Locked in a Death Trap

As work­ers con­tinue to suc­cumb to fac­tory fires, the government looks the other way.

Southasia - - Contents - By Asma Sid­diqui

The government in Bangladesh, fac­tory own­ers and in­vestors are un­der tremen­dous pres­sure to over­haul work­place safety in the af­ter­math of a re­cent fac­tory fire. Ac­cord­ing to rough es­ti­mates by la­bor groups, more than 500 peo­ple have died in such fac­tory fires since 2006. The fire in­ci­dent of Novem­ber 2012 at Tazreen Fash­ions Ltd. killed 112, and was one of the coun­try’s worst in­dus­trial ac­ci­dents. Fol­low­ing the tragedy, gar­ment work­ers clashed with po­lice, de­mand­ing com­pen­sa­tion for the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies and safer work­ing con­di­tions.

Bangladesh’s gar­ment in­dus­try, which ac­counts for 80 per­cent of the coun­try’s $24 bil­lion an­nual ex­ports, has be­come the main­stay of an econ­omy that was once de­pen­dent on aid. How­ever, low wages and sub-stan­dard safety con­di­tions re­main a prob­lem among many of the coun­try’s roughly 5,000 ap­parel fac­to­ries, which are squeezed for rock-bot­tom pro­duc­tion costs. Bangladesh is at­trac­tive to for­eign in­vestors be­cause it is amongst the world’s least ex­pen­sive cloth­ing pro­duc­tion coun­tries. The min­i­mum wage for gar­ment work­ers is less than $37 a month, thus se­verely ham­per­ing any progress.

In ad­di­tion to suf­fer­ing from low

wages, Bangladesh’s gar­ment in­dus­try, the sec­ond-largest ex­porter of cloth­ing af­ter China, has a no­to­ri­ously poor fire safety record. Ac­cord­ing to government re­ports, the coun­try ex­ported $19 bil­lion in gar­ments last year. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi work­ers have died in fac­tory fires, ac­cord­ing to Clean Clothes Com­pany, an anti-sweat­shop ad­vo­cacy group based in Amsterdam. Bangladesh’s econ­omy in re­cent years has been pro­pelled by churn­ing out low­cost gar­ments for the West, which la­bor groups say has come at the cost of work­ers’ safety. Au­thor­i­ties have be­gun to re­view the na­tion’s 5,000 reg- is­tered gar­ment fac­to­ries and de­clare that they will with­draw per­mits from those that fail safety eval­u­a­tions.

Tarzeen fac­tory, that was pro­duc­ing clothes for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., was op­er­at­ing with­out a safety li­cense and had been warned twice to im­prove safety con­di­tions. Ac­cord­ing to an emer­gency ser­vices of­fi­cial, “We re­fused to re­new the li­cense be­cause there was a lack of fire safety mea­sures.” Abu Nay­eem Mo­ham­mad Shahidul­lah, di­rec­tor gen­eral of Fire Ser­vice and Civil De­fence, told Reuters, “The fire safety cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ex­pired on June 30, but the de­part­ment did not re­new it be­cause fire safety pro­vi­sions had not been put in place.” He added that in July a re­minder was is­sued to the Tuba Group that han­dles the man­age­ment of the fac­tory. Ac­cord­ing to a Bangladeshi of­fi­cial, around 30 per­cent of the fac­tory own­ers did not have fire-safety li­censes, ad­e­quate fire ex­tin­guish­ers, hosepipes, water sup­plies and work­ers trained in emer­gency pro­ce­dures.

Ex­perts say many of the fire in­ci­dents could have eas­ily been avoided if the fac­to­ries had taken the right pre­cau­tions. Most fac­to­ries are lo­cated in cramped neigh­bor­hoods and have too few fire es­capes. Bla­tantly ig­nor­ing safety pre­cau­tions, the in­dus­try as a whole em­ploys more than three mil­lion work­ers, most of them women.

The fire at the Tazreen fac­tory in Savar, north­west of Dhaka, started in a ware­house on the ground floor that was used to store yarn, and quickly spread to the up­per floors. The build­ing was nine sto­ries high, with the top three floors still un­der con­struc­tion. Though most work­ers had left when the fire started, an in­dus­try of­fi­cial said as many as 600 work­ers were still in­side, work­ing over­time. The fac­tory that pro­duced T-shirts, polo shirts and fleece jack­ets, opened in May 2010, em­ployed about 1,500 work­ers and recorded sales of $35 mil­lion a year, ac­cord­ing to a doc­u­ment on the com­pany’s web­site.

Most work­ers who died were on the first and sec­ond floors and were killed be­cause there were not enough ex­its. Such work­ing con­di­tions im­ply that the men and women were work­ing in death traps with no way out. The neg­li­gence on the part of the fac­tory own­ers and government of­fi­cials who failed to en­sure safety stan­dards, must be aban­doned at once to safe­guard the lives of work­ers. Asma Sid­diqui is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes on so­cial is­sues.

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