While many of us were planning for Black Friday shopping sprees over Thanksgiving weekend, more than 100 Bangladesh garment workers died in a Tazreen Fashions factory fire because there were insufficient exits for workers to escape. Tragic as the story is, it is not unique. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires. The Bangladesh factory fires are what working life looked like in the U.S. pre-fire codes, pre-fair labor standards, pre-OSHA. Workers went to work unsure if they would return home safely each day. The Bangladesh fire calls to mind the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, a tragic story that resulted in a huge public outcry for change. The fire gave impetus and momentum to workers compensation legislation, child labor laws, fair labor standards, building code and fire regulations, and more.
Even with our worker protections, it takes vigilance to prevent tragedy from repeating itself in the workplace next door. In 1991, a fire in an Imperial Foods poultry processing plant in North Carolina claimed the lives of 25 workers who had been locked in to prevent theft. In 2003, a New York Times investigation revealed that retail giant Wal-mart was locking night shift workers in. In addition to the "locked in worker" issue, OSHA citations for other exit-related safety violations include many familiar household brand names: Home Goods, CVS, Rite Aid, Kohl's, Toys R Us, to name but a few.
Will the Bangladesh fire be a tipping point?
Unsurprisingly, there is public outrage in Bangladesh following this terrible event, just as there was here in 1911. Will it be enough to galvanize reforms in the nation's largest exporting industry? The temptation might be to see this as Bangladesh's problem to solve, but things aren't always quite that simple. According to news reports:
Tazreen Fashions is a subsidiary of the Tuba Group, a major Bangladeshi garment exporter whose clients include Wal-Mart, Carrefour and IKEA, according to its website. Its factories supply garments to the U.S., Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, among other countries. The Tazreen factory opened in 2009 and employed about 1,700 people.
Photos at the scene of the fire show that clothing was being produced for Wal-Mart. The retail giant has issued statements distancing itself from the factory, saying Tazreen was unauthorized to do work for Wal-Mart, and blaming a supplier for subcontracting work.
Complex webs of subcontractors - both domestically and internationally - are an increasingly convenient way for large multinational companies to defect responsibility, but should we accept that Wal-Mart and other mega-buyers can't better control their supply chain? Surely, American companies could join forces in leveraging their buying power to demand that safety and basic human rights are enforced if they had the will to do so. U.S. consumers and policy makers need to demand more accountability from the organizations that we buy our clothes, our phones, and our electronics from.
The following video is distressing and gruesome, but we think it deserves airing. It's the human toll that's paid for getting shirts for a few cents less.