By Nils Klawitter
It was shortly after midnight on April 11, 2005, when the floor silently disappeared from beneath Milon Houlader's feet. Houlader found himself in a free fall that sent him plunging six stories. When he regained consciousness, he was surrounded by tangled sweaters, mangled sewing machines and rubble.
When he cried for help, his friend Rotan responded. Rotan was buried nearby. Milon and Rotan were among the company's fastest machine operators. For two hours they strained to keep each other's spirits up. Then Milon Houlader's friend fell silent.
After 16 hours, Houlader's father pulled his severely injured son from the ruins. That night 64 workers died in a grave of fragmented concrete, crushed bobbins, red children's pullovers ordered by the Spanish textile chain Zara, and purple striped women's tops bound for the Bluhm fashion group in Cologne. For Bangladesh, the collapse of the Spectrum Sweater works in Savar, north of the capital of Dhaka, was the most deadly disaster yet in an industry with a lethal history.
The news of the calamity even made the German press - meriting a brief mention in a "Miscellaneous" column. It appeared next to an update on the health of Germany's hard-drinking Prince Ernst August and a note on pop icon Elton John lavishing $9,400 a week on veterinary services. By itself, the incident wouldn't have made much of a splash. But when word got out that German dealers had been buying from the company, interest picked up.
Four weeks after the building folded, few in Savar were taking much notice of the pile of debris lining the main street. In the sprawling textile colony 20 miles outside Dhaka, the devastation made little difference to a landscape already dominated by makeshift huts, garbage dumps, scrap dealers and tumbledown factories.
Playing with the cockroaches
A few feet from the rubble, the owner's second plant is still standing. Just barely. Up on the fourth floor, young workers are erecting a new external wall. It leans precariously. They resemble circus artists more than laborers, sustaining the tension with mortar that disintegrates under their feet. Two weeks later, inspectors would give the patched-up factory the green light for renewed operation.
Constructing a four-story building on Savar's swampy land represents a gamble in itself. But the owner, Sayed Shahriyar, wanted more. So three years ago he added five additional floors - without official permission. Shahriyar's father-in-law holds a seat in parliament and his wife is a high court judge. He has recently been released from prison on bail - not for the first time.
"The owner was a good man," Milon Houlader insists. The director was the rotten apple, he says, the one who was always yelling at the staff.
The 22-year-old had started working for Spectrum Sweater Ltd. a year earlier. He is seated on a bed in a stone hut measuring 12 square meters near the factory. His little brother is playing among the cockroaches on the floor. Six people call this room home.
Houlader's mother supports him from behind; his body is too weak to sit upright. His kidneys no longer function properly. He carries a drainage tube around with him - doctors had to give him an artificial urethra.
After the accident, Houlader received no help from the owner. His father took up his case, confronting officials from the association of factory owners who were visiting the site. That effort yielded a pledge of 11,000 taka (140).
Two weeks wages for a crushed ribcage
"You need to be skilled in arguing to get that much money," says Zohurul Islam. The 33-year-old factory worker - who lay beneath the rubble for 17 hours with a crushed ribcage - speaks softly. Zohurul isn't as persuasive. He received 16 in compensation - two weeks' wages. The money didn't even cover his medical bills. He may never be able to work again. "Until then, we were a happy family," his wife says.
Nor did Germany, the second-largest importer of Bangladeshi goods after the United States, offer any assistance. Indeed, initially there seemed no reason to. Eight days after the tragedy, both KarstadtQuelle and Steilmann - two of the German retailers supplied by the plant - informed Germany's taz newspaper that they had no business contacts with Spectrum Sweater. A spokesman for Hamburg's Rehfeld group, which had placed orders with the company a year earlier, knew nothing about the accident whatsoever.
These denials were followed by statements that only fueled any remaining doubts. The responsibility was shifted to subcontractors who - at least according to the copious sustainability and corporate responsibility reports produced by the German retailers - were supposedly under continuous scrutiny.
Eventually, KarstadtQuelle spokesman Jörg Howe acknowledged that four orders had been placed directly with Spectrum Sweater, but only for its mail-order subsidiary Neckermann. Howe was unable to explain how a representative of the Clean Clothes Campaign unearthed the company's own label "Le Frog" from the ruins. He did, however, mention that KarstadtQuelle needed to step up its turnaround on this merchandise and, if possible, match the rate achieved by H&M, another fashion retailer.
H&M's German director recently set the pace for manufacturers by issuing a call for "fresh produce": 20 days turnaround from initial design to the shelves. Such is the pressure to maintain this tempo at Spectrum Sweater that - on the fateful night - workers whose shifts were due to end at 6 p.m. were still in the plant when it collapsed after midnight.
Maren Boehm is responsible for sustainability issues and "procurement ethics" at KarstadtQuelle. Her appointment testifies to the company's social concern. Some see her as a walking-talking insurance policy. Boehm points out that her employers cannot control all of their suppliers, adding that "facilities often produce our goods without our knowledge." KarstadtQuelle only maintains direct contacts with a few of its partner factories, she explains. The textile industry involves some 25,000 suppliers and subcontractors worldwide, and "not all of them disclose the sources of their merchandise." How can she control the supply chain? "That," says Boehm, "is a long and complex process."
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