Cheap clothes come at great cost in Bangladesh.

Last weekend, more than 110 garment workers died in a fire that burned the Tazreen Fashion Ltd. garment factory, located in the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.  Women and men working overtime on the production lines—located on the second and third floors of the building—were trapped when fire broke out in the first-floor warehouse. With no fire escapes, the only exits were stairs leading to the first floor, where the fire raged. Workers scrambled toward the roof, jumped from upper floors, or were trampled by their panic-stricken co-workers. Some could not run fast enough and were lost to the flames and smoke.

The grieving aunt of one of the workers told the Solidarity Center’s Program Officer Rukshana Arzoo, “My nephew called his mother and said, ‘I will die as I will jump from the fourth floor. Please come and get my body’.”

According to news reports, Tazreen Fashion earns $36 million a year supplying garments to major buyers in the West. Before the embers had cooled, the company’s management promised to pay 100,000 taka (about $1,235), to families of the workers who perished. While this is the legal compensation rate for a worker killed on the job, it is a mere pittance to a multimillion-dollar exporter. And it raises a serious question: Is the life of a Bangladeshi garment worker worth only $1,235?

In Bangladesh’s garment factories—and in others around 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. ABC News has best summed up the situation: “Bangladesh has become a favorite of many American retailers, drawn by the cheapest labor in the world, as low as 21 cents an hour, producing clothes in crowded conditions that would be illegal in the U.S. In the past five years, more than 700 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in factory fires.”

The trend is alarming. And instead of making real commitments to listening to workers, ensuring that they can organize to address concerns, building better factories and implementing programs to ensure the safety of the women and men whose labor generates enormous sums for business owners and the country, the garment industry has offered nebulous conspiracy theories for the Tazreen and other fires.

Yet, according to the Associated Press, “Authorities have formed three committees to look into the incident. An industry group has suggested that sabotage may be to blame, though fire officials have said it was not the fire itself, but the poor safety measures that caused the high death toll.”

No matter how the fire started, the factory was a death trap and its management must answer for the lives lost on its watch.

The Solidarity Center has been supporting workers’ rights—including providing fire safety training—in Bangladesh for years. We know from experience that in low-wage economies in general, companies find little reason to protect the rights and interests of workers—and that corporate self-regulation has proven a faulty tool for ensuring healthy and dignified workplaces. 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.

So what has to happen to keep blood off Bangladesh-made clothes sold in Western stores? In the immediate term, the government of Bangladesh and the garment industry must pursue a transparent and serious investigation into the deadly Tazreen fire, prosecute those responsible, provide just compensation for the families of the dead and injured, and implement a serious and comprehensive fire safety and monitoring program.

But 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.

As eminent economist Debapriya Bhattacharya told Bangladesh’s Daily News this week, “Trade unions should be allowed since other institutions seem to have failed to protect the workers’ safety and interests… Otherwise, this type of incident will occur again and again.”

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the News from The Solidarity Center