Workers demand fair compensation for victims of garment factory fire; document shows that Walmart balked at paying for safety upgrades

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.

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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.”