The price they pay for our cheap t-shirts
How do Bangladesh's textile barons undercut their rivals? By compromising the safety of their exploited workers
Lying on a trolley in a corridor at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where feral cats chase under beds in search of scraps, 20-year-old Yero Akhter Ranu fears she may never be able to walk again. When fire swept through the factory where she earns 48 pence an hour sewing clothes for Western brands a week ago, she rushed to escape by the stairs but was stopped by an official. As the heat and smoke intensified, she ran to the second floor, broke a window and leapt, expecting not to survive. "I thought at least my dead body can be recovered and taken to my parents," she told The Independent, as doctors at the government hospital treated her for spinal injuries.
A week after Bangladesh's worst garment factory fire left at least 112 people dead, Western consumers are being asked to weigh what the true cost of a T-shirt is. Campaigners say that Bangladesh, the world's second-largest producer of clothes, has secured this position only by offering workers the lowest wages in the world and having some of the worst safety regulations in the industry. Before last week's disaster, more than 500 garment workers had died in fires and accidents since 2006, campaigners say.
"We think that the West can do more to help the workers of Bangladesh and improve the working conditions," said Kalpona Akter, a labour rights activist with the Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Centre.
Since last Friday's blaze at the Tazreen Fashion factory, which took 13 hours to control, a picture has emerged of an establishment where safety took a back seat, and where equipment such as fire extinguishers did not work and had apparently been put in place simply to satisfy visiting inspectors. Local media reports said the exit doors were locked.
The factory is located on the outskirts of Bangladesh's crowded and chaotic capital and is owned by the Tuba group of garment companies. Workers said the ground floor was frequently littered with cotton and other industrial supplies, making it difficult to move around the factory floor.
Parveen Akter, the husband of a sewing operator, visited the factory a few weeks ago and found the ground floor hopelessly cluttered. Another employee, Amina, 30, who also jumped from the second floor and who suffered serious head injuries, said: "The ground floor was sometimes clear, but at other times full of material."
One worker said an emergency drill had taken place the day before the fire. "It took 10 minutes for me to get out," said Shohana Begum, 22, who the next day had to jump for her life from a window, with other employees.
Online records revealed this week that the Tazreen factory had been given a "high risk" safety rating after an inspection in May 2011 and a "medium risk" rating in August 2011. Wal-Mart said it stopped working with the factory last year, apparently over safety concerns.
Yet many Western companies – including the Scottish-based Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Disney, Sears, the clothing line of the singer Sean Combs, Carrefour, Ikea and C&A – had contracts with the factory. Wal-Mart's Faded Glory brand clothes were also made there, though the US retailer said this arrangement was made by a sub-contractor without its knowledge and his since been terminated.
Bangladesh has about 4,000 garment factories and earns about £12.5bn a year from clothes exports, mainly to the US and Europe. But campaigners say it is time Western companies and consumers did more to protect workers in Bangladesh and other developing countries.
Two years ago 29 people died in a fire at a factory owned by That's It Sportswear. Scott Nova, head of the Worker Rights Consortium in Washington DC, said that after this incident the US clothing giant PVH, whose brands include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY, reached an agreement with campaigners and Bangladeshi trade unions.
The agreement, signed in March, will put in place a $1m ($625,000) programme of in-factory training, health and safety committees and reviews of building regulations and enforcement, all paid for by the company. "We hope this will… result in safer factories and establish a benchmark for fire and building safety standards and practices throughout Bangladesh," said Emanuel Chirico, PVH's chairman.
Mr Nova urged other large companies to join the scheme. He said that Gap, which also had clothes produced at the That's It Sportswear factory, had been asked to join the programme but said it was setting up its own fire-safety audits of Bangladeshi factories that it would make public.
Campaigners say Bangladesh's situation is made all the more perilous by the nature of the factories' environment. Land is at a premium in the country, and it is common for factories to have eight or nine floors. And although factories may have escape gates, owners often prefer to lock them, supposedly to stop staff stealing merchandise. In 2006, 65 workers died in a garment factory fire in the southern city of Chittagong after management ordered gates to be locked.
"All these fires in Bangladesh, if you look at why so many die and are injured, in most cases it is because you find that the doors are locked," said a Bangladeshi architect, Bashirul Huq. "The companies want to control the workers. It is just pure negligence."
The body responsible for enforcing workplace safety laws has only 20 government inspectors for all the factories in Bangladesh. Corruption is rife and reports suggest that when inspectors do visit facilities, they are often paid off with a relatively modest fee.
Since last week's fire, police have arrested three managers. Bangladesh's home minister, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, said that a preliminary inquiry had blamed arson for the fire. "We have [concluded] that it was an act of sabotage. We are finding out who the saboteurs are and all culprits will be brought to book," he said.
Whether it was an accident or a deliberate act, Bangladesh's garment workers remain at risk. On Wednesday, 60 workers were injured in two separate incidents as they fled from factories in Dhaka and Chittagong.
In Chittagong, 50 workers of Section-7 Limited of the Shirt Makers Group were injured as they fled after seeing smoke coming from the fourth floor of the factory. In the capital, 10 workers were hurt as up to 1,000 people ran from a factory run by Star Light Knit Wear after spotting smoke caused by a boiler explosion, the country's Daily Star newspaper reported.
Sam Maher, of the Bristol-based campaign group Labour Behind the Label, said activists hoped that the industry was finally ready to change. "I really hope so," she said.
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