Flammable Material: How Garment Workers Can Respond to the Tazreen Factory Fire

Michelle Chen December 22, 2012

The collapse of a Dhaka, Bangladesh garment factory in 2005 killed more than 70 workers and sparked massive street protests. But Dhaka's deadly factory disasters continue. (Derek Blackadder/Flickr/Creative Commons)

In a fash­ion indus­try where trends change by the minute, the lives of the work­ers who make the clothes are often val­ued as cheap­ly as the prod­ucts they cre­ate. The dev­as­tat­ing fire at the Tazreen fac­to­ry in Bangladesh, which killed more than 110 peo­ple, is tied to what labor advo­cates describe as a pow­der keg: the man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tem in the Glob­al South, where count­less fac­to­ries are one spark away from catastrophe.

A new report on fac­to­ry safe­ty by the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Rights Forum doc­u­ments the sto­ry of one teenag­er who sur­vived a dead­ly fire in 2006, which left dozens of work­ers to burn in a sealed death trap:

I think that they used to lock the doors all the time because most of the work­ers were my age, and they thought that we might leave the fac­to­ry any time, as we were kids. That is why they always locked the main door.

Of course, it would be chil­dren who lacked the dis­ci­pline to stay put, whose nat­ur­al impulse to resist restraint required the indus­try to lit­er­al­ly lock them in.

Today, the charred Tazreen fac­to­ry rep­re­sents the extreme end of a long con­tin­u­um of anti-work­er oppres­sion and vio­lence, begin­ning with multi­na­tion­al brands that build their prof­it mod­el on cheap over­seas labor, to the bru­tal­iza­tion of work­ers who dare stand up for their rights on the job.

The cost of treat­ing these work­ers humane­ly doesn’t add up for brand-name man­u­fac­tur­ers. The gar­ment indus­try death toll in Bangladesh has risen to about 700 since 2005, and seems on track to grow as more for­eign busi­ness flock to the South Asian coun­try for rock-bot­tom wages and a bur­geon­ing work­force will­ing to earn as lit­tle as $43 a month, far less than typ­i­cal wages in Chi­na or India. 

2010 raise in Bangladesh’s min­i­mum wage was sup­posed to improve eco­nom­ic con­di­tions, but the ILRF says com­pa­nies have con­tin­ued to cheat work­ers through unfair deduc­tions and demo­tions. Besides, the ILRF notes, Spi­ral­ing infla­tion since the 2010 wage increase has fur­ther erod­ed any gain work­ers might have received,” reveal­ing how lit­tle the country’s cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment agen­da has trick­led down to the most vulnerable.

In recent years some activists have tried to push back against the race to the bot­tom” in wages and work­ing con­di­tions with the Asia Floor Wage cam­paign, which would seek to ensure lev­el wage stan­dards across the region. But despite Asian work­ers’ shared plight of exploita­tion, com­pe­ti­tion for cap­i­tal across coun­tries has stymied transna­tion­al orga­niz­ing. Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Cen­ter for Work­er Sol­i­dar­i­ty tells Work­ing In These Times via email that while Bangladeshi work­ers would ben­e­fit from a region­al floor wage, many would argue that the com­pet­i­tive­ness across the South Asian region has worked in favor for Bangladesh in recent years,” by attract­ing for­eign investors, so a region­al orga­niz­ing effort would con­flict with the coun­try’s indus­tri­al devel­op­ment” inter­ests. In light of the depen­dence on the export econ­o­my, Akter added, We would need sup­port from unions, NGOs, work­ers, and civ­il soci­ety through­out Asia to sup­port this. That is a long ways away.”

The very basic prob­lem of fire safe­ty is the byprod­uct of this fever­ish dri­ve for prof­its. Despite flashy cor­po­rate respon­si­bil­i­ty cam­paigns and eth­i­cal-man­u­fac­tur­ing codes, com­pa­nies such as Gap and Wal­mart have shaped the gar­ment indus­try to be dis­as­trous by design. Accord­ing to the ILRF:

Fac­to­ry fires that kill the work­ers who make the clothes we wear are not the prod­uct of excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances. They are not iso­lat­ed exam­ples of espe­cial­ly greedy or neg­li­gent own­ers or cor­rupt gov­ern­ment offi­cials. …Instead, dead­ly fires are the inevitable prod­uct of an indus­try found­ed on the idea of under­paid and dis­pos­able workers.

