Bangla fire exposes apathy of global clothing brands

One lakh people attended the burial ceremony of 53 workers whose bodies could not be identified

The fire alarm shattered the monotony of the Tazreen Fashions factory. Hundreds of seamstresses looked up from their machines, startled. On the third floor, Shima Akhter Pakhi had been stitching hoods onto fleece jackets. Now she ran to a staircase.

But two managers were blocking the way. Ignore the alarm, they ordered. It was just a test.

Back to work. A few women laughed nervously. Pakhi and other workers returned to their sewing tables. She could stitch a hood to a jacket in about 90 seconds. She arranged the fabric under her machine. Ninety seconds. Again. Ninety more seconds. She sewed six pieces, maybe seven. Then she looked up.

Smoke was filtering up through the three staircases. Screams rose from below. The two managers had vanished. Power suddenly went out throughout the eight-story building. There was nowhere to escape. The staircases led down into the fire. Iron grilles blocked the windows. A man cowering in a fifth-floor bathroom called his mother to tell her he was about to die. “We all panicked,” Pakhi said. “It spread so quickly. And there was no electricity. It was totally dark.”

Tazreen Fashions Ltd operated at the beginning of the global supply chain that delivers clothes made in Bangladesh to stores in Europe and the United States. By any measure, the factory was not a safe place to work. Fire safety preparations were woefully inadequate. The building itself was under construction – even as sewing work continued inside – and mounds of flammable yarn and fabric were illegally stored on the ground floor near electrical generators.

Yet Tazreen was making clothing destined for some of the world’s top retailers. On the third floor, where firefighters recovered 69 bodies, Pakhi was stitching sweater jackets for C&A, a European chain. On the fifth floor, workers were making Faded Glory shorts for Wal-Mart.

Ten bodies were recovered there. On the sixth floor, a man named Hashinur Rahman put down his work making True Desire nighties for Sears and eventually helped save scores of others. Inside one factory office, labor activists found order forms and drawings for a licensee of the US Marine Corps that made commercial apparel with the Marines’ logo.

In all, 112 workers were killed in a blaze last month that has exposed a glaring disconnect among global clothing brands, the monitoring system used to protect workers and the factories actually filling the orders. After the fire, Wal-Mart, Sears and other retailers made the same startling admission: They say they did not know that Tazreen Fashions was making their clothing. But who, then, is ultimately responsible when things go so wrong?

The global apparel industry aspires to operate with accountability that extends from distant factories to retail stores. Big brands demand that factories be inspected by accredited auditing firms so that the brands can control quality and understand how, where and by whom their goods are made. If a factory does not pass muster, it is not supposed to get orders from western customers.

Tazreen Fashions was one of many clothing factories that existed on the margins of this system. Factory bosses had been faulted for violations during inspections conducted on behalf of Wal-Mart and at the behest of the Business Social Compliance Initiative, a European organisation.

Yet Tazreen Fashions received orders anyway, slipping through the gaps in the system by delivering the low costs and quick turnarounds that buyers – and consumers – demand. C&A, the European retailer, has confirmed ordering 2,20,000 sweaters from the factory.

But much of the factory’s business came through opaque networks of subcontracts with suppliers or local buying houses. Labor activists, combing the site of the disaster, found labels, order forms, design drawings and articles of clothing from many global brands.
Wal-Mart and Sears have since said they fired the suppliers that subcontracted work to Tazreen Fashions.

Yet some critics have questioned how a company like Wal-Mart, one of the two biggest buyers in Bangladesh and renowned for its sophisticated global supply system, could have been unaware of the connection.

Bangladesh is now a garment manufacturing giant, the world’s second-leading apparel exporter, behind China, which is no longer the cheapest place to make many basic goods. Bangladesh has the lowest garment wages in the world, and many of the Tazreen factory’s victims were young rural women with little education, who earned as little as $45 a month in an industry that now accounts for $19 billion in exports.

Public outrage

In Bangladesh, public outrage about the fire has boiled over. An estimated 100,000 people attended the burial ceremony of 53 workers whose bodies could not be identified. Industry leaders have promised financial support for survivors and the families of the dead. The Bangladeshi government has started inspecting the country’s 4,500 garment factories; it has already found fire code violations in almost a third of the hundreds it has examined.

“Now we have to do much more,” said Mohammad Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, conceding past failures. “We have learned. We start from here.”

In the United States, Labour Secretary Hilda L Solis compared the Tazreen blaze to the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York, which led to sweeping reforms of American sweatshops. In Bangladesh, factory fires have been a persistent problem, with the International Labour Rights Forum saying more than 600 garment workers have died in such fires since 2005.

And even before the Tazreen blaze, outside pressure was building on Bangladesh’s garment sector to increase wages and ease restrictions on union organizing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with European diplomats, has urged the government to investigate the unsolved murder of a labour organiser, Aminul Islam.

In reconstructing the deadly blaze, The New York Times interviewed more than two dozen survivors, relatives of the victims, Bangladeshi fire officials, garment factory owners and managers, auditors and others. In the end, analysts said, the conflagration was a tragic byproduct of an industry in which global brands and retailers, encouraged by hundreds of millions of consumers around the world, are still primarily motivated by the bottom line.

“We as consumers like to be able to buy ever greater quantities of ever cheaper goods, every year,” said Richard Locke, deputy dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Somebody is bearing the cost of it, and we don’t want to know about it. The people bearing the cost were in this fire.”

Several months ago, Shima Akhter Pakhi was summoned to the sixth floor of Tazreen Fashions. Pakhi, 24, had worked at the factory for three years, and every month she sent money back to her family in rural Bangladesh. Now she earned a monthly base salary of $51, maybe $20 more with overtime. Up on the sixth floor, managers were tapping her for fire safety duty.

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