Once again, foreign-brand labels were found among the burned-out wreckage, just as they had been in other episodes among a flurry of tragic fires that have set passions alight over the ugly underbelly of the country’s ready-made garment industry.
Garment making is the backbone of Bangladesh’s cash-strapped economy, accounting for annual exports worth $24.3 billion last year, about 80 percent of the country’s earnings. But the staggering frequency of lethal factory fires — which have claimed more than 500 lives since 2006 — shows that rising profits have not led to improvements in safety.
Most of the deaths have been in unlicensed factories that depend on subcontracted orders from bigger plants. Industry watchdogs say that fire-related deaths are an inevitable result of cost-cutting measures taken by garment makers under intense pressure from Western apparel companies to produce ever-larger quantities of clothes at rock-bottom prices.
Despite angry protests and pledges of reform, activists say that what remains in place amounts to risky business as usual.
“We expected big changes, and very quickly, but the reality is that nothing meaningful has happened,” says Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labor leader and former child factory worker. “So far the government and foreign companies are all talk, no results; the unnecessary deaths continue.”
Little outside pressure
The majority of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment exports go to Europe, but nearly 25 percent are sent to the United States. Rights groups contend that major Western companies know that high-volume, low-cost orders will be farmed out to sweatshops that have no incentive to respect fire codes or workers rights.
“Bangladesh is the way it is because they have been rewarded by the industry,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, said of the country’s garment makers. “It has the worst labor rights record, lowest wages and most dangerous factories. And the response of big western retailers has been to pour more business into the country.”
“The message to factory owners: keep doing what your doing,” he said.
After a deadly fire swept through the Tazreen garment factory on Nov. 24, big-box retailers Wal-Mart and Sears sought to distance themselves from the situation, claiming that orders had been subcontracted by local contractors without their knowledge.
Labor rights groups have urged top foreign buyers to sign an agreement that includes a binding commitment to ban subcontracting to at-risk facilities, finance renovations and fire-safety training and make audit results public.