Made in Bangladesh Greed, Globalization and the Dhaka Tragedy

On April 24, a textile factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing over 1,100. A government investigator has presented his results to SPIEGEL. They tell a harrowing story of a disaster caused by greed and the pressures of globalization.

By Hauke Goos and Ralf Hoppe

On the morning of April 24, 2013, at about 8:45 a.m., the Rana Plaza, a nine-story building housing factories and offices, collapsed in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. More than 3,500 people were in the building at the time, and 1,129 died in the wreckage. Mainuddin Khandaker, a senior official at the Ministry of Home Affairs, began his investigation that evening.

Six weeks later, Khandaker is sitting in a carved wooden armchair in his living room. A soft-spoken man in his early 60s who wears gold-rimmed glasses, he lives in Dhaka's government district. It's been dark outside for a while, and a single fluorescent tube, surrounded by fluttering moths, is the only light in the room. Khandaker is balancing a bowl of dark berries on his knees.

In the last few years, he has investigated more than 40 cases of factories that either collapsed or burnt down. But none of those accidents approached the scale of Rana Plaza, the biggest industrial accident in the country's history. The 493-page report Khandaker wrote contains witness statements, photos and structural engineering calculations. It will probably remain under lock and key. An investigative report on the textile industry has never been published in Bangladesh, he says.

Khandaker goes into the next room and returns with a stack of paper, the summary. He eats a berry from the bowl and carefully spits the seed onto the saucer. "Time pressure, lots of money, a lack of scruples and greed -- everything came together on that day," he says.

Dhaka, Basti Madjipur, April 24, 5:30 a.m.

The day began early in Basti Madjipur, a neighborhood in Dhaka's northwestern district of Savar.

A "basti" is a sprawling collection of simple concrete houses with sheet and corrugated metal roofs, separated by labyrinthine paths, where half-naked children play between puddles and ponds. There are chicken sheds everywhere, and the neighborhood is also home to a drove of small pigs. About 100,000 people live there. Everyone works in the nearby textile factories, and at the time, many were employed at the Rana Plaza building.

Mohammed Badul and his wife Shali got up at 5:30 a.m. that morning. Badul worked in the packaging department of a company called Phantom Apparels Ltd., in the Rana Plaza. His wife was a seamstress in another factory.

They live in a 12-square-meter (130-square-foot) room with a concrete floor, together with their nine-year-old son Sabbir. They own a bed, a dresser and dishes, some clothing and a TV set. A faucet and a shower are outside.

Like most mornings, Shali cooked rice with a little oil and a small amount of vegetables to bring to work as lunch for her and her husband. They didn't eat breakfast. At about 7 a.m., they left on foot for their respective factories. Shali had given her husband his lunch in a tin can. The one-hour lunch break began at 1 p.m.

The normal shift usually lasted until 8 p.m., but workers were often kept later for overtime, until 10 p.m. Shali went shopping on the way home, arriving at the house by around 11 p.m. Her son was already sleeping.

In 11 years, the couple has saved 20,000 taka, or €200 ($260). Mohammed Badul dreams of opening a barber shop one day.

Photo Gallery

5  Photos
Photo Gallery: Life as a Bangladeshi Factory Worker
Another couple, Fahima and her husband Abu Said also live in Basti Madjipur. Both are from the village of Bodergond in northern Bangladesh. They came to Dhaka six years ago, forced to leave their village and look for work so that they could repay their debts. Abu Said had borrowed 50,000 taka because he wanted to start his own company.

Together, they earn about 12,000 taka a month, of which they are able to save about 500 taka, or €5. They don't have a bed, or even a mattress. Abu Said indulges in only one luxury item: He occasionally buys a tin of chewing tobacco, which he always carries in his back pocket.

Fahima and Abu Said also have a son, five-year-old Shahin. A neighbor takes care of the boy when Fahima and her husband are at the factory. Their plan is to persevere. After a few years, they hope to return to their village with a little money in their pockets. Their goal in life is to create a future for Shahin.

Two sisters, Shefali and Shirin Akter, 20 and 18, live in a house on the same street. They came to Dhaka as children, left to their own devices, with nothing but two pairs of trousers and two shirts. Their little brother Nawshad joined them later. He is their hope, and they are working and saving money to pay for his education. They own four cups, a double bed, a TV set and two pieces of soap. They also own a basket with some clothing, three pairs of flip-flops, a pot, cutlery and some dishes.

