Bangladesh Finds Gross Negligence in Factory Fire
(New York Times)
“Bangladesh has more than 4,500 garment factories, which employ more than four million workers, many of them young women. The industry is crucial to the national economy as a source of employment and foreign currency. Garments constitute about four-fifths of the country’s manufacturing exports, and the industry is expected to grow rapidly.
“But Bangladesh’s manufacturing formula depends on keeping wages low and restricting the rights of workers. The minimum wage in the garment industry is $37 a month, unions are almost nonexistent, and garment workers have taken to the streets in recent years in sometimes violent protests over wages and work conditions.
“Workers at Tazreen Fashions had staged small demonstrations in the months before the fire, demanding wages they were owed. On the night of the fire, more than 1,150 people were inside the eight-story building, working overtime shifts to fill orders for various international brands. Fire officials say the fire broke out in the open-air ground floor, where large mounds of fabric and yarn were illegally stored; Bangladeshi law requires that such flammable materials be stored in a room with fireproof walls.
“The blaze quickly spread across the length of the ground floor — roughly the size of a football field — as fire and toxic smoke filtered up through the building’s three staircases. The factory lacked a sprinkler system or an outdoor fire escape; employees were supposed to use interior staircases, and many escaped that way.
“But on some floors, managers ordered workers to ignore a fire alarm and stay to work. Precious minutes were lost. Then, as smoke and fire spread throughout the building, many workers were trapped, unable to descend the smoke-filled staircases and blocked from escape by iron grilles on many windows. Desperate workers managed to break open some windows and leap to the roof of a nearby building and safety. Others simply jumped from upper floors to the ground.”
Documents Indicate Walmart Blocked Safety Push in Bangladesh
(New York Times, December 5, 2012):
“[T]wo officials who attended a meeting held in Bangladesh in 2011 to discuss factory safety in the garment industry said on Wednesday that the Walmart official there played the lead role in blocking an effort to have global retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve their electrical and fire safety. [...]
“The meeting was held in April 2011 in Dhaka, the country’s capital, and brought together global retailers, Bangladeshi factory owners, government officials and nongovernment organizations after several apparel factory fires in Bangladesh had killed dozens of workers the previous winter.
“According to the minutes of the meeting, which were made available to The Times, Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Walmart director of ethical sourcing, along with an official from another major apparel retailer, noted that the proposed improvements in electrical and fire safety would involve as many as 4,500 factories and would be ‘in most cases’ a ‘very extensive and costly modification.’
“‘It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments,’ the minutes said.”