Bangladesh Workers, Unions Demand More Action

Several groups organized committees and roundtables to draw up specific demands.

Protests in Dhaka, Bangladesh, continued for the fourth day on Thursday, even after violence broke out on Wednesday when workers took to smashing cars and breaking barricades to show their anger over the fire at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory that claimed 111 lives.

This story first appeared in the November 30, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Several groups organized committees and roundtables to draw up specific demands. Organizations like Ain o Salish Kendra, or ASK, a legal aid and human rights organization, have made comprehensive lists of demands, including that the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association submit a report on the incident within two months. ASK demanded that the report include whether the industry executives comply with the relevant laws and what steps they have taken to safeguard the workers from fires.

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“I think international brands should help the victims more, especially for the women and children,” said Aslam Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Trade Union Center. “Our government’s role was not sufficient, although they have a key role. The government is practically trying to save the owner when they have clearly shown a lack of fire safety measures and gross negligence.”

The anger also has been stirred by fear, trade union leaders said. “The fear of the fires has become enormous for garment workers,” Bina Shikdar of the Garments Sramik Trade Union told WWD. “Workers are losing their patience in the demand for better conditions. Compliance is an eyewash. At this point the trade unions and nongovernmental organizations are protesting that compliance should be followed up with reality.”

On Wednesday, 60 garment workers in two cities — Dhaka and Chittagong — were injured in a stampede when a fire was suspected at their factories. It turned out to be a short circuit at the factory in Chittagong and not a fire, but 50 workers had to be treated. A similar situation occurred in Dhaka, according to the police, when more than a thousand workers made an escape from a factory where a boiler explosion led to the fear of fire. Ten people were hurt in that stampede.

Shikdar said that although three arrests had been made from the management of the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory, it was really the owner who should be brought to justice. “The government is always in favor of factory owners and so is the media, because of ownership issues,” she said. “The arrested members from the factory are just low and middle management.”

There have been 330 deaths of garment industry workers in Bangladesh since 2000, according to industry statistics, with 26 deaths at the Ha-Meem Group Factory in Ashulia near Dhaka in December 2010, and 21 deaths at the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory in Gazipur in February 2010 among the more recent incidents.

In Washington on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis compared the Tazreen fire to the 1911 blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, characterizing it as “a similar call to action for Bangladesh and also for the many international buyers supplied by the country’s garment factories.”

Without directly responding to a letter sent Wednesday by a group of U.S. and international labor organizations, she referred to some of their concerns.

“I know that change is not easy,” she said. “The U.S. Department of Labor stands ready to help, with technical assistance and expertise, to work with the government of Bangladesh to ensure that this horrific tragedy becomes a watershed moment for Bangladeshi workers’ rights.”

Numerous workers’ rights advocacy groups had called on Solis and a number of European government labor officials to press brands and retailers to sign onto a joint memorandum of understanding with a group of nongovernmental organizations and international and Bangladeshi trade unions, know as the “Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.”

The groups claim corporate social responsibility programs are not enough and argue that more stringent steps — such as their agreement — need to be taken to prevent tragic fires in the future. PVH Corp. and German retailer Tchibo have signed onto the agreement, but it will not take effect until a specific number of firms agree to it.