Tuesday 11 December 2012

A Fire Still Blazing In Bangladesh

The deaths of over one hundred workers at the Tazreen Fashion factory in Bangladesh continues to fan the flames of controversy. The factory was making goods for any number of multinationals, including clothing chains owned by Sean "Puffy" Combs, and American big box giant Walmart, and many of these are trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities.

The Walmart connection becomes more interesting the more you dig into it. The company strongly deny that their products were made with their permission in the doomed factory, blaming the evidence of clothes from their Faded Glory line on the site on a rogue supplier who is no longer working for the group. Meanwhile, it's emerged that the company blocked a move to improve fire and electrical safety at the Bangladeshi factories that worked under Walmart contracts during a meeting in 2011, claiming that it wouldn't be "financially feasible" to upgrade facilities at the sites in question.

The deaths continue. A blaze at the That's It Factory north of Dhaka killed 40 and injured many more, as fire exits were intentionally blocked. A fire at an undergarment factory in southern China last week killed 14 workers, all of them girls and young women aged between 14 and 20. Sparked by a disgruntled worker who was owed back pay, the incident only focussed the world's attention more firmly on issues of safety and worker exploitation in the fast fashion industry. Even the US Secretary of Labor has weighed in on the issue. In a press release issued last week, Linda Solis compared the fire to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, that claimed the lives of 146 female workers. That fire marked a sea-change in American workers rights and workplace safety legislation, and Ms. Solis views the Nazreen fire as having the same impact. She says:

  “Investigations should be conducted and the perpetrators punished, but things cannot then return to business as usual. I know that change is not easy. 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.”
This is, at the moment, all talk and little action.  At least WRAP, who have been at the forefront of raising concerns over worker safety in the developing world, are doing something. They are launching fire safety training courses through the region, beginning in Pakistan later in the month. You could argue that's putting a fire blanket down on cold ashes, but the sweatshop conditions in clothing factories throughout the Indian subcontinent will carry on, and will continue to take lives, unless some kind of action is taken quickly. Nearly 500 workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh alone since 2007. That cannot be allowed to continue.

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