Like most of the people who have come to this neighborhood, Shefali, Shirin and Nawshad live in one room, for which they pay a monthly rent of 2,000 taka. Many of these houses were built by the same man who responsible for the construction of Rana Plaza: Sohel Rana, the godfather of Madjipur.

Rana is a short, puffy man in his mid-30s. He lives on Bazar Road, in a five-story house at the end of a path, with a metal gate to keep out intruders. Rana takes bodyguards with him when he leaves the house. He is a member of the youth organization of the ruling Awami Party, and recently had posters of himself hung up on walls in his basti. Some in the neighborhood already see Rana as a member of parliament.

But he had a problem on that morning. Cracks had appeared in the walls and load-bearing columns of the Rana Plaza building. The tenants, especially those pesky factory owners, were concerned.

Dhaka, Madjipur Bazar Road, Rana Plaza, 7:30 a.m.

A few hundred people had gathered in front of Rana Plaza. Mohammed Badul, the man who was saving for a barber shop, was there, and so were Fahima and Abu Said, the couple that doesn't even own a mattress. They were afraid. Their shift was to begin in half an hour -- that is, if it began at all.

Rana Plaza was taller than the surrounding buildings, with lower floors that were sided with a reflective blue glass material. Eight floors were already occupied, and construction had recently begun on a ninth. The words "Rana Plaza" were written in decorative letters above the entrance.

A branch of Brac Bank was on the second floor, and a sign indicating that the bank was closed had been hanging on the door since the day before. Not a good sign, Fahima thought to herself.

There were 10 million taka in the bank vault. The bank employees were in such a hurry to get to a safe place that they had left the money behind.

Sohel Rana was standing at the entrance, talking insistently to the factory owners. He told them that a few cracks were nothing to fear, and that someone would take care of the problem. On the previous day, managers had shut down all five textile factories and sent home some 3,500 people -- including Fahima, Mohammed Badul and the two sisters, Shefali and Shirin -- in the middle of the day. Then experts came and inspected the cracks.

Could the shift begin? Or was the building beyond repair? Many people were sent to their deaths because Rana was the person who ended up making that decision.

Born in Dhaka after his father moved there in the early 1980s, Rana grew up in the city, where he attended the Adhar Chandra High School. "Making money was the most important thing to him," says Khandaker, the investigator. To achieve his goal, Rana bought some land.

When he was mapping out his career, Dhaka was already a sprawling city. Hundreds of thousands migrated there from the countryside each year, and new factories were constantly being built. These workers needed housing, and the manufacturers needed production facilities.

Rana's father had property early on, and his son bought more. It was swampy land, which meant that it was cheap. Rana had the swamp filled with sand and garbage, and in 2007, he began the construction of a multistory building there. Rana Plaza was to be the beginning of a great career.

Normally, the approval of six government agencies is required to build a factory in Bangladesh: the Ministry of Industries, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the office of fire safety and civil protection, the office of the environment, the Board of Investment, and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Rana circumvented these requirements by declaring the plaza as an office and retail building. He used his father's contacts and donated money to the campaign of a member of parliament to get it approved. That's how the Bangladeshi system works. A country growing as quickly as Bangladesh can't spend too much time on regulations. Once a building has been erected and is filled with machines and people working to bring money into the country, no one asks about permits.

Rana opened the building in 2008. It had been built hastily with thin subfloors, and the bricklayers had apparently never built such a tall building before. Too much sand was added to the concrete, and the ground was too soft -- all problems that investigator Khandaker would later discover.


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sirajul 07/06/2013
1. Excellent story
Excellent story! Well-researched, and informative. As a Bangladeshi, I know how true it is that a crime of this magnitude can easily be labeled as an 'isolated incident but not systematic failure' because strong stakeholders, both local and international, are protecting this system for their interest to serve. It's even an unwritten offence in Bangladesh to criticize the apparel manufacturers and that may be tantamount to 'treason'. Everybody forgets to compensate the families of the dead, and the injured, and the government, trade conglomerate, local makers and foreign buyers have no concern for them. All are busy exploiting the cheap labour who are happy with the system. Thanks again, Hauke Goos and Ralf Hoppe, for your hard work!
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