Bangladesh workers demand end to deathtrap labor

Tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers left their jobs on Monday, November 26 and marched to the center of Ashulia, the hub of the country’s garment industry, demanding an end to “deathtrap labor.” Ashulia, a suburb of the nation’s capital Dhaka, is the site of Saturday morning’s deadly fire that killed at least 124 workers at a garment factory owned by Tazreen Fashions .

“(The workers) want to see safety improvements to these deathtrap factories,” said Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity to Agence France Presse (AFP).

The workers also are demanding justice for their fallen comrades. “I demand justice, I demand the owner be arrested,” said a woman named Shadida, who gave only her first name to Reuters. Shadida said that she hadn’t been able to find her mother who worked at the Tazreen factory.

The fire at the Tazreen factory is the worst in a long series of garment factory fires that according to the International Labor Rights Forum have killed 700 Bangladesh garment workers since 2005.

The cause of the Tazreen fire is under investigation, but first reports blame a faulty electrical system. The factory was eight stories high but had no fire exits. Many of those who died either jumped to their death to escape the flames or were burned alive.

AFP reports that the fire-gutted factory was built in 2009. At the time, the owners had permission to build a three-story building, but added the extra floors without permission.

Tazreen is owned by the Tuba Group, which contracts with Li & Fung of Hong Kong to make clothes that are sold in stores throughout the US and Europe including Walmart, Carrefour, Target, Kohls, and others.

The International Labor Rights Forum says that it has evidence that the Tazreen factory produced clothing for brands such as Walmart’s Faded Glory, Ace, C&A, Dickies, Fashion Basics, Sean Combs Co.’s Enyce brand, Edinburgh Woollen Mill’s brands P.G. field and Country Rose, Hippo, Infinity Woman, Karl Rieker GMBH & Co., Kebo Raw, Kik, Piaza Italia, Soffe, and True Desire.

A Walmart spokesperson said that the company was in the process of trying to determine if any of the clothes it sells are made by Tazreen.

The lack of safety at Bangladesh garment factories has been a point of concern for years, and Western retailers have tried to address this issue by establishing contractor guidelines and conducting safety audits carried out by third-party inspectors.

The Tuba Group said that its garment factories have passed safety inspections carried out by Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), which the ready wear fashion industry established after it was criticized for relying on sweatshop labor to produce its clothing.

WRAP, however, denies that it has certified the Tuba Group’s factories.

Whatever the truth is, this latest deadly fire shows that the inspection system that was supposed to end sweatshop conditions has failed.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, calls the safety inspection system “a joke.”

“The only people who actually believe the labor inspection system does anything are the ministers and officials who have a vested interest in perpetuating the fiction of its effectiveness,” said Robertson to AFP.

Last May, a few Western retailers, such as PVH, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, agreed to support a program designed to improve safety standards in the Bangladesh garment shops that make its clothes.

However, “The deal has not made much headway due to non-participation by major brands like Walmart, Gap and Carrefour,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, an independent union of garment workers, to AFP. “The problem is when it comes to workers’ safety, Western retailers mostly offer lip service.”

Amin said that the fire at the Tazreen factory and the others that preceded it are the result of willful neglect by the government and garment factory owners. The Bangladesh garment industry produces the country’s leading export.

“This disastrous fire incident was a result of continuing neglect of workers’ safety and their welfare,” said Amin to Reuters. “Whenever a fire or accident occurs, the government sets up an investigation and the authorities–including factory owners–pay out some money and hold out assurances to improve safety standards and working conditions. But they never do.”

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