Bangladeshi workers protest against unsafety

This video from Bangladesh is called Workers protest in Dhaka over factory deaths.

By Patrick O’Connor:

Mass protests erupt in Bangladesh over factory collapse

26 April 2013

Mass protests have erupted in Bangladesh over the collapse of a textile factory near the capital, Dhaka—the latest in a series of devastating industrial disasters in the impoverished country.

Many of the demonstrating workers carried black flags and blockaded highways in at least three industrial suburbs. A local police inspector told Associated Press that workers attacked several factories whose management had refused to suspend production.

Protests erupted in several parts of the country, with the British Guardian reporting that several thousand garment workers staged actions in the Savar industrial zone, around 20 miles outside the capital.

A reported 1,500 workers also marched to the Dhaka headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), to demand the execution of the owners of the collapsed factories. …

The Huffington Post reported that at least 25 protesting workers were injured after police “interrupted an emotional memorial procession with batons, just 200 yards from the scene where the building crumbled”.

Successive Bangladeshi governments have violently suppressed any move by garment workers to defend their interests. In December 2010 the current administration deployed police against striking workers and shot dead four unarmed protestors.

The confirmed death toll in the collapse has risen to 261. Many of the survivors have suffered horrific injuries, including amputated limbs. Some had been partially protected by large weaving machines that shielded workers from the building cave in, also creating pockets of air that could allow more people to be pulled from the rubble.

There are also reports of missing children, who were in a crèche on the top floor of the seven-storey complex when it collapsed. The structure had comprised five garment factories, as well as a bank and 300 shops.

Rescue efforts are continuing, however, and with as many as 900 garment workers still missing, there are fears that the death toll could surpass 1,000.

The owner of the collapsed factory complex, Mohammad Sohel Rana, has close ties with the ruling Awami League. The Bangladeshi media reported that Rana was a senior leader of the local unit of the Awami League’s youth wing, the Jubo League.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday addressed the national parliament to deny these reports, declaring that she had personally inspected the Jubo League’s list of office bearers and had not found Rana’s name.

Hasina added: “Those who are responsible for the tragic incident must be punished. None would be spared. Whoever might be the culprits and if even they belong our party they won’t go scot-free.”

In reality, the entire Bangladeshi political establishment is complicit in creating the conditions that led to this industrial disaster. Numerous politicians and military figures have personally enriched themselves through the construction and ownership of the garment factories that now generate 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion annual exports.

The country’s ruling class function as corrupt contractors for the international clothing conglomerates, whose relentless drive for greater profits encourages local factory owners to cut costs and neglect security. Wednesday’s building collapse comes just five months after Bangladesh’s worst-ever factory fire, at Tazreen Fashion in Dhaka, in which 112 workers were killed.

Bangladesh has risen to the world’s second largest garment producer, behind China, by giving international investors and their local subsidiaries and suppliers a free hand.

An estimated 4 million garment workers, mostly women, are among the most super-exploited sections of the world’s working class, enduring poverty-level wages and terrible working conditions. Many workers reportedly receive about $US37 a month for working up to 15 hours a day.

Safety regulations are virtually non-existent, and industrial laws routinely flouted. Bangladesh’s labour ministry reportedly employs just 18 inspectors to monitor conditions in more than 100,000 factories in Dhaka, according to Human Rights Watch.

The international clothing companies who exploited the collapsed factory have rushed to feign sympathy with the victims, while denying any responsibility.

Several non-governmental organisations have again condemned the major retailers. John Hilary, executive director of the British-based anti-poverty group War on Want condemned so-called corporate social responsibility programs, explaining that for their inspections, “the workers are trained in what to say, the factories present favourable books and keep back the real books”.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that at least two of the factories in the collapsed complex had cleared a recent audit by the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), run by an industry body representing about 1,000 European retailers, including Adidas, Esprit, and Hugo Boss.

The auditors declared that they were not “building engineers” and that it was “up to local authorities to ensure that construction and infrastructure are secure”. BSCI’s managing director Lorenz Berzau told the Journal: “It’s very important not to expect too much from the social audit.”

The Los Angeles Times bluntly wrote off any possibility of improving working conditions in Bangladesh: “Corruption, a powerful garment industry, and Western consumers’ insistence on low prices will keep working conditions poor, say labour and business experts.”

Information is continuing to emerge about the collapsed complex. Its owner, Mohammad Sohel Rana, built the centre in 2007 after draining a pond and establishing concrete foundations on the swampy land. He allegedly failed to secure a permit for the new factories from the agency in charge, instead getting authorisation from one of his political allies in the local municipality.

Rana has been the focus of much of the workers’ anger, after he forced the factories’ employees back into the complex on Wednesday morning despite large cracks appearing in the building on Tuesday. Just before the disaster, the businessman reportedly told a meeting of workers that the complex would stand “for another hundred years”.

Bangladeshi news outlets today reported that another of Rana’s factory complexes, less than a kilometre away from the disaster site, has been evacuated after a large crack was discovered.

7 thoughts on “Bangladeshi workers protest against unsafety

  1. Major Retailers Rejected Bangladesh Factory Safety Plan

    AP | By KAY JOHNSON and JULHAS ALAM Posted: 04/26/2013 8:57 am EDT | Updated: 04/26/2013 1:01 pm EDT

    DHAKA, Bangladesh — As Bangladesh reels from the deaths of hundreds of garment workers in a building collapse, the refusal of global retailers to pay for strict nationwide factory inspections is bringing renewed scrutiny to an industry that has profited from a country notorious for its hazardous workplaces and subsistence-level wages.

