"Mafia Don"-Like Factory Owner Now On the Hook for 400 DeathsS

Sohel Rana, the politically "untouchable" Bangladeshi political boss, businessman, and alleged drug runner, has finally been touched. All it took was 400 deaths. Rana, the owner (and namesake) of the building whose horrific collapse injured thousands and killed over 400 people last week, was arrested earlier this week, and throughout Wednesday, May Day protesters were calling for his execution.

The Times has an excellent profile of Rana, about as perfect a villain as you could write:

And perhaps no one wielded power more brazenly than Sohel Rana. He traveled by motorcycle, as untouchable as a mafia don, trailed by his own biker gang. Local officials and the Bangladeshi news media say he was involved in illegal drugs and guns, but he also had a building, Rana Plaza, that housed five factories.

Upstairs, workers earned as little as $40 a month making clothes for retailers like J. C. Penney. Downstairs, Mr. Rana hosted local politicians, playing pool, drinking and, the officials say, indulging in drugs.

But as the paper acknowledges, Rana is a product of—and a stand-in for—the deeply corrupt and oppressive garment industry of Bangladesh.

Directly or indirectly, international brands are now sometimes interlinked with men like Mr. Rana, and placed at risk by them. ["Brands," yes, also: workers! — Ed.]

Global apparel companies often depict their international supply chains as tightly scrutinized systems to ensure that clothing sold to American buyers is produced in safe, monitored factories. Yet their inspectors usually check safety factors and working conditions, but not the soundness of the buildings themselves, and the companies often have little control over the subcontractors who do much of the work.

Today, 20,000 workers and their allies (and more elsewhere) marched in Dhaka, the capital , demanding the death penalty for Ran; banners reading "Hang the killers, Hang the Factory Owners" were unfurled. But their aims were broader than justice for the eight arrested men: protestors and organizers (a dangerous job in Bangladesh) demanded better working conditions and fought for regular salaries and higher raises. (Guess they haven't been reading Matt Yglesias?)

Elsewhere, retailers, clothing brands, and western governments have been split on their response to the tragedy. Some companies (Wal-Mart, Gap, and H&M among them) met in Europe this week to discuss possible compensation and safety reforms, but no commitments were forthcoming; others (like the Children's Place and Benetton) attempted to distance themselves from the factory—and were subsequently caught out by labor advocates and journalists like Steven Greenhouse. The EU is said to be discussing "the use of its trade preference system" to encourage safety measures, and two companies have signed on to a plan for independent inspections and privately-sponsored improvements to labor conditions.

But as Fazle Hasan Abed argues, safety standards and working conditions shouldn't be imposed from without, or charitably handed down by employers. They must be demanded by a strong, organized labor movement:

The solutions start with the workers themselves; they must be allowed by their employers to unionize, so they can engage in collective bargaining and hold their employers responsible for basic standards of pay and safety. Their organized power is the only thing that can stand up to the otherwise unaccountable nexus of business owners and politicians, who are often one and the same.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh is a dangerous, difficult place for would-be organizers and trade unionists. Last year, union leader Aminul Islam was brutally murdered by unknown assailants. If external political pressure can be brought to bear on Bangladesh, it should be placed on the government to find and punish Islam's murderers, and anyone else who would seek to violently prevent labor organizing.

There are still at least 149 people missing in the collapse. “Rana is not the only one,” one Bangladeshi told the Times. “Now, we have so many Ranas.”

[BBC, NYT, image via AFP/Getty]