Bangladesh fire fuels fight for worker safety
vanessa Houk, 27.12.2012 16:32
Separated by more than a hundred years and eight thousand miles, the recent clothing factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 are tangled threads that connect across continents and are interwoven into a history of greed and corruption. In the United States, the aftermath of the Triangle fire led to tougher fire code regulations and labor standards that protect workers to this day. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, factories continue to have dangerous working conditions and US companies still import their goods on a daily basis.
Bangladeshi labor activist holds up the remnant of a Wal-Mart brand
Workers described what happened on November 24 at the Tazreen Fashions LTD plant in Dhaka. Fire alarms blared as the fire broke out on the first-floor warehouse of the nine-floor factory building, but factory workers were told to keep working and were assured that the alarms were just a test. They worked for several minutes until smoke filled the building and the lights went out. In darkness, panicked workers screamed and felt their way around the floor of the building, trying to locate the exits. Many found locked doors in a business that had a history of breaking fire codes.
Within minutes, the fire raged out of control. Reminiscent of the Triangle fire where 146 New York garment workers died, at least 112 people, most of them women, died in the Bangladesh blaze.
Fire investigators say the blaze erupted after stacks of yarn and fabric caught fire. They believe that if the fabric had been stored in an enclosed, fireproof room, as required by law, workers may have been able to escape safely.
On the other side of the globe, American shoppers were recuperating from their frantic Black Friday shopping, where millions of people pushed and shoved one another to get the best deals on cell phones, electronics and other holiday gifts, including many of the labels found on garments in the Tazreen factory. Eyewitnesses say that several major Western clothing brands were among labels found inside the burned factory. Labor rights advocates wonder how major corporations can operate without stronger worker safety guidelines in place.
Mega retailer Walmart released a statement that reads, “The Tazreen factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart. A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies. Today we have terminated the relationship with that supplier. The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.” Contrary to Walmart’s statement, the International Labor Rights Forum (IRLF), which aims to build a just world for workers by ending child labor and has spent years tracking garment factory fires, says that documents, brands and logos found inside the factory include Walmart’s Faded Glory, Gap, Sears, and Disney. ILRF envisions a world where corporations halt the practice of using the poorest international workforces to increase their fortunes and pushes for fair trade. ILRF is calling for “an independent and transparent investigation into the causes of the fire; full and fair compensation to be paid to injured workers and to the families of the deceased; and effective action from all parties involved to prevent future tragedies.”
We all benefit from the safety standards put in place after the Triangle fire. Please take a few minutes to do your part to make sure that those 112 Bangladesh workers did not die in vain and that better workforce standards can be achieved across the globe. sweatfree.org wants you to call your senators and ask them to sign Senator Harkin’s letter to President Obama. The letter asks him to use all the tools at his disposal to ensure that the federal government does not pursue or continue contracts with prime contractors, subcontractors, or licensees that fail to guarantee basic and fundamental rights for their workers and throughout their supply chains, including the right to a safe workplace.
You can reach Senator Wyden and Senator Merkley’s offices through the capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
Passionate about social and economic justice, Vanessa Houk is the author of You Paid What? A Simple Guide to Slashing Grocery Bills and is currently writing a novel. She resides in Ashland.