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.”