This Is Black Friday in Bangladesh (Double participation)

Published November 28, 2014 by djlwsu

Relatives of victims of the Tazreen factory fire demonstrate on its second anniversary, November 24, 2014. The second sign reads, “Sumaya Khatun, a victim of Tazreen Fashions fire—where is compensation?” (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

This Is Black Friday in Bangladesh

Walmart marks the holiday season this Friday with deals on its Faded Glory women’s sweaters. But this time of year marks a different occasion in another corner of Walmart’s empire: In Bangladesh, survivors and families remember the second anniversary of a massive fire at the Tazreen factory on the outskirts of Dhaka.

After the fire on November 24, 2012, as families mourned over the incinerated bodies in the factory ruins, activists dug up some damning shreds of evidence: they uncovered a Faded Glory label, proving that the workers had produced Walmart-branded clothes.

Today, two years on, Walmart seems eager to put the horrific legacy of Tazreen behind it. But the victims, including 112 dead and many others left injured and impoverished, can’t move on.

The disaster left Maliha partially blind, with severe leg and head injuries, leading her husband to abandon her “to avoid taking care of me.” She recounted in a 2013 report by the Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), “The money I used to earn at Tazreen helped me support my ill mother in the village. Now, I wonder everyday how to survive and feed my children who are so young.”

Some of the world’s largest corporations should have an answer for her, but on Tazreen’s second anniversary, labor and human rights groups have reminded the many multinationals linked to the factory that they have yet to take responsibility. A coalition led by the Clean Clothes Campaign and other labor groups declared, “Walmart still hasn’t paid any compensation to the victims nor has it engaged worker organizations to find a solution.” In addition, the workers at the “death trap” factory had “also produced clothing for Delta Apparel, Dickies, Disney, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, El Corte Ingles, Sean John Apparel, Kik, Piazza Italia, and Sears. None of these companies have paid a cent towards compensation.”

To date, activists report that workers have been left with only meager, piecemeal paymentsfrom charitable funds from the government and some local business associations.


Clothing with Walmart’s Faded Glory label was found in the burnt-out factory (AP Photo/Ashraful Alam Tito)

ILRF Director of Organizing and Communication Liana Foxvog tells The Nation via e-mail that activists have criticized the domestic compensation programs, observing that “the distribution that has happened has been nontransparent, has not reached many of the injured workers and affected families, nor has it been disbursed equally or fairly.”

Some companies have responded to public pressure to pay up. Recently, a foundation tied to the European retailer C&A announced an agreement with labor advocates, the union federation IndustriALL and the International Labour Organization, to create a formal compensation scheme to provide for victims’ lost income and medical treatment.

Still, the main challenge will be compelling the major apparel companies to actually fund the program, as corporate contributions continue to lag the toll of dead and injured.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The Tazreen tragedy was a prelude to an even larger disaster, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory compound, which killed more than 1100 people and galvanized international outrage. Though both incidents have led to some compensation offers (a separate program has been established to support Rana Plaza victims, with some donations from Walmart, but still underfunded), workers still face massive physical and economic hardship.

The two tragedies show that industrial catastrophes happen so routinely in Bangladesh’s garment sector, the devaluing of workers’ lives is structured into the gears of the production chain, reflected in the abysmally low wages and astronomical profits generated by high-paced overseas mass production.

Walmart has launched its own factory safety initiative, a multi-brand coalition known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Yet despite well-publicized efforts to “promote accountability” and “ensure that garment workers remain at the heart of our efforts,” the Alliance’s statement on the Tazreen anniversary was terse, commemorating the tragedy as “an important wake-up call about the need for urgent reforms,” without mentioning any of the companies’ links to the factories.

Of course, avoiding any hint of liability for worker deaths is nothing new. After the fire, Walmart tried to distance itself by claiming that Tazreen was not authorized to produce orders for them.

The retail giant was undermining corporate accountability in the days leading to the Tazreen fire as well. In addition to relying on notoriously weak and corporate-friendly auditing servicesfor supplier factories, the company helped scuttle an earlier proposed agreement for the retailers to cooperate on investing in safety renovations. Walmart balked at the proposed requirements, calling them “not financially feasible for the brands.”


Tazreen Fashions garment factory after the fire (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)

The corporate stonewalling continues today. To prevent future industrial atrocities, labor groups have launched a framework to administer independent factory monitoring and remedial measures, known as the Bangladesh Accord. Meanwhile, Walmart and Gap have rejected that accord and promoted its Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety as an alternative. But rights groups have sharply criticized that initiative because it allows multinationals to escape full legal liability for safety violations, rendering it comparatively toothless.

The problem isn’t simply that Walmart’s alternative scheme distracts from the broader, more comprehensive Bangladesh Accord (with about 180 signatory brands). It’s that the lack of support from North American industry giants ultimately undermines the social compact underlying the Accord’s emergent network of labor and community groups, government and industry.

If the overall culture of the workplace remains hostile to workers, they will remain unprotected in terms of both physical safety and protection of their labor rights. Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity testified to Congress in February that currently in the factories:

Their right to refuse dangerous work is denied. When I say this, I’m thinking of the workers at Tazreen who were ordered to go back to their sewing machines when the fire alarm went off and then when it became really clear that it was a real fire, the exit doors were locked and the floor managers with the keys were nowhere to be found…. This is why I fear that until the largest U.S. companies the buy from Bangladesh–companies such as Walmart, Gap and VF Corporation–join the Accord, garment workers will continue to die on the job in my country.