    After a factory fire killed 112 garment workers in November, clothing brands and retailers continued to reject a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry. Instead, companies expanded a patchwork system of private audits and training that labor groups say improves very little in a country where official inspections are lax and factory owners have close relations with the government.

    In the meantime, threats to workers persist. In the five months since last year’s deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., there were 41 other “fire incidents” in Bangladesh factories – ranging from a deadly blaze to smaller fires or sparks that caused employees to panic, according to a labor organization tied to the AFL-CIO umbrella group of American unions. Combined, the recent incidents killed nine workers and injured more than 660, some with burns and smoke inhalation and others with injuries from stampedes while fleeing.

    Wednesday’s collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed more than 300 people is the worst disaster to hit Bangladesh’s fast-growing and politically powerful garment industry. For those attempting to overhaul conditions for workers who are paid as little as $38 a month, it is a grim reminder that corporate social responsibility programs are failing to deliver on lofty promises.

    More than 48 hours after the eight-story building collapsed, some garment workers were still trapped alive Friday, pinned beneath tons of mangled metal and concrete. Rescue crews struggled to save them, knowing they probably had just a few hours left to live, as desperate relatives clashed with police.

    Rescue teams found 50 more survivors trapped in the rubble Friday, CNN reports. Among them are two women who reportedly gave birth while trapped beneath the building, local news agency BSS reported. The newborn infants were also rescued.

    “Improvement is not happening,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, who said a total of 600 workers have died in factory accidents in the last decade. “The multinational companies claim a lot of things. They claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system,” Amin said. “But yet these things keep happening.”

    What role retailers should play in making working conditions safer at the factories that manufacture their apparel has become a central issue for the $1 trillion global clothing industry.

    The clothing brands say they are working to improve safety, but the size of the garment industry – some 4,000 factories in Bangladesh alone _means such efforts skim the surface. That opaqueness is further muddied by subcontracting. Retailers can be unwittingly involved with problematic factories when their main suppliers farm out work to others to ensure orders are filled on time.

    “We remain committed to promoting stronger safety measures in factories and that work continues,” Wal-Mart said in a statement after the Rana Plaza collapse. The world’s largest retailer says there was no authorized Wal-Mart production in the building. One of the Rana Plaza factories, Ether Tex, listed Wal-Mart as a customer on its website.

    Labor groups argue the best way to clean up Bangladesh’s garment factories already is outlined in a nine-page safety proposal drawn up by Bangladeshi and international unions.

    The plan would ditch government inspections, which are infrequent and easily subverted by corruption, and establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions. The inspections would be funded by contributions from the companies of up to $500,000 per year.

    The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers – including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M – but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly.

    At the time, Wal-Mart’s representative told the meeting it was “not financially feasible … to make such investments,” according to minutes of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

    After last year’s Tazreen blaze, Bangladeshi union president Amin said he and international labor activists renewed a push for the independent inspectorate plan, but none of the factories or big brands would agree.

    Siddiqur Rahman, former vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, denied the factories are responsible for killing the plan, saying the problem was that buyers did not want to pay for it.

    “We welcome anything that is good for the garment industry and its workers here,” Rahman said. He also disputed several union groups’ figures of dozens of factory fires since November, saying there had been only one.

    Global Solidarity, the AFL-CIO group, said its staff in Bangladesh compiled the list of 41 “fire incidents” from local media and counted any incident that caused injury or evacuation as an indication of compromised safety.

    This week, none of the large clothing brands or retailers would comment about the proposal.

    Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner did not directly answer questions about the unions’ safety plans in replies to questions emailed by The Associated Press. H&M responded to questions with emailed links to corporate social responsibility websites.

    In December, however, a spokesperson for the Gap – which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains – said the company turned down the proposal because it did not want to be vulnerable to lawsuits and did not want to pay factories more money to help with safety upgrades.

    H&M also did not sign on to the proposal because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be taking on the responsibility, Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues, told AP in December.

    H&M, which places the most apparel orders in Bangladesh and works with more than 200 factories there, is one of about 20 retailers and brands that have banded together to develop training films for garment manufacturers.

    Wal-Mart last year began requiring regular audits of factories, fire drills and mandated fire safety training for all levels of factory management. It also announced in January it would immediately cut ties with any factory that failed an inspection, instead of giving warnings first as before.

    And the Gap has hired its own chief fire inspector to oversee factories that produce its clothing in Bangladesh.

    But many insist such measures are not enough to overhaul an industry that employs 3 million workers.

    “No matter how much training you have, you can’t walk through flames or escape a collapsed building,” said Ineke Zeldenrust of the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign, which lobbies for garment workers’ rights.

    Private audits also have their failings, she said. Because audits are confidential, even if one company pulls its business from a supplier over safety issues, it won’t tell its competitors, who will continue to place orders – allowing the unsafe factory to stay open.

    The Tazreen factory that burned last year had passed inspections, and two of the factories in the Rana Plaza building had passed the standards of a major European group that does factory inspections in developing countries. The Business Social Compliance Initiative, which represents hundreds of companies, said the factories of Phantom Apparels and New Wave Style had been audited against its code of conduct which it said focuses on labor issues, not building standards.

    “The audits and inspections are too much focused on checklists,” said Saif Khan, who worked for Phillips Van Heusen, the owner of brands Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, in Bangladesh until 2011 as a factory compliance supervisor.

    “They touch on broader areas but do not consider the realities on the ground,” he said.


    Johnson reported from Mumbai, India. AP reporter Farid Hossain contributed from Bangladesh. AP Retail Writer Anne D’Innocenzio in New York and AP Business Writer Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong also contributed to this report.


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