Since the collapse last week of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building, much of the focus has been on international retailers and what they can do to ensure the safety of the 3.6 million Bangladeshis working in a $19 billion industry focused on producing clothes for cost-conscious Western consumers.

But Bangladeshi labor rights activists and their international supporters say the tragedy at Rana Plaza — which left more than 500 dead after garment workers were forced back to the production lines even after the building developed cracks — has highlighted a simple truth.

They argue that the country’s garment workers, mostly women from poor rural backgrounds, need to organize labor unions that can effectively represent their interests, including their fundamental interest in a safe workplace.

“If these [workers] were able to organize, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Kalpona Akter, an activist with the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity. “If they had unions, as soon as they saw the cracks they could have raised their voice.”

Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director general of the International Labor Organization, says the toll at Rana Plaza could have been much lower if the five factories housed in the building had unions that could have resisted the order to return to work until doubts about safety were resolved.

“Had the staff been organized in a union, or any kind of association, it would have made a big difference,” said Houngbo, who is leading an ILO emergency mission to Bangladesh.

On paper, Bangladeshi workers do have the legal right to form unions and collectively bargain with factory owners. In reality, attempts to unionize the country’s garment workers have been ruthlessly suppressed, with any activist workers hounded out of their jobs, blacklisted or worse, with tacit government approval.

Last year, Aminul Islam, a prominent garment worker-turned-labor organizer who had complained of harassment by security forces, was killed, his body — bearing marks of torture — dumped on a highway. His killers were never identified, but labor groups believe his murder was intended to warn potential labor agitators.

Today, Bangladesh’s garment workers are the lowest-paid in the world, with an official minimum wage of about $38 a month. Minimum wages last rose in 2010, when they were increased by 80 percent, after a four-year period with no change, despite persistent high inflation.

Hundreds of factories were shut down for about a week last year after protests by workers demanding another increase, but the demonstrations were eventually quelled with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Bangladesh now has a special security force, the industrial police, dedicated to stifling labor unrest.

But around the world, industrial disasters have historically proved to be effective catalysts for change. New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 garment workers — most of them women — were killed, in part because fire exits were locked, helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought successfully for better conditions for factory workers, including safety.

Many now say that the Rana Plaza disaster — which came five months after a fire at another Bangladeshi factory, Tazreen Fashions, killed 112 people — could force similar change. Even before the tragedy, Bangladesh was under fire from Western governments for failing to guarantee workers’ basic rights.

Citing Dhaka’s “apparent disregard for the lives and livelihoods of the very workers who create the country’s wealth,” the AFL-CIO has been pressing the Obama administration to suspend Bangladesh’s trade privileges under the general system of preferences, with a decision due soon.

Pressure is intensifying in Europe, as well. The European Union, whose member countries buy 60 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports, warned this week that, if conditions for factory workers do not improve, it would consider restricting duty-free access to the European market.

“My business will shut down overnight,” says Reswan Salim, owner of Sofitex Cotton. “There’s no way we will be competitive.”

Dhaka had already been talking about amending its labor law to incorporate what the government calls more “pro-worker provisions.” Though labor activists say the latest draft still falls far short, the pressure on Dhaka could change the tenor of the debate.

But whatever promises are made on paper, bringing fundamental changes to the corporate culture of the industry will be challenging. “I think the message has been pretty clearly received that there is no way for business as usual to go on,” Houngbo said. “But I don’t know if everybody appreciates the depth of the change we have to go through.”

— Financial Times