Dhaka fire strips bare garment trade horrors

More than 600 workers have died since 2006, as keeping costs down in profitable industry often means compromising safety

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Strange as it may sound, it is the owners of a garment factory where more than a 100 perished in a deadly fire two days ago who are playing the victim rather than the perpetrator. 

“We are the sufferers. We are the victims,” insisted SMH Nodon, the director of marketing at Tuba Group, the parent company of Tazreen Fashion, where a reported 600 people working overtime shifts were trapped by raging flames on Saturday evening.

After some arm-twisting by the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the trade association representing factory owners, the management has agreed to pay $1,230 as compensation for the families of each victim, amounting to a total of about $152,000. In comparison, the materials destroyed were worth about $12.3m; the construction of the factory cost about the same amount.

“This is a 200 crore taka [$25mn] project. How it got destroyed, we don’t know. If we did we would take action,” said Nodon, whose company produces clothing for Walmart, C&A, and Hong Kong-based mega-supplier Li & Fung.

Tazreen’s owners have been criticised by the Bangladeshi media for lamenting their losses without expressing regret about the loss of lives. 

Bangladesh’s Communications Minister Obaidul Quader sparked widespread outrage for displaying a similar lack of concern for victims and their families. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, he proposed burying the burnt corpses en masse before they had been identified. Since then, the government has backtracked, agreeing to perform DNA tests and wait for relatives to come to claim the bodies.

Herein lies the paradox of Bangladesh’s garments industry, which for the past two decades has almost single-handedly driven the country’s economic growth. Built on the back of cheap, abundant, labour, its greatest asset is also its most expendable one.

According to Clean Clothes Campaign – the largest alliance of unions and NGOs in the industry – more than 600 garment workers have died in factory fires since 2006.

Engine of economic growth

Bangladesh’s readymade garments sector has experienced spectacular growth since the 1990s. With $17.9bn worth of clothing shipped abroad in 2011, it now accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s exports. 

The tiny, overpopulated South Asian nation of 150 million people has become the second-largest exporter of clothing in the world. BGMEA Vice President Faruque Hassan believes the industry does not get enough credit for what it has achieved.

“It is difficult, really difficult. We have so little land. If we could keep the factories at one or two floors, then these incidents would be far rarer. But if I want to open a factory in Thakurgaon [a less densely populated area outside capital Dhaka], I won’t have gas, containers, [or] electricity there. I’m not defending this [fire], there is no forgiveness for this. But as the saying goes, you can sit in the audience and criticise the players, but it’s a different thing to play the game yourself,” Hassan said.

Thousands morn Bangladesh fire victims

“We are not competitive in any product, only in garments. We don’t even produce the cotton and the petrochemicals the garments industry need, we have no basic raw materials. We have been trying to enter the South American market for years, but we don’t even have an embassy in the entire continent. Only last month, after years of pressure from us, the government opened an embassy in Brazil. And with all these drawbacks we have managed to become the second-largest exporter in the world.”

The tragedy comes as BGMEA, together with several major brands, are undertaking a large-scale fire safety overhaul following several previous disasters. In December 2010, a fire broke out in a garment factory owned by Hamim Group, killing 29. Earlier in March that year, another fire at Garib & Garib Sweater Factory killed 21.

Despite frequent tragedies like the Tazreen blaze and almost non-stop labour unrest, Bangladesh is tipped by the World Bank and the McKinsey consulting group to overtake China as the world’s largest exporter of garments in the near future.

“The one-child policy is now impacting the Chinese economy,” observes Nur Mohammed Amin Rasel, a senior deputy director at BGMEA. “That one child will not want to waste his life in garments.”

In Bangladesh, the industry boasts a workforce of 3.6 million – larger than the entire workforce of Cambodia. In the eyes of global brands such as H&M and Nike, the low wages and the capacity of its labour force give Bangladesh its edge.

The minimum wage was raised in 2010 to about $40 a month, or 21 cents per hour, following worker riots, falling well short of their demands for $65 a month. In comparison the minimum wage in China is 0.93c/hr, Vietnam’s is 0.52c/hr, and India’s is 0.68c/hr.

‘This trade is not fair’

Many point out the hypocrisy of international brands, who respond to factory fires by issuing a long list of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) requirements to protect their image, while at the same time squeezing both local factory owners and workers by demanding lower prices.

“Most of this, improving conditions and wages, depends on the buyers [people working for international brands],” said Amirul Amin, a labour leader who heads the National Garments Worker Federation. “They give us very low prices, then sell the goods for 2 to 3 times as much. They will buy a dozen t-shirts from us for $15, then will sell each [individual] t-shirt back home for $7.”

“The trade they are doing, this trade is not fair. If we are to improve working conditions and wages, buyers need to take responsibility, which they are not taking.”

Ravid Chowdhury, a former Dhaka-based fellow with the International Growth Centre who has studied the garment industry, said: “There’s intense competition, and wherever owners can cut costs they do, and we see that with the hiring of apprentices and helpers who are paid even less than the minimum wage because they’re not full-time employees.” 

Following the 2010 Hamim Group fire, there were reports that the exits were locked to prevent theft, leaving workers imprisoned in the inferno. Similar reports of inadequate exits have surfaced following the Tazreen fire, although Hassan rejects these accusations.

Labour leaders, who have complained about poor safety standards, say they are routinely harassed and sometimes even tortured. One labour organiser, Aminul Islam, was brutally murdered in April, with Bangladesh’s security forces allegedly  involved in the crime.

‘Life is too hard’

Lovely Deh suffered terrible burns in a factory fire when she was just eleven years old [Credit: Moin Ahsan] 

To labour leaders and campaigners, Lovely Deh, 17, is seen as a heartbreaking symbol of the garment industry’s problems. Six years ago, she entered a garment factory as an 11-year-old recruit. “They told me that if anybody asks, then to say that I’m 18,” she said.

Two weeks later, a fire broke out, leaving her disabled, and covered in scars.

“We all noticed that there was some smoke coming, the air started smelling weird,” she recalls. “We all panicked, screaming and shouting, and ran down the stairs. I fell and became unconscious, and later came to in the hospital.”

One of the accomplishments of the garment industry has been its success in eradicating once-common child labour. But factory fires continue unabated, and while the latest victims can expect some compensation, Lovely has not received a penny from the government or the owner of the factory she had worked at.

“My hands hurt too much for me to do any work,” she says.

Lovely lives with her elder brother, who she says is the only one willing to take on the burden of caring for her – her parents no longer are. Many are scared by the sight of her – she says when children see her on the streets they run away in fear.

Her brother has to take out loans every month to pay for her medical care, which amounts to an unaffordable $20 each month. She worries that when it is finally time for her brother to get married, she will have lost her last haven.

“Of course my brother loves me, but when he gets married, then what happens to me? What will happen to me then? My brother is also worried about his future, he wonders how he will ever get married with someone like me around,” she says.

“Don’t pray for me, if you do pray, pray that I die soon. What, have I said something wrong? This life is too hard. “

Source: Al Jazeera