DHAKA/CHICAGO, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Thousands of angry textile
workers demonstrated in the outskirts of Dhaka on Monday after a
fire swept through a garment workshop at the weekend, killing
more than 100 people in Bangladesh's worst-ever factory blaze.
The fire has put a spotlight on global retailers that source
clothes from Bangladesh, where the cost of labour is low - as
little as $37 a month for some workers - and rights groups have
called on big-brand firms to sign up to a fire safety programme.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world's largest retailer,
said one of its suppliers subcontracted work to the factory
without authorization and would no longer be used. A number of
other retailers like Gap Inc and Nike Inc rushed
to deny any relationship with the workshop.
Demanding that those responsible for the disaster be
punished, workers from Tazreen Fashions and residents blocked
roads and forced the closure of other factories in the
industrial suburb of Ashulia, where the huge fire started.
"I haven't been able to find my mother," said one worker,
who gave her name as Shahida. "I demand justice, I demand that
the owner be arrested."
Police and officials said narrow exits in the nine-storey
building trapped workers inside, killing 111 people and injuring
more than 150.
"This disastrous fire incident was a result of continuing
neglect of workers' safety and their welfare," said Amirul Haque
Amin, president of Bangladesh's National Garment Workers
"Whenever a fire or accident occurs, the government sets up
an investigation and the authorities - including factory owners
- pay out some money and hold out assurances to improve safety
standards and working conditions. But they never do it."
PRESSURE ON GLOBAL FIRMS
Working conditions at Bangladeshi factories are notoriously
poor, with little enforcement of safety laws. Overcrowding and
locked fire doors are common. More than 300 factories near the
capital shut for almost a week this year as workers demanded
higher wages and better conditions.
At least 500 people have died in clothing factory accidents
in Bangladesh since 2006, according to fire brigade officials.
Bangladesh has about 4,500 garment factories and is the
world's biggest exporter of clothing after China, with garments
making up 80 percent of its $24 billion annual exports.
Wal-Mart initially said it was not sure if it used the
factory or not. The retailer later said that while Tazreen
Fashions was no longer one of its authorized vendors, a supplier
- which the company would not name - subcontracted there anyway.
"The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us,
and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to
improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh," the
company said in a statement.
The International Labour Rights Forum said U.S.-based PVH
Corp, whose brands include Calvin Klein, entered into an
agreement earlier this year to develop a fire safety programme
in Bangladesh, but others have not signed up. Retailer Gap said
last month it would launch its own safety program after industry
peers took too long to negotiate a common set of standards.
"We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent
call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh's
low wages to make a profit," ILRF Executive Director Judy
Gearhart said in a statement on Sunday.
Hong Kong-listed Li & Fung said in a statement it
had placed orders for garments from Tazreen Fashions that were
being manufactured on the premises where the fire broke out.
It said it would provide relief to victims' families, and
carry out its own investigation into what caused the blaze.
The European spokesman for retailer C&A said Tazreen
Fashions was due to deliver 220,000 sweatshirts for its
Brazilian stores over the coming three months.
He said an independent company normally audits companies and
factories for standards and working conditions before C&A enters
into a business relationship with them, but the audit of Tazreen
Fashions had not yet been carried out.
One expert on labor relations said it was highly unlikely
consumers would be moved to stop shopping at Wal-Mart just
because of the association with the burned workshop.
"Most people are just looking for a bargain and they don't
have the time or the inclination to find out who's making them
and should we buy this stuff or not," said James Gross, a
professor of labor in the school of industrial and labor
relations at Cornell University in New York.
The fire has drawn fresh attention in the United States to
working conditions overseas, but it is also not the first time
that American shoppers have been confronted with uncomfortable
realities about how their consumer goods are made.
Whether the news was about worker suicides at the Foxconn
plants in China making Apple Inc's iPhones, allegations
that Nike used child labor in Indonesia or claims of endemic
rape at border factories in Mexico, little has disturbed
American shoppers in their search for value.
"(We) know that the consumer sentiment in these markets is
not to pay higher prices, so the companies that import are also
looking for ways to cut costs, since it is a relationship," said
Munir Mashooqullah, founder of New York-based sourcing company
"If consumers are not willing to pay higher prices, the
companies are not willing to pay more in manufacturing," said
Mashooqullah, who works with various Western retailers and
manufacturers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.
Few remember today, for example, the 1993 fire in Thailand
that killed 188 people, mostly young rural women seeking a
better life, manufacturing toys for top American brands.
An International Labour Organization case study on the fire
found that the factory had not been properly fireproofed and
that workers in general received inadequate protection.
That fire took the place in the record books of the Triangle
Shirtwaist disaster, the 1911 New York conflagration that killed
146 people and led to changes in labor conditions in the