in breach of planning permission and is environmentally destructive to its wetland habitat. It has nevertheless been allowed by successive governments to remain. But a recent ruling has stated it will be demolished;

The High Court, in its observation, said, "There was huge fraud behind the construction of the building. [...] "This smacks of land grabbing, if anything else,'' the court said mentioning that vested quarter was behind this deal.

With this incident following so soon after the Tazreen fire disaster(2) Western companies who buy from the garment industry will try to limit damage to their Corporate Image. They’ll parade, like Primark, its involvement in bodies like the largely irrelevant and cosmetic ‘Ethical Trading Initiative’ - designed to promote safety standards throughout its supply chain. But the limits and inadequacies of these bodies are obvious;

At least two garment factories at Rana Plaza had passed international labor and safety standard audits under a European trade organization that addressed specific safety concerns at the factories but didn't assess the stability of the building that housed them. (3)

Yet none have been willing to force any demands on suppliers that threaten the rock bottom prices they enjoy. Primark, Benetton, Wal Mart and all the rest know why the prices are so ‘competitive’ and want to keep it that way – as proved by the past few decades they’ve been happy to let these conditions exist and to profit from them. The factory owners and real estate speculators never get prosecuted for these deaths. The thousands of injuries and deaths that have occurred from factory fires and collapses remain a mere minimal cost factor of the next season’s retail fashion and their continued profitability.

1) Most construction in Dhaka used to occur on more stable clay soil areas. But with the rapid expansion of the city much new development has been on softer black soil areas with much less load-bearing capacity in the soil. Yet in the unregulated building boom thousands of buildings, many multi-storey, have been quickly thrown up with insufficient foundations, inferior materials and poor design.

... if an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale hit Dhaka city, it would result in the death of at least 131,000 people due to fragile and faulty structure of the residential buildings and commercial centres. ...

2) See our earlier article;

3) As further evidence of, intentionally or not, the largely cosmetic nature of such bodies;

Two Bangladeshi factories that were in the building, and suffered worker fatalities in its collapse, had cleared an audit by the Business Social Compliance Initiative, which was set up a decade ago by the Brussels-based Foreign Trade Association, a body that comprises some 1,000 European retailers such as Adidas AG, Esprit Holdings Ltd. and Hugo BossAG.
The group said its auditors aren't building engineers and didn't take the state of the edifice into account when they conducted the checks. It is up to local authorities to ensure that construction and infrastructure are secure.
"It's very important not to expect too much from the social audit," said Lorenz Berzau, BSCI's managing director. "BSCI and other initiatives contribute to improve the situation," he said. "But it's a long way we have to go."

Posted By

Red Marriott
Apr 26 2013 21:23


Attached files


Apr 27 2013 03:09

Thanks for this excellent (albeit tragic) article. But the rather depressing conclusion leaves open the question of what, if anything, will be the more sustainable response by Bangladeshi garment workers. The details of walkouts, mutual aid and rioting suggest plenty of initiative by the workers, but I don't yet see what kind of sustained (self)organisational response might actually emerge out of this event in order to prevent this kind of tragedy happening again (and again) in the future, which this article suggests is very likely.

Apr 27 2013 12:09

Yes, excellent article. I also appreciate the info about local workers initiating the rescue efforts: this was something I haven't seen reported in the mainstream media coverage.

Soe yes that's a key question. Because this is not the first one of these disasters, and the bosses/government have shown they are acceptable "collateral damage" in the accumulation of capital. So it will take further self organisation of the local working class to have any impact.

I have seen mention of widespread working-class self-organisation in the wake of an earthquake in Mexico City which had a huge impact in subsequent struggles. But not read anything in detail - if anyone has any recommendations on this front please let me know.

