There are always moves afoot to weaken if not undermine the most basic rights of workers one of which is in the area of occupational health and safety, a right won on the bodies of workers who died through the lack of basic safety measures. Companies give reasons to support this strategy, using such buzz words as: international competitiveness, increased productivity and other pearls.
Three weeks ago in the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh there was yet another ‘industrial accident’ causing the death of more than 1100 workers.
Since then two international labour organisations with the assistance of Oxfam have organized an international agreement to improve fire safety and working conditions in Bangladesh. Designer labels, wholesalers and retailers who sell garments manufactured in Bangladesh are being asked to sign. Many have agreed but some large companies are refusing. Walmart is one.
As of today those Australian companies who appear to be reluctant to participate are Woolworths (Big W), Kmart , Cotton On and Target.
I wish I could say that this is the first major industrial fire or accident in the Bangladesh garment industry but it isn’t. It’s just the worst. I wish I could be confident in predicting it will be the last. I’m not in the least.
I’ve previously written about the garment industry especially as a catalyst for change in the area of occupational health and safety. Two years ago New York commemorated the centenary of the Triangle Waist-Shirt factory fire in the Asch Building in New York.
That fire occurred in 1911 and over 100 people, mainly teenage migrant girls, were killed. The Triangle fire is remembered every year since, with a ceremony that includes the victims’ names being read out as a bell is rung.
Close to the end of their shift one Saturday afternoon working girls were still at their machines in a Triangle factory that had wooden floors, covered with scraps of fabric discards, mixed with oil from sewing machines. A spark caused this ‘fuel’ to ignite. When the girls tried to escape they found that the exit doors were locked. In 1911 fire engines didn’t have ladders that extended to the 8th floor and above. The girls who worked on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors jumped to their deaths in scenes reminiscent of 9/11. There was a huge public outcry. 100,000 people marched in the funeral procession, and 400,000 people lined the streets to watch the coffins go by.
The first serious occupational health and safety regulations in the USA were introduced as a result.
In 2000 a fire broke out in the Chowdhury Knitwear factory in Bangladesh. Forty-six girls were killed. Many were aged between 12 and 14 years. Over 51 people died. When the investigators went through the charred remains of the factory they discovered that the fire escape doors were locked. This factory’s output was for American designers in the American market. From the Triangle Fire in New York to the Chowdhury factory fire in Bangladesh 90 years later, the circumstances of the fire are almost identical. Fire exits locked, workers were predominantly very young women working long hours for a pittance in a deathtrap creating garments for the American market.
They protested in Bangladesh as a result and I wish I could say that something came from this 13 year-old tragedy. Sadly since then, there have been many more fires. Adding to the depressing statistics is yet a second fire at the Chowdhury Knitwear factory in 2004 killing 23 garment workers.
“Major RMG Fires Since ’90
62 killed at KTS Garments, Chittagong 2006
32 killed at Saraka Garments, Dhaka 1990
24 killed at Shanghai Apparels, Dhaka 1997
23 killed at Macro Sweater, Dhaka 2000
23 killed at Chowdhury Knitwear, Narsingdi 2004
23 killed at Shan Knitting, Narayanganj 2005
22 killed at Lusaka Garments, Dhaka 1996
20 killed at Jahanara Fashion, Narayanganj 1997
12 killed at Globe Knitting, Dhaka 2000”
Sources- National Garments Worker’s Federation and newspapers
(Daily Star: Feb 27 2010)
The figures below are even more stark. These are the deaths in fire accidents in Dhaka located garment factories, from 1990-2010. They don’t include the last three years, which have seen more fires and more deaths.
. “1990 32
. 1991 05
. 1993 12
. 1994 05
. 1995 09
. 1996 10
. 1997 13
. 2000 60
. 2004 23
. 2005 23
. 2006 62
. 2010 52”
Source: Research Reference Cell, Dainik Janakantha, The Daily Star, 27 February 2010, The Daily Star 15 December 2010, New Age 15 December 2010, and bdnews24.com 15 December 2010.
These figures don’t include the deaths from the last three years including the disastrous Tazreen Fashion Factory Fire in November of last year where 111 garment workers were killed. It too was located in the suburb of Savar, Dhaka in Bangladesh.
It’s been 112 years since the Triangle Waist shirt factory fire in New York. This story appears to be a never-ending one, certainly not one with a happy ending. It is the story of sweatshops, underage workers, no health and safety regulations, maximized profit, company greed on the backs of collateral damage namely charred and broken bodies.