While descriptions of conditions at the plant show a disaster waiting to happen, the predictable frame-up of workers for the fire has begun to take shape, with unspecified accusations of sabotage by government officials.
Workers were trapped inside the eight-story building when the fire broke out in the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka. There were only three staircases and they all led to the same exit on the ground floor.
According to survivors, the exit was locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work and highly flammable stacks of yarn and clothes blocked parts of the stairs. Managers ordered them back to work, saying it was just a routine fire drill.
As of Nov. 26 the death toll is reported to be 124. More than 200 were injured, many after jumping from upper floors. The factory employed close to 1,700 workers, 70 percent of them women.
“We’ve been demonstrating every day since the fire,” said Nazma Akter, president of the Bangladesh Combined Garment Workers Federation, in a phone interview from Dhaka. “We demand safe working conditions, trade union rights, full compensation to the families of the workers who died and the arrest of the factory owner.”
According to Akter there was no union in the Tazreen factory. She says among the handful of union garment plants in the country none has a negotiated contract with the company. Unions are not illegal, but whenever workers try to organize they are harassed by the police, security forces and company-hired goons.
Bangladesh has some 4,500 garment factories and is the world’s second biggest exporter of clothing after China. The industry makes up 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion annual exports and employs 3.6 million workers, most of whom are women.
The minimum wage is 3,000 takas ($37) a month. It was raised from $20 after large protests in 2010. By comparison, in some provinces in China the minimum wage is $200. McKinsey, a well-known consultant firm, predicts garment exports from Bangladesh could triple by 2020.
During the past two years, double-digit inflation has eroded workers’ earnings. Protests and violent clashes with the police have become increasingly common. In June more than 300 factories in Ashulia shut down for almost a week as workers demanded higher wages and better conditions.
“We are always protesting,” Akter said. “The workday is 10 to 12 hours, often seven days a week. Rent takes more than half the wage. There is no child care, so the women have to leave their children in the villages. Working conditions are very dangerous.”
Since 2005 more than 500 workers, some sources say as many as 700, have died in fires. The majority are caused by electrical circuit shortages. Exit doors and windows are frequently blocked. No owner has ever been prosecuted.
“We have come to the conclusion that it was an act of sabotage,” Interior Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir said to the India Times Nov. 27. The day before Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina claimed the fire was “planned arson,” reported CNN. At the same time, three mid-level managers have been arrested, suspected of locking the main gate.
The factory was making clothes for Walmart and Sears. Representatives for both companies have said they didn’t know they got clothing from the factory.
Meanwhile, 14 workers were killed in a garment factory fire in Shantou city in southern China, Dec. 4, reported Xinhua news agency.
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