Red Marriott
Apr 27 2013 12:44

Soe; a discussion along similar lines to your queries is going on here;

But I don't see any simple, clear easily implemented answers, any more than I do to how to reverse the defeats being suffered in the UK or US by austerity measures. But just because there aren't visible named orgs in Bangladesh leading things doesn't mean there isn't a more informal high level of self-organisation occurring, events suggest there must be a culture of solidarity that breeds this. It also doesn't mean more formal organisations would've had any more success than the class struggle in its present form has so far. There have been some concessions and a certain development of the 'social wage' such as health care, social housing, pensions etc - and even in this collapsed building there was apparently a creche for workers' kids (which may well, ironically, increase the awfulness of the tragedy). For sure a qualitative leap in class struggle there would incorporate innovation in forms of self-organisation, but what that means in practice in those specific circumstances I won't pretend to know.

Apr 27 2013 16:46
Red Marriott wrote:
just because there aren't visible named orgs in Bangladesh leading things doesn't mean there isn't a more informal high level of self-organisation occurring, events suggest there must be a culture of solidarity that breeds this.

a thing that fascinates me. what is it about the texture of life there that leads to this solidarity? what was it about the texture of life in russian cities that led to the creation and success of soviets? i'm not forgetting that there have been such attempts in many places, even the US, but some places at some times have seen solidarity in spades, and the answer must be more than "political education" (never mind "the presence of a vanguard").

Red Marriott
Apr 27 2013 17:42

Fascinating yes; but probably such a unique complexity of historical interactions that it's too complex to fully grasp or deliberately try to reproduce? Probably partly linked to the intimate social relations of the village that the newly proletarianised bring with them to the factories and re-interpret and adapt to the new terrain.

Apr 27 2013 23:47

Good text, bravo
I translated into French. It's here

Plusieurs centaines d’ouvriers tués - La violence du capitalisme

Red Marriott
Apr 28 2013 00:18


Apr 29 2013 21:45

I agree with all the praise for this article. I have just started a thread and posted a link to it on the ICC's forum.

May 3 2013 06:26
red marriott wrote:
But I don't see any simple, clear easily implemented answers

One possibility is something the Mining Division of the Australian CFMEU used to do until recently. If there was a fatality in a mine on a particular coal field, all workers on the coal field walked out and didn't go back until after the funeral, usually three days later. The effect was to make all coal mining companies anxious to improve the safety of the industry as a whole, since bosses were punished financially for the crimes of other bosses. In these circumstances, the coal mining bosses became great advocates of the State stepping in to improve health and safety practices of other bosses and were keen to prevent "cowboys" at other companies resulting in production ceasing at their own.

If the Bangladeshi garment workers were to adopt the same principle, it would be a more powerful force for health and safety than any possible legislation. It is a strategy which can be adopted without widespread pre-existing organisation and, in use, can be a catalyst for strengthening shop floor organisation and industry wide solidarity.

Red Marriott
May 6 2013 14:20

@ Ablokeimet; that tactic as an established agreed general principle might be applicable and useful in some circumstances, though in practice it kind of is already among many workers, as shown by struggles of recent years - there are often strikes after factory deaths as well as regular stoppages over other issues. But the situation is very different in the garment industry there, with over 4000 factories and a complex chain of suppliers, larger ones sub-contracting some tasks down to many smaller ones, workers living hand to mouth more anxious about getting the vital cheque at end of the month, pressure from buyers for fast turnaround to deliver for the ever-shorter fashion 'seasons' etc.

May 8 2013 22:37

Greetings: this is my first post on libcom so I will leave specifics until I've read more .... (68er ..? well it just means I grew up with the Vietnam War blazing and we 'nearly' got into the American Embassy in '68)

I was drawn here by this excellent article and just wanted to add something that occurred to me with regard to this UNnatural disaster.As I'm sure was discussed at the time, in 2010 in Haiti an exponentially greater (yet similar in nature) event occurred. 220,000 died, 300,000 plus injured and 3 million affected. 1 million are still living in tents.

Port au Prince was a controlled and contrived packing in of an urban work force (2 dollars a day) for the American Garment industry ( similar) My neighbour works cabin crew for an airline which flies to the Dominican Republic ( the 'other half' of the island) and just last year the holds were full of tents for the still homeless forgotten.

