About 10,000 garment workers on Monday, December 3 took to the streets to demand fair compensation for victims of the deadly fire that swept through a garment sweatshop near the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka. Solidarity demonstrations took place in Europe, Asia, and the US as protestors demanded that Walmart and other corporate retailers, whose clothes were produced at the now burnt out factory, provide relief to the surviving victims of the fire and to the families of those who died in the fire.
“Walmart must now provide full and fair compensation covering loss of future earnings as well as damages to the families of the dead as well as to the injured workers,” read a solidarity message from the International Labor Rights Forum and Workers Rights Consortium.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg News reports that Walmart in 2011 decided that helping Bangladesh garment factories upgrade safety at the plants that produce the retail giant’s clothes was too costly and declined to help pay for the improvements.
The fire that killed more than 100 workers had sparked nearly daily demonstrations on the streets of Ashulia, an industrial zone outside of Dhaka where the Tazreen Fashion factory stood until it burned to the ground on November 24. Tazreen is a subsidiary of Tuba Group, a Bangladesh based textile and clothing conglomerate and Walmart supplier.
The biggest demonstration took place on Monday after the government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association announced over the weekend that they would pay families of those who died about $2,500 and those who were injured about $625.
Protestors said that the amounts offered was not enough and said that the workers who survived the fire but no longer have jobs at the factory should receive all the salary plus overtime owed them plus three months separation pay.
When the workers refused to leave the streets, police hurled flash grenades and fired canisters of tear gas to disperse the demonstration. As the demonstrators began to leave, police charged them and beat protestors, mostly women, with their riot control batons.
On the same day, candlelight vigils were held in Spain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Austria at stores owned by C&A, a European fashion retailer. “We want to pay respect to the victims (of the Bangladesh fire),” said Christa De Bruin of the Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop group that organized the vigils.
Activists in Hong Kong also protested at the corporate offices of Li & Fung, a Chinese company that supplies clothes to Walmart. Li & Fung contracts with Tazreen Fashion to manufacture clothes, many of which end up on Walmart shelves.
Demonstrators in Europe and Hong Kong demanded that retailers such as Walmart and C&A provide relief to the Ashulia fire victims, including funding for medical treatment for survivors, full compensation for future wages lost as a result of the fire, damages and other compensation for the families of the dead, and a welfare fund to provide relief for victims of future industrial disasters and accidents.
In addition, the protestors want Walmart and other retailers to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement “to ensure nobody has to die to produce our clothes,” DeBruin said.
According to the International Labor Rights Forum, such a safety agreement, similar to one that US clothing manufacturer PVH signed with Bangladesh unions and labor rights groups, “includes independent inspections, public reporting, mandatory repairs and renovations, a central role for workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, supplier contracts with sufficient financing and adequate pricing, and a binding contract to make these commitments enforceable.”
While labor groups are calling for Walmart to step up and take more responsibility for the way its clothes are manufactured, the retail giant is trying to absolve itself of any responsibility for the fire. The New York Times reports that documents photographed by a Bangladesh labor organizer show that before the fire clothes headed for Walmart stores were being produced at the Tazreen factory.
A Walmart spokesman said that its clothing order had been subcontracted to Tazreen by its sourcing agent without Walmart’s knowledge.
Walmart’s claim that it had no responsibility for the fire, however, became a bit suspect when Bloomberg News reported that minutes of a meeting held in Dhaka in 2011 reveal that Walmart balked at signing an enforceable memorandum to upgrade safety at Bangladesh garment factories.
According to minutes of the meeting, the memorandum would have required Walmart and other Western corporations to pay for extensive fire prevention upgrades. A Walmart representative at the meeting said that doing so “(was) not financially feasible.”
A spokesman for Walmart said that its comments at the Dhaka meeting were taken out of context, but the International Labor Rights Forum, said that Walmart’s refusal to invest in the safety of the people who make its clothes is consistent with its policy of “exerting downward price pressure” that causes its contractors and subcontractors to ignore worker safety.