November 24 marks the two-year anniversary of the deadly fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. in Bangladesh that killed 112 garment workers. Since then, at least 30 garment workers have died in factory fires and 844 have been injured in 68 incidents, according to data collected by Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka, the capital. Many of the survivors and their families say they have received little or no compensation, and many survivors are unable to work again.
“Things are getting much, much worse for me,” said Shahanaz, who sustained critical injuries, including loss of vision in her right eye, while fleeing the burning building. “With all of the pain I am in, I can no longer pray while standing.”
Shahanaz is one of nearly a dozen garment workers and family members the Solidarity Center profiled last year. Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka recently visited the workers again, and found that, like Shahanaz, their health and financial situations have deteriorated.
Five months after the Tazreen fire, another 1,100 garment workers in five factories were killed and another 2,500 people were injured when the Rana Plaza building collapsed.
Millions of garment workers, up to 90 percent of whom are women, have made Bangladesh the second largest producer of apparel globally, and 80 percent of the country’s foreign exchange depends upon the industry. Garment workers have toiled for decades in hazardous working conditions with few worker rights. After the Tazreen and Rana Plaza disasters shocked the world, these worker rights violations could no longer be ignored.
Following the Rana Plaza collapse, the United States suspended its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) agreement with Bangladesh based upon chronic and severe labor rights violations. In the weeks after the suspension, the Bangladeshi government dropped charges against two prominent garment union leaders. It has since registered more than 200 unions representing more than 50,000 workers. By contrast, only two garment unions were registered between 2010 and 2012.
Yet some 25 percent of new unions are in factories that have closed or are inactive due to anti-union activities, according to Solidarity Center data. Further, in at least 46 factories with unions, workers have faced severe anti-union violence, mass terminations and/or threats.
International retailers have joined together in two separate groups to improve safety at factories where they contract work. More than 175 international retailers signed on to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement negotiated with the global unions, IndustriALL and UNI. Another 26 primarily U.S. and Canadian companies signed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is not legally binding. After inspecting some 1,700 of Bangladesh’s 5,000 garment factories, the Accord and the Alliance identified 33 factories in which safety issues are so serious that they recommended production be suspended because of the risk to workers.
However, questions remain about who will pay for the cost of repairs and who inspects the remaining factories that neither the Accord nor Alliance says are their responsibility. The Accord and Alliance claim 1,800 factories are under their purview, but a recent study estimated the total number is between 5,000 and 6,000 factories and facilities.
The Solidarity Center has had an on-the-ground presence in Bangladesh for more than a decade. This year, following Solidarity Center fire safety trainings, garment workers have used their new skills to identify and correct problems at their worksites. Joni and Rabeya, president and general secretary of B. Brothers Garments Co. Ltd. Workers Union, found 15 expired fire extinguishers and located electrical hazards in their factory, such as faulty electrical wiring. They raised these fire safety issues with management, which has since corrected some of the issues.
Recognizing that workers who freely form unions can better advocate for job safety and decent wages, the Solidarity Center believes there is need for:
• A clear and transparent trade union registration process.
• Quick resolution of unfair labor practices by the Bangladesh Labor Department, with penalties for employers who engage in them.
• Development of an independent alternative dispute resolution mechanism in the face of inefficient labor courts
Garment workers and workers in other industries in Bangladesh’s export-processing zones are subject to a different, much weaker set of labor laws than workers in the rest of the country, and the government must take steps to reform laws so they meet international standards for freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, said A. K. M. Nasim, senior legal counselor at the Solidarity Center’s office in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. Further, “if we have any half-hearted reform in the legislation, it will mean that the workers will have to continue their struggle for a period of at least a generation to achieve these fundamental rights.”
Speaking at a recent forum in Washington, D.C., Nasim gave an overview of the current labor rights environment for Bangladeshis and provided key recommendations for improving their wages and working conditions.
Some 377,600 workers, the vast majority women, work in eight export-processing zones (EPZs) throughout the country.
Bangladesh derives 20 percent of its income from exports created in the EPZs, which are industrial areas that offer special incentives to foreign investors like low taxes, lax environmental regulations and low labor costs.
Yet while workers outside the EPZs are permitted to form trade unions, EPZ workers must form weaker workers’ welfare associations. Even though the associations have the right to bargain and negotiate agreements with employers, in practice, employers do not let the workers form their associations easily. Leaders of workers’ associations who actively promote the interests of the employees “have been fired from their jobs,” Nasim said. “As a result, most of the workers’ associations in the EPZs remain in existence only on paper.”