At the time the Bourgeois Broadcasting Corporation was of course eager to report the breaking news and had - in its haste to blare out the 'dangerousness' of life etc. etc. - had -it seemed to me- cast around for an 'expert'. to comment.

6 o'clock news prime propaganda time ::at first deferential to this soft spoken Irish Professor the interviewer soon changed her tone when he calmly and knowledgably exposed the history of the island and the shanty town concentration of cheap labour moving on to say that for years International Aid Agencies - with implied conspiracy - had literally bribed self-sustaining smallholders to drift to their urban wage prison to form this ruthlessly exploited proletariat.

At which point the 'facts' he had been giving and deferential attitude were changed to 'claims' he was asked to 'defend' and antagonism.( no surprise there)

The Workers response in the Bangladesh case is valiant : alas after THE urban centre and so many of the oppressed went down in Haiti there really were no others left to act.

The important thing I took away from that historical event was the conviction that most 'Aid' whether 'government' or not is exploitative or mystified.

Just saying hi


May 12 2013 05:34

The note nr 3 in the text is very important. It should not be just a note but deserve a full paragraph. Both the Ethical Trading Initiative and BSCI had conducted social audits in the Rana building. However in both cases, the audit system according to these organisations does not require to check that there is a building permit nor that the number of floors is the same as on the building permit. They could at least do this, if they do not have the capacity to check the full soundness of the building. What is interesting is the reaction of both organisations: ETI seems to consider to modify its auditing methodology and to include elements on building safety. I hope that BSCI will also do a step in this direction. If not, what would be the value of such an audit system if the BSCI members cannot be sure that a minimal check has been done on building safety? Would they be wasting their money? If there is no change, this would give more and more the impression that such schemes are indeed pure PR excercises.... Do ETI and BSCI members really want to konw about building safety in Bangladesh? What would they do in case they receive an audit report indicating that one floor of the building is not planned in the building permit? What would this mean for Bangladesh?

May 14 2013 17:55

I think it's important to point out here that strikes and unrest by textile workers in Bangladesh has been ongoing. And as a result the government have been forced to firstly increase the minimum wage and secondly rescind some of the countries extremely restrictive anti-union legislation.

The key thing here is that previously workers had to get permission from bosses to organise unions, whereas now this will not be the case.

It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the unrest. Presumably the government will be hoping that, as occurs elsewhere, having representative unions in place to mediate between bosses and workers will quell class conflict. However, for this to really be the case the bosses have to be prepared to give up some ground as well.

Red Marriott
May 14 2013 23:40

Some interesting developments - I intend to do a follow up article soonish.

May 15 2013 12:51

This has not gotten alot of press.

Bangladesh Garment Factories Shut Down Amid Worker Unrest, Minimum Wage Change

Posted: 05/13/2013 4:13 pm EDT | Updated: 05/14/2013 1:13 am EDT

Following worker protests and a decision by the Bangladeshi governmnt to reevaluate the minimum wage, the lone national association of garment manufacturers on Monday shut down all factories in Ashulia, one of the country's major garment industry hubs.


Dec 1 2013 06:02

Thanks for the interesting article. I just would like to add the names of the audit organisations which failed to conduct the social audits correctly: 1) "Rina" in the case of Ali Enterprise in Pakistan (which gave the SA8000 certificate to the factory one month before it burned down) and 2) "TUV Rheinland" which audited Rana Plaza in Bangladesh according to the BSCI system before the building collapse.
Whereas SAI had openly communicated which audit organisation had failed the audit in Ali Enterprise, BSCI did not divulgate the name of the audit organisation which conducted audit in Rana plaza according to its system.
Social audit organisations do not have incentives to do the compliance investigation in details. If they report to many non compliances, they will not receive the audit contract next time. So they tend to close their eyes. The only way to put the incentives back in place is to name the social audit companies for their failures and shame them.