NPR Story
3:23 am
Fri May 3, 2013

'Huge Cracking Sound' Heard Day Before Bangladeshi Building Collapsed

Originally published on Fri May 3, 2013 11:14 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's move east now to Bangladesh, where rescuers are still retrieving bodies from the massive building collapse there last week. Five garment factories were housed inside the eight-story structure near the capital. At least 500 people are now confirmed dead. Hundreds more are still missing. Bangladeshi police have arrested several people in connection with this deadly collapse. The latest in custody: an inspection engineer who warned a day before the disaster that the building was unsafe, and also the building's owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana. A photo this week showed Rana before court appearance. You can see it at the MORNING EDITION Facebook page. The building owner is dressed in police armor, a mob surrounding him.

JIM YARDLEY: The police kind of parade him before the media. And that image, which is all over Bangladesh. He had a bulletproof vest on and he had a helmet. Essentially, he is so hated here; I assume this was to protect him from being killed.

GREENE: That's the voice of Jim Yardley, a reporter for The New York Times. We reached him in Bangladesh to learn more about the man who owns that factory building.

Jim, we should be clear that Rana was despised even before this accident took place, right?

YARDLEY: I think feared is a better, by many people. The Rana is sort of a local -as it was explained in my reporting - a local strongman. So he controlled sort of his own private militia. He muscled people out of the way to get the land to build this building. So he sort of typified a sort of gangsterism that often exists at the local level. So I think that when the building collapsed people were outraged. They were particularly outraged because there was a warning. The day before a huge cracking sound it made, people described it as if like an earthquake.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

YARDLEY: And people rushed out of the building. There were reporters there and they interviewed Rana and there's the footage of him on television the night before the disaster, and even the morning of saying, oh, it's just a superficial crack, it's no big deal.

GREENE: Well, what sort of pressures were there that could have explain why he was so insistent on keeping this building open?

YARDLEY: What happened is when the garment industry arrived land values shot through the roof, so guys like him gobbled up the land and you built up a quick factory and then some factory owners lease your building and you can make a lot of money. But what's interesting about the garment industry is that, you know, Bangladesh is a tiny country. It's the size of Iowa. But there are 170,000,000-plus people who live there. And it's been a very poor nation that has made some real progress. Some of this has to do with NGO work, but a lot of it - I mean, the garment industry has played a role and so these industries have come in here and provided jobs. But the way Bangladesh got business was the costs were rising in places like China and Bangladesh has the lowest wages in the world. The minimum wage for a garment worker before overtime is $37 a month.

GREENE: Wow.

YARDLEY: So there's a lot of inefficiencies in Bangladesh. But when you're only paying a minimum wage of $37 a month, brands will still come there because they want to make their cost.

GREENE: Well, then it sounds like, Jim Yardley, that I mean, if you have a situation where there are kind of these strongman who come up and develop a lot of power, there's corruption, if you add money, which these brands have brought as part of the garment industry, you add money to that recipe and something like this could happen, I guess.

YARDLEY: I guess so. I mean, I think what's interesting too, and what the brands really need to deal with is, I'm certain that none of the brands who were having their clothes made in this building knew anything about Mr. Rana. They were dealing with the factory owners. But that building should have been regulated. You know, the brands tell consumers that we have systems in place to assure that things are made in safe environment, that workers are treated well and when you're buying a product on the shelves, we sort of have this independent system. What this shows is that system is not working. And the question is how it can be fixed.

GREENE: We've been speaking to Jim Yardley. He's the South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times and he's been covering the story of that factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Jim, thanks so much for talking to us.

YARDLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.