Nasim discussed the decision last June by the U.S. government to suspend Bangladesh’s trade benefits based on the country’s chronic and severe labor rights violations. The United States suspended its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) agreement with Bangladesh after 112 workers were killed in a 2012 fire at the Tazreen garment factory, and more than 1,100 died last April when the Rana Plaza building collapsed. Since the GSP suspension, the Bangladesh government has allowed some 100 unions to register, in contrast with the few unions recognized prior to last year.
The Rana Plaza disaster also led to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year binding agreement between international labor organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and retailers in the textile industry to maintain minimum safety standards. The tragedies also have generated an increase in NGO involvement, and Nasim urged the NGOs working to improve workplace safety and health to support workers in forming and running unions, and making sure they are sustainable in the long run.
Also speaking at the forum, Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan showed how the economic and political intersect in the Bangladesh context as described by Nasim.
“Bangladesh is a crucible for the intersection of globalization, the government’s economic policies, how these impact on the development of a democratic culture in civil society, and equitable and just economic growth that benefits workers and their families,” Ryan said. “A voice for workers in this process is absolutely crucial for growing democracy and democratic organizations in Bangladesh.”
The forum, “Strengthening Democratic Practices in Bangladesh: Empowering Workers in Export Processing Zones,” was sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy and included Zerxes Spencer from the International Forum for Democratic Studies as moderator.
A year after the deadly factory fire that killed 112 garment workers at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. in Bangladesh, survivors and the families of those killed and injured say they have been forgotten by the factory owner, international buyers and the government.
In interviews with Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, many survivors said they were so injured in the blaze and escape from the building that they are unable to work again. Yet the compensation they received after the disaster—if they received any assistance at all—was not sufficient to cover initial medical bills, let alone pay for the expensive, ongoing care many need. Some were the sole breadwinners and, without the ability to work and with no financial assistance to see them through their recoveries, their families often go hungry, they cannot afford to send their children to school and many even risk losing their homes.
“I am not able to work and I don’t think that I will be able to work anymore,” said Shahanaz Begum. “Now, my life seems worthless.”
Like nearly all Tazreen garment workers who made it out of the burning multistory building alive on November 24, 2012, Shahanaz survived by jumping through a window. Windows—most of them barred—were the only exit because the factory had no fire escapes and staircases were locked or led to the burning storage room on the first floor. And like all survivors with whom the Solidarity Center spoke, Shahanaz said a factory manager told her she could not leave. She left anyway, searching through the smoke and darkness for a way out until she was forced to jump.
Now, Shahanaz said, “I cannot see through my right eye. I have problems in my spinal cord and can’t even walk properly. I cannot sit properly as my left leg was broken, my right leg is filled with blood clots and I cannot lift heavy weights.”
Shahanaz’s daughter, Tahera, also worked at Tazreen and suffers debiltating physical and emotional trauma. Shahanaz’s husband married a second wife after the disaster and now provides her with little financial support. As a result, she no longer takes her medicine because she cannot afford it. And she is unable to pay her rent. The compensation she received from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Employers Association and two private organizations was used up paying for the extensive treatment she required in four separate hospitals.
According to news reports, Tazreen Fashions earned $36 million annually supplying garments to major buyers in the West. Yet the burning material that engulfed the building was not properly stored in a fireproof facility. Stairwells were locked, fire escapes nonexistent and no safety equipment was available to fight the blaze. Tazreen garment workers know the fire was preventable—yet so far, no one has been held accountable. And the garment workers who survived, and the families of those who did not, say they have been abandoned. As Anjuara, a Tazreen survivor said, the Bangladesh government has not compensated victims, but it offered condolences. “Our factory owner did not even express condolences to us,” she said.
After the Tazreen tragedy last year, ABC News 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.”
In a country, a region and an industry where death on the job has become routine, all those involved along the garment supply chain continued business as usual after the Tazreen disaster. Since Tazreen, Solidarity Center staff has tracked 51 garment factory fire incidents, with some two dozen workers killed and more than 700 people—most of them women—injured.
Only after the Rana Plaza building collapsed outside Dhaka in late April, killing more than 1,200 garment workers, have concrete steps been taken to address deadly factory working conditions. Nearly 100 clothing brands have signed on to the Accord on Building and Fire Safety, a new and binding agreement that covers 1,800 factories in Bangladesh, mandates that both brands and the companies they source from fix building and fire hazards and ensures unions are a key part of this process. In another step forward, the government has allowed 60 unions to register—and if the unions are not resisted by employers, they will have the ability to improve the safety and health of vulnerable and impoverished workers who cannot fight alone for their rights.
But none of these moves help the Tazreen survivors. “Leading a better life is not only the hope of rich people but also the poor people like us,” said Morsheda, 25, a sewing machine operator at Tazreen, who is too injured to work and whose husband’s meager income in a garment factory cannot support them. “Garment owners have much money, they have the capability to run so many garment factories, they have nothing to lose. But we poor have lost everything.”