By now most readers will have learned about the horrific collapse of a factory in Bangladesh killing hundreds of low-paid workers and injury many others. The owner has been arrested and that seems logical. But equally logical it seems to me, is to hold the authorities responsible for workplace safety responsible. I see this as a general paradigm for injury prevention: Most countries have governmental bodies with responsibility for various aspects of public safety. If they fail to do their job in an acceptable manner and people are killed or injured, why should they not be held criminally or civally responsible? Coming at this from another angle, if it could be established that on a systematic basis a government body fails to remedy dangerous intersections, for example, then a principle in much of western law called ‘mandamus’ may kick in. This, as Wikipedia explains, is “a judicial remedy — in the form of an order from a superior court, to any government subordinate court, corporation, or public authority — to do (or forbear from doing) some specific act which that body is obliged under law to do (or refrain from doing) — and which is in the nature of public duty, and in certain cases one of a statutory duty.” In the American legal system it must be a judicially enforceable and legally protected right before one suffering a grievance can ask for a mandamus. A person can be said to be aggrieved only when he is denied a legal right by someone who has a legal duty to do something and abstains from doing it.” My general point is that if we are trying to prevent injuries by setting examples of what could happen, I believe we must consider not only those directly responsible, in this case the factory owner who added to the structure without permission, but also the relevant government body that should have prevented this from happening.
As one report (in the Washington Post (WP) notes) Bangladesh’s ‘deadliest industrial accident” was built without proper permission on unstable land. (But how, I ask, can a structure emerge without permission?) Ironically, because this factory and others like it make cheap goods for Western retailers, there is some scrutiny of work conditions by some importers. The WP states that “At least two garment factories at Rana Plaza had passed international labor and safety standard audits under a European trade organization that addressed specific safety concerns at the factories but didn’t assess the stability of the building that housed them.” A senior official with the municipal agency that oversees building safety in the greater Dhaka area said the building “did not receive planning permission.” “It could and should have been demolished.” In fact permission was obtained from the mayor who had no authority to give such consent. It appears that because of the boom in the garment industry, “Hundreds of factories in this area have been built with local council permission.” Canadian retailer Loblaw Cos. said workers in the complex were making clothes for its Joe Fresh clothing line but that its factory-monitoring system doesn’t check for building construction or integrity. The company plans to expand the scope of its factory audits.
So, why no action against government departments? As the WSJ explains, “Labor-rights activists said laws remain weak and implementation uneven in a country where factory owners, many of whom are also local politicians or members of Parliament, maintain political clout. At least 33 members of the current Parliament own garment businesses.” There are repeated instances of MPs linked to the garment industry blocking stricter legislation.” Bottom line: Bangladesh had adequate laws governing the safety of buildings, but those laws weren’t properly implemented, and, I add, they make no provision for holding government departments legally responsible for failing to do what it is mandated to do.