Mean­while, the offi­cial inves­ti­ga­tion into the Tazreen fire is already being met with skep­ti­cism. The Bangladeshi gov­ern­ment has acknowl­edged neg­li­gence at the fac­to­ry but is claim­ing the fire itself was sparked by sab­o­tage.” Labor advo­cates want to keep the focus on the industry’s his­to­ry of egre­gious­ly unsafe con­di­tions and fair com­pen­sa­tion for vic­tims (not to men­tion, state author­i­ties’ have been known to crim­i­nal­ize work­ers and activists to sup­press organizing).

The recent mur­der of an intre­pid gar­ment-work­er orga­niz­er, Amin­ul Islam, has shown how polit­i­cal impuni­ty and cor­po­rate pow­er col­lude to sup­press civ­il soci­ety. While vio­lence against labor activists is com­mon, the tar­get­ed killing of a trade union­ist sug­gests that hos­til­i­ty to labor orga­niz­ers is inten­si­fy­ing, and that this pat­tern is inter­wo­ven into the cli­mate of ter­ror that pre­vents work­ers from chal­leng­ing abu­sive employers.

Since lia­bil­i­ty for work­er safe­ty is essen­tial­ly atom­ized across var­i­ous con­trac­tors and reg­u­la­to­ry juris­dic­tions, ILRF pro­pos­es an indus­try-wide fire safe­ty code that would legal­ly com­mit com­pa­nies to ensure safer work­ing con­di­tions and to dimin­ish the per­verse incen­tives to cap­i­tal­ize on unsafe factories:

If a fac­to­ry fails to address a high-risk safe­ty vio­la­tion in a time­ly fash­ion, buy­ers must, as a last resort, cease doing busi­ness with the fac­to­ry. Buy­ers must then shift orders from that fac­to­ry to qual­i­fied and safe fac­to­ries, and make every effort to ensure that work­ers who lose their jobs in the unsafe fac­to­ry are offered employ­ment in the safe factories.

More gen­er­al­ly, activists want multi­na­tion­als to wield their polit­i­cal clout to pres­sure gov­ern­ments in export­ing coun­tries to respect work­ers’ right to orga­nize and to remove bar­ri­ers to union­iza­tion. (Activists report that their orga­niz­ing dri­ves are active­ly sup­pressed by state authorities.)

Akter says that press­ing for sys­temic reforms is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult when com­pa­nies can’t be direct­ly held account­able for major labor vio­la­tions, even in tragedies like Tazreen:

There is no polit­i­cal mech­a­nism in place here in Bangladesh to hold com­pa­nies account­able. … It is crit­i­cal how­ev­er that these com­pa­nies imple­ment a respon­si­ble con­trac­tors’ pol­i­cy. This could work to hold com­pa­nies account­able instead of let­ting them off the hook because of the inher­ent dis­con­nect of the sup­ply chain today. In oth­er words, while the sup­ply chain has grown depen­dent on sub­con­tract­ing, it is still the com­pa­ny (most notably Wal-Mart for they are the ones who set most indus­try’s com­pet­i­tive prices) that effec­tive­ly set the stan­dards of wages, health and safe­ty, and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in every lev­el of the sup­ply chain.

The ever-expand­ing move­ment against Wal­mart may actu­al­ly point work­ers around the world in this direc­tion, tying togeth­er swel­ter­ing ware­hous­es in Cal­i­for­nia and fac­to­ry infer­nos in Bangladesh. Per­haps the seeds of a more sys­temic work­ers’ move­ment emerged in the protests in sev­er­al coun­tries as part of the recent glob­al day of action against Wal­mart. But if labor is able to suc­cess­ful­ly chal­lenge the cor­po­rate grip on the sup­ply chain, can work­ers put for­ward an alter­na­tive vision for a more just man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tem? The lega­cy of labor activists like Amin­ul Islam – of empow­ered work­ers strug­gling to set their own terms for devel­op­ment” – will hope­ful­ly endure longer than the flash of pub­lic out­rage sparked by Tazreen’s extin­guished lives.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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