Sweatshop fires in Bangladesh a shameful reality

Saturday, December 01, 2012

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More than 78 persons in this licensed room is unlawful and dangerous.” Signs like these, with variations in the specific number, were among the new things I had to accustom myself to when I first settled in Toronto 40-odd years ago.

This is a typical sign in a tavern or restaurant and signifies one of many conditions an enterprise has to satisfy before it can open for business. Another artefact which fell on my unaccustomed ears was a line in many a news report about a building consumed by flames: “The Ontario Fire Marshal is investigating.”

Like many other places in developed countries, Ontario has strict codes regulating how houses and commercial buildings are put together, how systems to supply gas, water, electricity and ventilation have to be installed, and how many people are allowed in rooms where people gather. You have to receive permits from a municipal or provincial government department or agency to set up a temporary shelter to hold, say, a rock concert or trade show; you even have to provide the requisite quantity of portable toilets to serve the number of visitors you expect.

Strict building codes are why you will see hotel and restaurant kitchens made a certain way – stainless steel surfaces with powerful fans to extract cooking fumes and a certain number of extinguisher nozzles per unit of area. The oil which lodges on stainless steel hoods over cooking surfaces has to be removed every day to eliminate the risk of fire from that source. Food inspectors regularly troll food counters, restaurants, taverns, snack bars, even food trucks which service building sites and street-side customers to check on the hygiene habits of the staff and for evidence of infestation from insects or vermin.

If you put up a structure without approval from the city building department, inspectors can order it removed at your expense. Remodelling work which compromises the integrity of the house or office can force an evacuation order and require you either to take remedial measures, or if deemed too unsafe to be fixed, take the building down entirely. Gas company workers who find that your furnace is emitting more than a safe level of carbon monoxide (measured in parts per million) are obliged by law to shut off the device, no matter whether the temperature outside is well below freezing.

Restrictive (and even draconian) as these measures appear, they are the price civilised societies are prepared to pay for the safety and well-being of their citizens. Unfortunately, not everybody seems to share these attitudes or are prepared to actually do something about them.

Narrow aisles, narrow windows, closed exits

 Alas, we have just witnessed yet another all too frequent example of what happens when governments and business operators neglect to make even the most elementary provisions for the safety of the people who visit or work in public places. A week ago, fire broke out at the Tazreen Fashions factory in a suburb of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, claiming 112 lives and injuring more than 150 people. The flames consumed most of the eightstorey building crammed with cutting tables and sewing machine stations. It appears that narrow walkways between the tables as well as narrow exits trapped workers in the building before they could escape the flames, fed by huge bolts of fabric and spools of thread. There were also reports that some of the exits were shut tight.

We have heard this story far too many times. Working conditions in Bangladeshi factories are notoriously dreadful – employers cram as man people into working spaces as they can in order to pump up outputs. Unfortunately, overcrowding and locked doors are just too commonplace. And of course, things like sprinkler systems are unheard of, since they cost money to install and require periodic inspection and maintenance. Earlier this year, more than 300 factories near the capital closed for almost a week as workers protested, demanding higher wages and proper working conditions. Fire brigade officials say at least 500 Bangladeshis have died in clothing factory accidents in the past six years alone.

Hard as it is to believe, many workers are actually unionised. The president of Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers federation, Amirul Haque Amin, was quick to condemn the conditions which led to the fire: "This disastrous fire incident was a result of continuing neglect of workers' safety and their welfare. 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."

That certainly gets to the root of the problem. But it doesn’t provide a method by which governments can be forced to enact strict protections for workers and to enforce them. Nor does it show how employers can be forced to protect their employees from disasters which are, sadly, much too common.

During the recent US election campaign, we heard time and again about the phenomenon of US businesses “exporting jobs to China”. The campaigners and their supporters forgot to mention Bangladesh, which, second only to China, is the world’s biggest exporter of clothing. It has more than 4,500 garment factories, which account for 80 per cent of its US$20-billion annual exports. These plants, along with others which produce household items and furniture, attract throngs of workers from the countryside, since the pay of around one euro a day is better than they can earn growing rice or vegetables.

The world’s poorer countries are eager to provide employment in order to improve their entire economic condition, and no one can argue with that. But as the old biblical saying goes: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” What does it profit a country if it gains foreign investment and earnings, if it continues to lose its people to serious damage to their health and even their lives?

The problem is that they all act in isolation, so the rich countries can play them off one against the other in search for the lowest possible bidder. The factories that pepper the countryside around Dhaka make garments of all descriptions for prominent store chains in Europe and North America, including giants like Sears, Wal-Mart and Disney. Wal- Mart alone buys about US$1 billion worth of garments from Bangladesh each year. Some of these companies engage other firms to audit factories in developing countries, but the penalties consist mainly of cutting off contracts, which are then quickly supplanted by other customers.

Here is a clue as to why very little is done — the Bangladesh Manufacturers and Exporters Association dreads the possibility that western companies will vacate the country’s US$20 billion garment business. The association’s president, Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, laments that “It’s a time of solidarity, not to go away.” He feels that companies like Wal-Mart should come forward to resolve existing issues through discussion and an attitude of partnership. “Otherwise,” continues Mohiuddin, “what will happen? Manufacturers would lose orders, workers will lose their jobs.”

And, we might add, they will lose their health, limbs, even their lives.





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