The official death toll following the April 24 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh passed 500 this morning, just a day after the official count of the dead passed 400. A week ago, that number was 200. It's a mounting figure that's becoming harder and harder to ignore. But that's exactly what the country's garment industry might do in the long term, thanks in part to its extensive ties to figures in political power in Bangladesh, one of whom is now saying this sort of thing "happens everywhere."
The ignorance as retail bliss is just one takeaway from a Reuters report on the garment industry in the world's second-largest clothing exporter. Of the 160 million residents of Bangladesh, 4.5 million work in the industry. And according to 2010 World Bank data, those workers had the lowest minimum wage of anywhere in the world. That is, if they're even being paid the country's minimum wage, which some factories just straight up ignore. Meanwhile, about 10 percent of the country's parliament is comprised of garment industry bosses, with many more involved in the $20 billion-a-year industry holding other politically powerful positions:
Other owners, like Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the building that collapsed, have strong political ties: He was a local leader of the youth wing of the ruling party, the Awami League. Rana was arrested trying to escape across the border to India and faces charges of unlawful construction causing deaths. Bangladesh officials say his eight-storey complex was built on swampy ground without the correct permits.
Pardon the cliché, but that link between the country's biggest industry and the government that regulates it has made it easier for factory owners to (literally) get away with murder: the April factory collapse is the third deadly accident for the country's industry in six months (including a factory fire that killed over 100 in November). Yet, as Reuters notes, human rights groups say that the country has never prosecuted a factory owner for the death of a worker.
We'll have to wait and see if the country's industry — or the Western brands who buy in to what the Pope called "slave labor" and "against God" — end up changing in the wake of this disaster. But even before the dead are recovered, counted, and identified, that possibility seems a bit far-fetched. On Friday the Bangladeshi finance minister didn't offer much big-picture remorse on behalf of the government: "The present difficulties ... well, I don't think it is really serious — it's an accident," Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said. "These are individual cases of ... accidents. It happens everywhere." At least there is something of a culpability crackdown for this increasingly deadly incident: The Associated Press reports that Bangladeshi officials have arrested the engineer who said the building was unsafe the day before it collapsed. He's facing a negligence charge. The building's owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, was arrested earlier. The expected charges against him include negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which would give Rana a maximum sentence of seven years. The mayor of the factory town, Savar, has been suspended — but the death toll may not suspend itself anytime soon.