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More Action Called for in Bangladesh

Pressure continues to grow for apparel manufacturers to improve worker safety.

Pressure continues to grow for Bangladesh apparel manufacturers to improve worker safety, as payments began being made to the families of victims of the Nov. 24 fire that killed 111 workers at Tazreen Fashion Ltd.

In Dhaka, the police were on alert for the last two days as payments were being made to victims’ families. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handed over checks of six lakh takas ($7,398) to each of the families of the dead, for which 43 claimants came forward. The ceremony was held at her residence.

Salary payments were made to some 990 workers on Wednesday by officials of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, as the owners of Tazreen asked for mediators for this money to be dispensed. The rage of several of the garment worker associations has been targeted against the owners of the factory whom they say should be held responsible for the deaths.

The wages were given out in the presence of Rajiuddin Ahmed Raju, labour minister, with the total amount given out being about 12 million takas or $147,971.30.

S M Mannan Kochi, vice president of the BGMEA. said that 53 of the dead are still to be identified and asked that family members of missing workers use a system of DNA tests to claim and identify the remaining bodies. The injured workers will also be given a compensation, he said.

RELATED STORY: Bangladesh Workers, Unions Demand More Action >>

A report on industry conditions in the country by the BGMEA, which was due Thursday, has been postponed to Dec. 20. Other investigations are also underway, some of which claim to have found evidence that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. produced substantial amounts of apparel at Tazreen. Wal-Mart has said its internal investigation found a contractor had subcontracted work to Tazreen and that the retailer has stopped working with the contractor.

In response to a Wal-Mart executive reportedly trying to block efforts to have global retailers pay more for apparel to help factories improve electrical and fire safety, a spokesman responded that, “Those remarks are out of context. Wal-Mart has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers. We have been actively developing and implementing proactive programs to raise fire safety awareness and increase fire prevention. We firmly believe factory owners must meet our Standards for Suppliers and we recognize the cost of meeting those standards will be part of the cost of the goods we buy.”

In Chittagong, teams of four officials have been visiting factories to check on compliance and safety issues. The complete report made out by seven such teams is due in 20 days, with 916 factories being checked. Fire officers said that thus far they have found issues that need to be addressed include better emergency exits, better wiring, narrow alleys and fire safety training for workers.

The Ministry of Commerce issued a directive Thursday for all ready-made garment factories to have regular fire drills.

The BGMEA too has been active. “We want to take lessons from the tragic deaths in Ashulia. We want to rectify this situation,” said Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, the association’s president. Along with better fire safety standards, the BGMEA has plans to introduce a biometric identification system based on taking finger prints of workers. The organization has also stopped garment manufacturers from firing workers without permission of the BGMEA and the Ministry of Labour.

Dan Mozena, the American ambassador to Bangladesh, on Wednesday called for the apparel industry to take action at an International Product Safety and Environmental Compliance Conference organized by the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

He cited U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis’ comparison between the Ashulia fire and the March 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze in New York City, which killed 146 people. “The horror of this 1911 fire riveted America’s attention on the dismal working conditions of the garment industry. As Secretary Solis put it, ‘That fire was our call to action. It galvanized support for stronger worker protections and institutions to enforce them, from workplace health and safety to workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively,’” he said, adding hat he believed Solis was right in her belief that the Tazreen Fashion factory fire was a similar call to action for Bangladesh.

Even as trade union leaders and associations of garment workers are working together to improve the situation, Bina Shikdar of the Garments Sramik Trade Union felt it was not enough.

“The government is reacting quickly, but still that is focused on restoring normalcy in the ready-made garment factories. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has distributed 600,000 taka each to the families of killed workers. But the investigation for finding the responsible persons for the fire at the Tazreen factory is going very slowly and it is alleged widely by press that the real culprits and criminal negligence will not be identified. Fictitious stories may appear in the government report (if the report is made public). Such a type of farcical investigation was done also in the past. No owner/employer was brought before justice. So it is difficult to be satisfied with the government move,” she said.

Rokeya Kabir, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha and chairperson of the Association of Development Agencies Bangladesh ADAB, an umbrella non-governmental organization in Bangladesh, told WWD that workers’ demands need to be met before going any further, especially in terms of better salaries, improved safety and working environments and maternity leave and benefits to the work force, of which 80 percent are women.