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Two third world countries - Bangladesh and the Republic of Texas

On April 24, at 9 a.m., in a crowded suburb of the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka, the eight-story Rana Plaza building, completed in 2010, collapsed, killing more than 800 workers trapped in the rubble, with more still missing.

In 2007, the local mayor had illegally issued a building permit for a five-story building. The owner, Muhammed Sohel Rana, a wealthy member of the ruling national Awami Party, had added another three stories, without adequate foundation, and without any permit. According to the building's architects, construction was not designed to withstand the weight of the additional floors and the vibration of the heavy equipment on each floor. There had been no inspections during or after construction.

The first floor of Rana Plaza was leased to a bank and individual shops. The top seven floors, approximately 20,000 square feet each, were occupied by five different garment manufacturers, employing more than 3,000 workers, mostly female, working six days a week, 14-hours a day, for $37 to $50 a month, 10 to 13 cents per hour.

The Bangladesh garment business, second only to China in clothing exports, brings in about $20 billion a year to the country. The 4,500 clothing factories employ 3.5 million workers, 80 percent women, that supply large western clothing chains, such as Walmart, Sears, J.C. Penny, and Gap, Italy's Benetton, Canada's Loblaw and Britain's Primark, who dictate price and productivity.

On Tuesday, April 23, deep cracks in the walls of the building were sufficiently alarming for police to order an evacuation. Rana appeared, assuring everyone that his engineers were aware of the cracks and that they did not pose any danger.

Rana and the factory managers told the workers to stay on the job, and anyone who did not show up for work at 8 o'clock the next morning would be docked a month's pay and face dismissal.

On April 24, the bank and first level shops remained closed. All five garment manufacturers were open at 8 a.m. for business as usual, with about 3,000 workers. An hour later, the predictable and preventable disaster struck.

The previous week, on April 17, at 7:30 p.m., a fire broke out at the West Fertilizer Company, located on 15 acres in West, Texas, about an hour south of Dallas. Twenty minutes later, a massive explosion occurred, killing 15 people, including 10 first-responders trying to put out the fire, and injuring at least 200 people.

More than 150 homes, a 50-unit apartment building, two schools and a nursing home were destroyed in the 37-block blast zone. Much of the town was leveled.

The fatalities would have been significantly greater, except for the evacuation of the 127 residents of a nearby nursing home, just minutes before the shock wave of the blast turned it into rubble.

The plant had a capacity to store 100 tons of anhydrous ammonia and 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, the same stuff that Timothy McVeigh used to demolish the Oklahoma City Federal Courthouse. How much was on-site at the time of the explosion is unknown, as is the cause of the fire and the blast. What is known is that the plant had not been visited by state inspectors for more than six years, since Jan. 16, 2007. The last inspections by OSHA and the EPA were in 1985, when numerous safety violations were cited.

Texas governor Rick Perry, speaking after the West Fertilizer fire and explosion, without knowing the cause of the fire or explosion, said that he did not believe more regulation would have prevented the disaster.

Texas has no state fire code. Fire codes are opposed by the Republican-dominated state legislature, by industry lobbyists, and by business organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, saying that business owners find the codes costly and burdensome.

Norman Bernstein

In West, Texas, and McLennan County, a fire code would have required frequent inspections, prohibited fertilizer storage close to schools, hospitals, and nursing homes, prohibited the storage of ammonium nitrate near combustible materials, and would have required a sprinkler system that might have extinguished the fire at West Fertilizer, without the subsequent explosion, the deaths and injuries, and the more than $100 million in estimated property damage. Burdensome, indeed.

Texas law allows fertilizer plants to operate without any liability insurance and Texas is the only state that does not require workers' compensation insurance. Two more examples of Governor Perry's "business friendly" policies.

Perry's policies see to it that Texas also has the highest number of workplace fatalities in the country, the highest proportion of jobs at or below minimum wage, one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and the highest dollar amount of corporate tax breaks for the really needy, such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Walmart and Samsung. This is not economic development but corporate welfare programs for the nation's wealthiest.

The result is that 25 percent of Texas children live below poverty level, spending for schools is near the bottom of the nation, the number of residents without medical insurance is the highest in the country, and access to prenatal care is the lowest in the U.S.

During Perry's tenure, corporate giveaways have averaged $19 billion a year. At the same time, there was a $5.4 billion cut in public education spending last year alone, in addition to the $450 million taken from public education for Perry's Texas Enterprise Fund, TEF. Perry doles out TEF money to companies interested in coming to Texas, where profits are high and worker rights are low, or non-existent, just like in Bangladesh.

Perry, during his business recruiting trips to other states, makes the point that "Texas is free from high taxes and burdensome regulation." As it turns out, the West Fertilizer Company, its large stores of potentially dangerous fertilizers, its lack of fire and safety codes, and its inadequate coverage of liability insurance, is a tragic example of "not being bothered by burdensome regulations," just like in Bangladesh.

We accept that the tragedy in Bangladesh is based on rampant greed, abetted by corruption. In Texas, it's called something else.

(Norman Bernstein is a roving correspondent for the Havre Daily News.)


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