It has been nearly a month since at least 112 Bangladeshi workers died in the horrific fire at Tazreen Fashion Ltd garment factory. A government probe has identified nine mid-level officials “who barred the workers from leaving the factory after the fire broke out,” according to the Bangladesh Daily Star Report. The factory owners kept fabric bales in the building’s basement, rather than in fireproof storage as required by Bangladesh law.
But the Tazreen fire is not an isolated incident. Since the Nov. 24 tragedy, 17 fires have broken out in Bangladesh garment factories, killing one worker and injuring dozens more.
In Bangladesh, where more than 4,500 garment factories employ more than 4 million workers, many of them young women, workers are paid wages as low as 21 cents an hour, producing clothes in crowded conditions. In the past five years, more than 700 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in factory fires.
Bangladesh’s $20 billion-a-year garment industry accounts for 80 percent of the country’s total export earnings. It is a powerful industry where factory owners often ignore labor laws—including regulations regarding health and safety—and the government does little to enforce those laws. A government official told the New York Times, “the Capital Development Authority could have fined Tazreen Fashions Ltd. or even pushed for the demolition of illegally built portions of the building.” But it did nothing, rather than confront one of Bangladesh’s most powerful industries, he said.
Just yesterday, 12 members of the U.S. Congress said Bangladesh appeared to be “going in the opposite direction” despite promises of labor reforms. “We are seriously concerned about the deterioration of working conditions and worker rights in Bangladesh,” they wrote in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
In Bangladesh and throughout Asia, the relentless drive for cheap production often entails dangerous facilities, below-poverty wages, cramped conditions and an absence of health and safety programs. And it is the workers who pay.
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. Yet when Bangladeshi garment workers seek to join together to make their workplaces safe, they are often harassed, fired, even physically attacked, to discourage other workers from following their example. One trade unionist, Aminul Islam, was found dead in April, after being severely tortured and beaten.
If authorities and buyers are serious about preventing a greater death toll, workers—whose lives are at risk and who know best how dangerous their workplace can be—must be able to assert their rights, organize unions with their co-workers, raise safety concerns and demand better working conditions according to their best judgment.