So past tragedies will be repeated. And Miraj, who survived Tazreen with severe injuries, will still be haunted by his ominous exchange with his boss before the disaster:

Once I asked the manager, how can we get out if there is a fire? The manager told me that they would build stairs outside, but they did not do anything. This was long ago.

Walmart can argue that it doesn’t have to be held to account for factory accidents, and it can perhaps try to make a business case for avoiding the cost of safety investments. But on the question still seared into Miraj’s memory—how can we get out if there is a fire?—there’s no excuse for the industry’s silence.

Read Next: Michelle Chen on how Walmart saves $1 billion through tax loopholes

Advertisements

6 comments on “This Is Black Friday in Bangladesh (Double participation)

  • This article saddens me because it makes me realize the price that workers in these horrible factories have to pay just so us Americans can buy cheaper clothing. The cost of adding ten more dollars to the price of a shirt should be outweighed by the lives that are lost in many accidents like this one in factories that are similar. I am also appalled at the way that Walmart reacted to the fire that occurred in a factory producing their clothing line! This just makes me want to avoid shopping at Walmart altogether because of how badly they treated those people who had nothing left. It really is too bad that Walmart is one of the only places to shop in Pullman.

    Like

  • The conditions that factory workers have to work in are just appalling. I remember seeing a video with the conditions and one example that made me mad was that from the inside of the factory there is a door with an exit sign, but when you open it to the outside, there was no set of stairs connecting the 3rd floor exit door to the ground… just like what Miraj had asked his boss in this article. Walmart should take responsibility over their factory workers death. It is wrong for them to turn their head and ignore what has happened. These workers had their lives taken in return to make Walmart’s cheap clothing items. I’m glad labor and human rights groups have taken initiative to help those affected by the factory fire. But how about trying to make the conditions of the factory better and safer? Independent trade unions need to be established, and make sure that they monitor factory conditions to ensure workers rights.

    Like

  • Walmart is known to have good deals during black friday but what we all didn’t know is how they treat their workers. It’s sad to see that workers aren’t paid enough money but yet we take advantage because we are spending less on these items. We are taking from their pay it feels like it. Walmart is a big company and for them not to take responsibility on the fire just upsets me because if people really took the time to see they would know what Walmart does in their factories.

    Like

  • The fact that corporations and even our society as a whole, contribute to the unfair treatment of workers overseas is hard to hear as an American. Walmart is one of the biggest and wealthiest corporations in the entire world and they should take responsibility for what they do no matter what country the crime occurs in. Even though Walmart has funded a program to end unfair treatment of workers, they have have yet to act on the mistakes that they have made which affected thousands of lives. It’s almost like they’re willing to talk the talk but unable to walk the walk. As an employer of millions of people around the world it is Walmart’s moral duty to maintain the same treatment no matter what the employee’s job title is or what country they work in. Just because there is cheaper labor with more desperate people willing to work for longer doesn’t mean we have to right to essentially enslave an entire area into working in their factory. I believe if any worker in the U.S were treated this way then it would be considered slavery by most. Just because these issues aren’t in our country doesn’t make it ok for them to happen where people are most vulnerable. With instances such as these continuing to surface it will raise awareness in the U.S when it comes to unfair treatment of workers. That being said it still remains up to us as citizens of the U.S and of the world to join in solidarity with the rest of the human race and fight against unfair treatment of workers no matter where the crime occurs.

    Like

  • For the most part, I agree with the others that there is a lack of accountability with Walmart, being the huge power it is in our world today, it should take care of its business in Bangladesh. Its unfortunate the citizens who work there don’t have established unions to have their voices heard; the unfair working conditions and treatment they have to work with would have been absolutely unacceptable in the U.S. In my opinion, it’s the lack of awareness by everyone in America of these issues is the reason nothing happens. I feel like big-name companies in general to our own government, doesn’t do anything to right any wrongs unless there is mass activism involved. When a mass amount of people become angry about something, change ensues. This is a common theme throughout history. The hardest thing for these unfortunate Bangladesh citizens is that they won’t reunite as a whole because they rely heavily on their income to feed themselves. A little off-topic but as we saw with the restaurant industry, there are workers who can’t afford a day off because they won’t be able to make the rent or put food on the table. Similar to Tazreen workers, they’re often in no position to stand up for themselves. The people in higher power are in it to maximize their income, more money in these underpaid workers means less money in their pockets, it’s capitalism. The U.S doesn’t really do much because less money comes out of our pockets due to cheap labor in third-world countries, as often stated throughout our history; it wouldn’t be in our best “interests” to get involved abroad. A building in the U.S always has to be approved by regulators, and also checked by the fire department for safety, it’s very unfortunate the Tazreen workers are put in difficult conditions to the point where they are trapped in a burning building.

    Like

  • Wow after reading this article I was shocked to find out that Walmart never stepped up and paid any compensation for what had happened to the workers in Bangladesh. These are people who were helping build your business and help it stay the success it is today and you abandon them without any care? This is tragic and the people who were left with having to try and keep supporting their families after losing their jobs or losing family members or friends. This source of income is no longer there and many are continuing to struggle. But hey why would we ever expect the US to treat people from other countries fairly if they can’t even threat Americans right when it comes to the work force. It’s unfortunate the things that people have to deal with when companies like Walmart can lend a hand and it would make a huge difference and impact in many peoples lives.

    Like

  • Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: