In an stunning cultural juxtaposition, Black Friday merchants counted their profits and victory-pumped shoppers celebrated their “scores” in malls throughout the U.S., while factory workers on the other side of the world who made many of the clothing items shoppers bought this weekend jumped from windows of a seven-story factory in the effort to save their lives in a late Saturday inferno. Many of them were not successful; as of the most recent count, 124 of those workers have died, with many more injured.
In the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka, a large garment run by Tazreen Fashions, one of the many factories in the area that provide product for American companies including Wal-mart, JC Penney’s, the Gap, Levi Strauss, Kohl’s, Zara, H & M, and others, burst into flames Saturday night in a fire (of currently unknown origin) that started on the bottom floor of the building and quickly rushed up the other floors, trapping workers with no way to descend from the building. As India Today reports:
By Sunday morning, firefighters had recovered 115 bodies, fire department Operations Director Maj. Mohammad Mahbub said. He said another 9 people who had suffered injuries after jumping from the building to escape the fire later died at hospitals.
Mahbub said firefighters recovered 69 bodies from the second floor of the factory alone. He said most of the victims had been trapped inside the factory, located just outside of Dhaka, with no emergency exits leading outside the building.
Many workers who had taken shelter on the roof of the factory were rescued, but firefighters were unable to save those who were trapped inside, Mahbub said. […]
“The factory had three staircases, and all of them were down through the ground floor,” Mahbub said. “So the workers could not come out when the fire engulfed the building. Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower.”
What is particularly stunning about this story is that welfare and safety problems of many of the garment factories of Bangladesh, including those in Dhaka, have been at the epicenter of turbulent worker vs. employer strife for many years, most recently on September 20th, 2012, when “tens of thousands” of garment factory workers near Dhaka clashed with police in protest against low wages and dangerous working conditions. Beyond the sub-standard safety issues rampant in most buildings (such as no external exits of the kind workers in this recent conflagration needed), there is the additional and ongoing peril of gangs and “thugs,” who purportedly have been hired by employers to protect their property from the protesters, but who, it is claimed, roam in and around the factories harassing and assaulting workers (mostly women), including as many as “15 attacks by thugs during the 10 days before the protest.” A toxic mix of issues, surely, creating tremendous “discontent.” From WSWS.org:
The sudden eruption of the protest points to seething discontent among garment workers. In June, workers in the Ashulia zone, which produces 20 percent of the country’s apparel exports, took part in a week-long campaign to demand a 50 percent wage hike. The factory owners, with the backing of the Awami League-led government, reacted by shutting down all 350 factories in the zone, locking out about 500,000 workers. The owners ignored the demand for higher wages, and reopened the factories after Prime Minister Hasina Wajed promised tough security measures. […]
The growing unrest among garment workers has provoked concerns among foreign corporations that their public image will be damaged by the exposure of the appalling conditions in the sweatshops that manufacture their products.
In August, Karl John Person, the CEO of the Swedish multinational H&M, met with Prime Minister Hasina to discuss how to deal with the explosive situation that has built up in the country’s free trade zones. H&M does business with around 250 Bangladeshi factories.
An article in the New York Times on August 23, entitled “Export Powerhouse Feels Pangs of Labour Strife,” highlighted similar issues. It noted: “In late July, representatives from 12 major brands and retailers, alarmed by the rising labour unrest, prodded the Bangladeshi government to address wage demands, a suggestion rejected by the labour minister.”
Given the continuing instability of the economic recession worldwide, which has affected the profits of everyone in the supply side chain including the garment factories of Bangladesh, the concerns of workers regarding better pay and safer working conditions have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. And despite expressed concerns about the metastasizing labor issues of the country put forth by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Bangladesh in June of this year, in reality, the problem is long-standing and seemingly intransigent. To offer some historical context, the recent protests in Dhaka and other local areas are part of a recurring and unresolved pattern of worker unrest, including two particularly violent outbreaks in June and July of 2010 (for all the same reasons), that shut down the industry for days and were responsible for scores of injuries and arrests. The Guardian reported (on 7.20.10):
Bangladesh’s garment exports, mainly to the US and Europe, earn more than $12bn (£7.6bn) a year, nearly 80%of the country’s export income. The country has more than 4,000 factories employing between two and three million workers. Most of these are women, with many are working in hazardous conditions.
A report released last month by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in Vienna said Bangladeshi garment workers were the “world’s most poorly paid”, and that their exploitation was “on the rise”.
The report cited a survey by the Bangladesh Factory Inspection Department, which showed that almost 15% of employers did not pay their workers on time. Many other factory owners did not pay overtime, while several continued to pay less than the minimum wage.
The event of this deadly fire is either an indictment of the profoundly inadequate safety standards of the building, or, worse, a suggestion of continued “thug” involvement. The answer remains to be seen. According to BBN Bangladesh Business News:
The cause of the flames could not yet be known for certain, but one thing is sure: chemicals that had been stored in one of the buildings fed into the massive fire. Meanwhile, a three-member enquiry committee, headed by additional secretary of Home Ministry, Iqbal Khan Chowdhury, was formed early Friday to investigate the incident. The committee was asked to submit its report within seven days.
As the proverb says, “the more things change, the more they stay the same“; a notion corroborated by the fact that, as we move into the waning months of 2012, the deplorable working conditions of Bangladesh still exist and appear unaltered…while stores in America continue to purchase their products. While the families of the injured and dead deal with the tragic events at hand, we here in America must consider our role in this equation, one seen through the prism of our demand for cheap products of the kind sold at places like Walmart. While thousands line up to take gleeful advantage of their motto, “Save money. Live better,” shoppers should be aware that the “cheap” inventory being sold is not bargain-priced out of the generosity of the Walmart CEO’s (or J.C. Penney’s, H & M’s, the Gap’s, or any other purchasing company’s) heart; rather, it has been created and provided by overseas companies that use cheap labor working in unsafe conditions.
“Save money. Live better.”
My guess is that the Bangladeshi garment workers who’ve been protesting for years, working for stagnant, poverty level wages, in places that are unsafe and poorly maintained, would also like to “save money and live better.” Instead, 124 of them died this weekend while working hard to create products Americans are buying for those “low, low prices.”