Can Western companies put an end to Bangladesh factory disasters?
On Wednesday, while a Bangladeshi survivor of last November’s Tazreen fire that killed 113 people was talking to a Seattle audience about the need for corporations to be held liable for safety violations, it happened again. That day, a factory housing dozens of garment manufacturers in Bangladesh collapsed outside of Dhaka. Since then the death toll has skyrocketed to more than 300 workers, with hundreds more still trapped in the rubble.
Could it be that the so-called convenience of economic globalization is collapsing, too?
Sumi Abedin survived the Tazreen fire in a Bangladeshi garment factory by jumping out a window, breaking an arm and a leg. The Tazreen factory manufactured clothes for a number of Western companies, including Wal-Mart Stores, Sears, Sean John and Disney.
Workers smelled smoke and tried to leave the building but they were told it was a false alarm and were sent back to their sewing machines. As the room filled with smoke, workers tried to escape but found doors and windows locked — apparently to prevent workers from stealing garments. Abedin said she jumped not to save her life but for another reason. “I wanted my family to be able to identify my dead body. If I had stayed there, it would have burned and they would not have been able to find me,” Abedin told a packed audience.
Kalpona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, is traveling with Abedin on a 12-state tour in the United States. They are demanding fair compensation from Wal-Mart and a legally binding agreement from manufacturers to ensure fire and building safety and worker rights. “This is a pattern of gross negligence on the part of multinational corporations,” Akter said. “They know what is happening, but they are not stopping it.”
In the past six years, excluding the most recent collapse, there have been 700 reported fire and building violation deaths in Bangladesh. In the most recent incident, workers were reportedly ordered to go to work even though a crack in the building had been discovered the day before. Akter and her colleagues call the factories “death traps,” places where workers go every day knowing they might not come out.
Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion worth of apparel from Bangladesh, making it the second-largest buyer of apparel there. In the aftermath of the Tazreen fire, the New York Times reported that in April 2011, Wal-Mart participated in a meeting at which major corporations considered an agreement calling on suppliers could make safety improvements in a system they knew to be highly dangerous. Two participants in the meeting told the New York Times that Wal-Mart played the lead role in rejecting an effort to have retailers pay more to ensure factory safety because it was not “financially feasible.” For many, that claim is hard to fathom in light of Wal-Mart’s $15 billion profit in 2011. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization, says it would cost big brand companies less than 10 cents more per garment to ensure safe factories.
The garment manufacturing sector in Bangladesh is a $20 billion industry. It accounts for 78 percent of Bangladesh’s exports and employs 4 million workers — 70 percent of whom are women — in 5,000 factories. It’s a high-stakes industry for the government, and one that’s rife with corruption. Several elected politicians own garment factories themselves. Abedin said that when building auditors came to the factory, she and her co-workers were told to report that they worked fewer hours than was true, wore respiratory masks, kept windows and doors open, and never faced physical or verbal abuse—all untrue, she said.
Audits have been criticized as rubber stamps allowing corporations to avoid accountability. Even when safety issues are raised in audits, little is done to resolve them. After the Tazreen fire, it came out that Wal-Mart actually received a May 2011 audit of the Tazreen factory classifying it as a “high-risk factory.” Wal-Mart sent a letter to the factory’s owners warning them that two more such findings in two years would lead Wal-Mart to suspend its orders.
In an interview in Seattle on Thursday, Liana Foxvog, organizing director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said it is unacceptable but standard practice for apparel buyers to give a “three strikes, you’re out” letter instead of immediately demanding fixes. And, she said, “Companies like Wal-Mart also never tell the workers of the hazards and dangers that they know about. So where is the accountability to human lives?” Foxvog says that is why it is essential that corporations sign the legally binding agreement, to hold them accountable for what they know and how they source their products all the way down the global supply chain.
Although Akter and Abedin went to Bentonville, Arkansas, to Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters, no one would meet with them. (Wal-Mart did not return a call seeking comment for this column.) It is unclear whether Wal-Mart also was purchasing clothes from manufacturers involved in the latest factory collapse. Either way, however, activists hope this latest factory collapse will bring enough public pressure on multinational corporations to sign the agreement around building and fire safety and provide compensation for victims.
When Abedin was asked what motivates her to keep going, she looked resolutely at the crowd. “My friend who died in the fire,” she said. “She keeps me going. I am doing this for her.”
PHOTO: Rescue workers look for trapped garment workers at the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, 30 km (19 miles) outside Dhaka April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Bira