Domestic Incidence and International Relations: Reading the Rana Plaza Tragedy in Bangladesh

Rana Plaza, an eight storied building, housing five garment factories employing 3,638 workers, collapsed on April 24, 2013. This led to 1,132 deaths and thousands serious injuries, leading the largest disaster in manufacturing sector ever. This write-up investigates two questions: “What is the significance of such incidence in contemporary international relations?” and “How did power relations and the power-knowledge nexus played role in this case?”

In the age of economic globalization and neo-liberal economy, the principle of ‘profit over people’ has been evident across the globe. The state and a specific stratum of the society benefit from the phenomenon, while creating a huge social and economic plight of another section of society. This makes certain sections, like the working class, more vulnerable. This assertion is evident in the Rana plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. Among a number of reasons, the neo-liberal economy marginalizes these garment workers economically, as well as socially. It is worth noting that the owner of the garment factories, the owner of Rana Plaza, and the retailers were more concerned about the profit making rather than ensuring the safety, working conditions of the garment workers. Notably, due to the lower wages and lower safety standards, Bangladesh is one of the prime attractive destinations of the Multinational Corporations (MNCs) especially in case of ready-made garments. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter in ready-made garments after China. In a report of The New York Times, dated on May 22, 2013; it has been noted that “Bangladesh has more than 5,000 garment factories, handling orders for nearly all of the world’s top brands and retailers. It has become an export powerhouse largely by delivering lower costs, in part by having the lowest wages in the world for garment workers”.

I argue such incidence has significance in contemporary international politics although it is often neglected. Notably, the retailers like Primark and other big names who sold cloths made in Rana Plaza are major actors in international political economy. These MNCs with their base countries being in the US, the UK, or the EU has their business interests across the world.

The incidence also created a lot of criticisms from US based policy circles and media regarding the safety standards of the workers, which created a negative image of Bangladesh. This has negatively impacted the Bangladesh-US relations and the Bangladesh-EU relations at least in economic terms. Notably, United States withdrew Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) facilities given to Bangladesh. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, “GSP is a program designed to promote economic growth in the developing world by providing preferential duty-free entry for up to 5,000 products when imported from one of 123 designated beneficiary countries and territories”. Although, the bilateral relations still going on between Bangladesh and the United States as well as the EU, one needs to note that the incident explicitly affected the relations. Therefore, the case is important from the perspective of bilateral relations too.

Similarly, taking people’s perspectives in international relations, the case study brings in the voices of the silenced and marginalized labours. The governments in most of the developing countries do not count workers’ rights as the rights at all in practice even if they do in paper. On top of this, the workers are not only in a pathetic working condition but also they are not protected by their governments. Even, the role of the trade unions to protect the rights of the workers is not beyond criticisms.

In this case, we see the power-relations playing a crucial role from the domestic to the international level. Domestically, the building was shaken several times day before the incident and a private bank which was working in the ground floor of the building, has successfully evacuated its staffs and other materials. But in case of garment factory workers, it did not happen. Notably, on the day of the incident, the workers were forced to attend the workplace showing the threat of losing jobs or blocking salaries. One of the victims’ fathers said, “I asked her (his daughter) if she had to go … and she said that if she didn’t go her pay would be blocked”. Second, Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, being a top member of ruling Awami League, was able to manage construction illegally, and after the incident no exemplary legal action was taken against him.

The power relation at the state level is manifested too. The US and the EU are the major importers of garment products from Bangladesh. They warned Bangladesh government to either stick to the international labour standard or to face the serious consequence regarding the import of garments. Similarly, power relations are equally manifested in providing compensations to the survivors and their families and the compensation providers. According to Guardian report (December 25, 2013), “Negotiations are still continuing to establish the amount of compensation western retailers that were supplied by the factories in Rana Plaza will pay to survivors and families. In September the global union of indistries called a meeting of some of the world’s largest retailers in Geneva to discuss a £47.2m compensation fund for the workers injured in the disaster, and the families of those who died. Only nine brands using clothes from the factory attended. Union officials close to the talks say they are hopeful, however, that a deal will be concluded early next year”.

There are power-knowledge dynamics in any discourse, including international relations. One can see the US monopoly in production and reproduction of knowledge. Because of the power-knowledge nexus, study of international relations was primarily concerned with the affairs of the powerful. Therefore, studying big powers’ interests were the scope of IR which marginalized the people’s centric approach of the discipline. In case of Rana plaza tragedy, no notable scholarship is manifested except some media reporting.

Similarly, the state is the central unit of analysis in international relations and people’s sufferings, well beings are overlooked in the discourse. However, slowly but steadily, due to the development of media, strong networks of human rights organizations, and the evolution of critical studies in international relations itself, people’s centric approach is getting space in the study of International Relations. But the critical question is “how many families of these victims’ are getting justice, or this kind of events are binding the governments to follow certain kind of standard” merits further investigation. Furthermore, there is also politics over location what we can establish the linkage between power and knowledge. For instance, compared to scholarship on hurricane Katrina available in international relations, scholarship on the devastating cyclone Sydr (2007) in Bangladesh is very less, which clearly signals the politics over location.

Finally, international relations is dominated by the state centric approach since the birth of the discipline. So, the issues like garment workers whether their safety or living standards gets little attention in the discourse of international relations which needs to be questioned.


Md. Shariful Islam is a Lecturer, Department of International Relations, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. He can be reached at shariful_ruir@ru.ac.bd

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