Bangladesh Factory Fire Puts Ethical Sourcing, Factory Conditions in Spotlight


In a fiery furnace of déjà vu, a garment-factory fire in Bangladesh on Saturday killed 112 people trapped inside the building, or jumping to their deaths in buildings where safety is ignored in a retail rush for products to export.

It was just over a century ago — March 25, 1911 — when the now infamous fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on New York’s Washington Square left 146 workers dead because the owner had blocked exits and stairwells to keep employees from leaving or taking a break. The tragedy led to reforms and unionization for U.S. garment workers, but here we are a century later, and it’s happening again in Bangladesh.

About this latest firetrap, which has sparked mass protests in Bangladesh, AP writes: “The fire alarm: Waved off by managers. An exit door: Locked. The fire extinguishers: Not working and apparently ‘meant just to impress’ inspectors and customers. ‘Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower,’ said Maj. Mohammad Mahbub, fire department operations director.

The factory is owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd., a subsidiary of the Tuba Group, and has produced garments for Walmart, Carrefour, C&A and IKEA, since opening in 2009 and employing about 1,700 people. Walmart’s connection to the factory is still “unclear,” as Salon notes. A 2011 Walmart ethical sourcing audit gave Tuba Group a yellow rating and requested that it address unacceptable conditions at its factories.

Update: Walmart stated on Monday that the factory in question was indeed producing pieces for the retailer — but without its knowledge, due to a subcontractor arrangement. “Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier,” America’s biggest retailer said in a statement. “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.”[more]

More than 700 people have died in Bangladesh garment factory fires since 2007, according to the Associated Press, in a country with more than 4,000 garment factories that produce about $20 billion annually with sales primarily to the U.S. and Europe.

An international tribunal headed by Italy-based Permanent People’s Tribunal secretary-general Gianni Tognoni, recently found that Indian workers, about 80% women, “besides low wages and non-payment for overtime…are denied statutory and social benefits, exploited with stiff production targets and its women workforce face sexual harassment and violence. Though the textiles and garment manufacturing sector is the largest provider of employment and output in India, the working and living conditions of workers have definitely worsened over the last two decades with more exploitation and harassment.” 

“Noting that the brands have to recognise their complicity in the violation of the basic rights of workers,” Tognoni said, “Our recommendations to them (brands and suppliers) will remain a mockery where human rights are violated, their declarations of good will imply an unwillingness to change.” 

“We’ve outsourced our history of worker exploitation and lack of safe work environments along with American jobs,” notes the Economist Populist.  “These used to be American jobs. Companies that sell to Walmart, Sears and other U.S. retailers offshore outsourced clothing manufacturing to countries where there are no safety standards, workers have no rights and wages are so low people can barely afford rice. It’s 1911 for Bangladesh as the United States races to the bottom on cheap prices and cheap labor.”

Inhumane and illegal labor practices are by no means confined to the garment industry. Apple has faced ongoing scrutiny over conditions at China’s Foxconn factories, while Korea’s Samsung admitted after a September audit of 105 of its suppliers in China that its suppliers had breached local labor laws, but maintains it has not employed children among its workforce. The month-long audit was in response to China Labor Watch’s claim that a manufacturing partner, HEG Electronics, was employing minors amongst its 65,000 plus employees including workers below the age of 18. 

Samsung says it will “continue to monitor” working conditions for staff among its 249 China-based suppliers and released a public promise, titled “Corrective Measures of Working Conditions at Supplier Factories in China,” and the following statement: “Samsung has a zero tolerance policy on child labor violations. Although we did not identify any child labor during our audits in September, we have demanded all suppliers to adopt a new hiring process immediately, and contracts with suppliers who use child labor will be terminated.” 

The Clean Clothes Campaign is one model “trying to bring awareness that multinational corporations are behind such inexcusable abuses of global workers,” notes the Economist. “This is a valiant effort yet as long as corporations are allowed to hunt the globe for cheap exploitable labor with impunity, we doubt much will change.”