Sweatshop Fires in Bangladesh
“The first alarm: Waved off by managers. An exit door: Locked. The fire extinguishers: Not working and apparently ‘meant just to impress’ inspectors and customers. That is the picture survivors paint of the garment-factory fire Saturday that killed 112 people who were trapped inside or jumped to their deaths in desperation.”
--Associated Press report on the Tazreen factory fire, November 24, 2012.
Thousands of Bangladeshi women labor in apparel factories, with the constant threat of fatal sweatshop fires. Adding to their concerns are a number of cost-saving decisions which render factories far more vulnerable to deadly fires. Sixty percent of factories lack adequate fire-fighting tools and many do not have emergency exits. As a result, more than 600 garment workers have died in preventable factory fires since 2006, and hundreds more have suffered severe injuries. A report released in December 2012 by the ILRF documents the deady secrets of the apparel industry.
On November 24, 2012, a fire broke out at the Tazreen Fashions factory near Dhaka. Managers instructed workers to ignore the fire alarms and continue working. By the time it was apparent that the alarms were not a drill, it was too late for many to escape. Gates were locked and workers were trapped inside. 112 garment workers died in the deadliest factory fire in Bangladesh’s history and many more were injured. They were sewing clothing for US and European apparel companies. Walmart was the largest client and other buyers included C&A, Sears, Dickies, Disney, Edinburgh Woolen, Mills, Enyce, and Soffe / Delta Apparel.
The garment industry accounts for 78% of Bangladesh’s total exports and 13% of its GDP. Four million workers in 5,000 factories provide clothing to US and European companies. Bangladesh's largest buyer is H&M, followed by Walmart and Gap Inc. These companies express condolences and make promises after each tragedy, but they continue to increase their business in Bangladesh while doing nothing substantive to change the conditions in the factories that make their clothing.
Gap and Walmart both claim to have taken measures to address fire safety in recent years, but in the same period, the rate of fire-related deaths per year has continued to increase. In the past six years, an average of one hundred workers have died per year compared to fewer than forty per year for the previous sixteen years. Gap has refused to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, instead creating its own fire safety plan with no transparency, no role for workers or their trade unions, no commitment to pay prices to suppliers that make it feasible for them operate responsibly, and no binding commitments of any kind.
The International Labor Rights Forum is fighting to end corporate impunity, demanding that the apparel industry change its practices, and pushing the US government to end Bangladesh's GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) benefits as well as not extending the benefits to the apparel industry, as long as unsafe workplaces and labor rights repression continues. In particular, the ILRF is calling on all major brands and retailers buying apparel from Bangladesh to sign and implement the labor-supported Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. This groundbreaking program not only requires independent inspections, it creates avenues through which workers' own concerns on workplace safety can be heard and respected.
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