The clamor for cheap goods leads to tragedy
Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights
November 27, 2012
A Senior Worker—An Eye Witness—Relates What Happened at the Tazreen Factory,
As Flames Engulfed the Workers, Many of Whom Were Purposefully Locked In.
“I was working on the fifth floor in the sewing section on the evening of Saturday, November 24th. Fifty percent of the workers left the factory at 5:00 p.m. and the remaining 50 percent had to stay for overtime. All overtime is obligatory.
“Just a few days earlier, the factory had received piles of cartons full of cloth, yarn and thread, and some sewing machines. It was 6:30 p.m. on Saturday when the fire started on the ground floor, and it quickly spread to the upper floors. About 1,800 workers were trapped. Some men from the finishing section started to go downstairs to flee the factory. They were burned but escaped death. Our production manager, Mr. Monju, pulled down the collapsible gate on the third floor, forcing us to continue working. We pleaded with him to let us out, but Mr. Monju assured us that nothing was wrong and we should keep working. He told us not to listen to any rumors. He said again, ‘Nothing has happened, just keep working.’
“We smelled the fumes and saw the flames coming from the ground floor of the factory. There is no emergency exit in the factory. Some of the finishing section workers managed to escape, but the sewing section workers were trapped inside since the production manager would not allow us to leave the factory and demanded we keep working.
“Some workers broke the windows and jumped from the building. I went to the rooftop of the building and saw that some bamboo poles were roped together to make a scaffold. The bamboo scaffold was being used to paint the outside of the factory. From the fifth floor, I was able to climb to the ground floor. It was risky, as the entire scaffold was shaking.
“I saw some workers were jumping from the broken windows. Some workers jumped from the roof and died. Most of the women workers were trapped inside the factory and burned alive, as the production manager instructed them not to leave and locked down the collapsible gate. Every floor has this kind of gate. We heard the alarm of the fire fighters. By then, the workers had to pay the ultimate price.
“I can roughly estimate that at least 200 workers were burned to death, although the government has announced that the death toll is 112. The casualties took place as the panic-stricken workers jumped out of the burning factory trying to escape the fierce fire. The number of deaths could have been less if the production manager had allowed us to leave the sewing floor the minute the fire started. [Note: All the workers interviewed said they believed more than 200 workers had been killed in the fire.]
“The real figure is more than the declaration of the government. You have to understand the context of the situation. I have seen that some sewing machines were burned to ashes. Human bodies, which are softer than machines, can more easily be burned to ashes. You cannot find the remains of the bodies of the dead workers when they have been in a devastating fire for 12 to 13 hours. [Fifty-three bodies were burned so badly that they could not be identified and were buried at a graveyard in the capital’s Jurain district on Tuesday, November 27.]
“To my knowledge, 300 workers were injured. They got admitted to different medical college [public] hospitals and private hospitals and clinics.
“The factory fire was so devastating that neighboring houses were also destroyed.
“You see families of deceased workers surrounding the factory. The guardians of the missing workers are searching for their people and weeping. Guardians are showing us pictures of the missing workers. No one will know the exact number of deaths.”
A second observer recounts:
“There was a fire alarm and all the workers wanted to get out of the factory by running down the stairs. Then the production manager stopped them from leaving. He said, ‘Nothing happened. Do not panic. Do your work and don’t listen to any rumors.’ Workers were frightened... ‘We are going to die. Please let us get out of the factory.’ But the production manager responded, ‘Do what I say.’ The production manager kept them stranded for 15 to 20 minutes.” [By then, the workers were trapped by the fire.]
Tazreen Fashion Factory
Ashulia, Dhaka, Bangladesh
-Gross and Illegal Sweatshop Conditions-
- Below-subsistence wages: some of the lowest wages in the world:
- Helpers earn just 18 cents an hour, $8.44 a week, working 48 regular hours each week.
- Junior sewing operators earn 21 to 22 cents an hour, $9.85 to $10.69 a week.
- Senior sewing operators earn 23 to 26 cents an hour, just $11.26 to $12.66 a week for the regular 48-hour work week.
- Physical abuse: It is not uncommon for supervisors to curse and even slap and punch workers, including young women, for making a mistake at work or for taking too long in the bathroom. Workers report that the toilets are filthy.
- All overtime is strictly obligatory: Workers who object or cannot remain for obligatory overtime are terminated.
For the last three months, it has been mandatory for the workers to toil two Fridays each month—supposedly their weekly holiday. The workers are forced to work a nine-hour shift, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on their weekly holiday. The workers receive just two days off each month. They routinely work 72 to 81 hours a week!
- Women are routinely denied their legal right to maternity leave.
- Workers who arrive late to work three times are immediately fired.
- There is no daycare center at the Tazreen Fashion factory.
- Sick leave is not allowed.
- Workers are routinely cheated of their legal overtime wages. The standard work shift is 12 hours, from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. with one hour off for lunch. It is obligatory for the workers to toil three overtime hours each weekday on top of the standard eight-hour work shift. The workers are routinely cheated of their legal overtime wages. Just one hour of overtime each day is paid correctly, at a 100 percent premium (double time), while the other two hours are paid as straight time. For example a junior sewing operator earning 22 cents an hour should earn 44 cents an hour for overtime work. But of the three hours of daily overtime, just one is paid correctly, at 44 cents an hour, while the other two overtime hours are illegally paid as straight time, at just 22 cents an hour. Essentially, the workers are being cheated of 33 percent of their legal overtime wages!
- Tazreen Fashion Ltd had a permit to construct a three-story factory, but instead, the company built an illegal, nine-story building. Apparently no one in government challenged this.
- There were not enough fire extinguishers to control even a small fire, let alone the major flames that engulfed the workers.
Something Must Change
How is it possible that Wal-Mart, Sean Combs’ ENYCE label, Sears, C&A, Li & Fung and so many other international labels all failed to see the obvious illegal sweatshop conditions at the Tazreen factory over the last two and a half years?
If the labels had spoken to even one worker at the Tazreen factory, they would have learned the truth!
And has the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) ever once attempted to implement legal factory ordinances and respect for workers’ rights? Never!
When 29 workers died in the Hameem factory fire in 2010—many of whom were also locked in and jumped to their deaths so their parents could have their bodies to mourn and bury—Hameem’s owner, Mr. A. K. Azad, who is also president of the powerful Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce, said the fire was a result of “sabotage.” Of course this was all a lie, and there never was a serious investigation into why so many workers were killed.
Now the Government of Bangladesh is once again crying “sabotage,” hinting that there is some evil plot to attack the Tazreen Fashion factory. In reality, the labels, the owner of the Tazreen factory and the Government of Bangladesh have done almost nothing to hold Tazreen or other factories accountable or to guarantee the fundamental rights of the over 3.5 million mostly young women workers who are abused under miserable sweatshop conditions.
Sadly, until the Government of Bangladesh finally allows workers their internationally recognized worker rights—to freedom of association, the right to organize a union and to bargain collectively—nothing will change.
Bangladesh is on track to surpass China within the next eight years as the largest apparel manufacturer in the world. By 2020, Bangladesh could have as many as 10.5 million garment workers, churning out $57 billion worth of garments a year.
There is certainly a future for Bangladesh, if the government finally recognizes that the country’s garment workers—among the hardest workers in the world—also must be afforded legal rights that are every bit as strong as the rights of factory owners.
“The Star” Newspaper of Bangladesh on the Tazreen Factory
Tuesday, November 27, 2012