January 28, 2013—Seven young women, at least two of them teenagers, died over the weekend in a Bangladesh garment factory fire—the 28th fire incident to frighten, injure or kill Bangladeshi garment workers since a deadly blaze at the Tazreen factory killed at least 112 workers in late November, according to Solidarity Center staff in Bangladesh. At least 491 garment workers have been injured on the job since the Tazreen blaze, according to information compiled by the Solidarity Center.
|When Bangladesh garment workers seek to form unions, they often have been physically threatened or assaulted. Photo: Derek Blackadder
“Nearly two months to the day we see another preventable tragedy fueled by the relentless drive for cheap production that often entails dangerous facilities, below-poverty wages, cramped conditions and an absence of health and safety programs,” says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Program Director Tim Ryan. “We want to express our deepest sympathy to the families and loved ones of those killed in the blaze.”
According to news reports, the 300 workers at the Smart Export Garments factory faced unsafe conditions similar to those found at Tazreen: locked doors and gates that prevented them from quickly escaping the blaze, a lack of fire extinguishers and piles of flammable material that were not stored in fireproofed areas. Some workers jumped out of windows to escape, and it took nine fire engines around two hours to stop the fire at the two-story factory building. Bangladeshi authorities have confirmed that the building was illegally constructed and lacked proper fire-safety measures.
Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of ready-made garments after China, and clothes account for up to 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion annual exports. Yet the base pay for a garment worker in Bangladesh is the equivalent of $37 a month—below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Over the weekend in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, representatives of labor and civil society organizations gathered to discuss worker safety in the nation’s ready-made garment industry. Many participants said the ability of workers to freely form unions and get a voice on the job is essential to establishing safe working conditions.
"There is no alternative to [a] trade union for protecting the basic rights of the workers," said Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya, speaking at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) conference where he is a distinguished fellow.
Yet workers who try to form unions often face abuse and even death, says Ryan. “Over the past three years, hundreds of garment workers have been injured, and some killed, in clashes with police while demonstrating or on strike for worker rights, most often for higher wages.” Last April, Aminul Islam, an organizer for the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), a Solidarity Center partner, was murdered, his body bearing signs of torture.
“Too often in low-wage economies, companies find little reason to protect the rights and interests of workers—and corporate self-regulation has proven a faulty tool for ensuring healthy and dignified workplaces,” said Ryan. “Meanwhile, vulnerable and impoverished workers cannot fight alone for their rights and, without the relative strength of a union to represent them, their lives hang in the balance.”
The Solidarity Center has been supporting workers’ rights—including providing fire safety training—in Bangladesh for years.