Bangladesh: textile tragedy

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On 24 November 2012, one of the worst ever factory fires to hit Bangladesh killed at least 124 people with the death toll still rising in a factory in Ashulia, near Dhaka. Over 1,000 nightshift workers were trapped inside the multi-storey building after being unable to escape after the blaze, which started on the ground floor and was thought to be caused by faulty wiring, blocked off all three stairwells within. The factory has no emergency exits. Hundreds sought refuge on the roof until they were rescued by firefighters, however many, in a desperate attempt to flee, jumped out of windows but were injured or killed. After a five hour fight to control the flames, about 100 bodies were discovered on the second floor but factory owners remain quiet about how many workers are still missing.

In the second largest textile exporting nation after China, Bangladeshi textile workers typically work for 10-16 hours a day and are the lowest paid for this type of work in the world. When Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, the new government nationalised the textile industry and all factories were subsequently organised under the Bangladesh Textile Mills Corporation (BTMC) which held almost a monopoly on the industry in the country. This role has diminished substantially over the last two decades, due to privatisation of a huge number of mills and it is the private sector which is the fastest growing of the three main industry categories in the country, the other two being handloom and public sector textiles. Foreign ownership of factories is unusual; most are owned by wealthy Bangladeshi families. Textiles and ready-made garments are the two largest export sectors in the country, employing over four million people and accounting for 80% of export earnings in 2011. However, progress is hindered by lack of raw materials sourced in the country - fabrics are imported before manufacturing can begin - and threatened further still by the exploitative conditions which workers face.

Appalling safety conditions in the country’s 4,000+ garment factories are a huge concern, frequently endangering the lives of workers, of whom 80-90% are female. Abuse and sexual violence are rife, with women frequently being locked into factories overnight. The taboo surrounding rape and the subsequent isolation have led to shockingly high levels of suicide amongst these women, who are on average aged just 19.

The majority of factories are overcrowded with fire exits commonly locked and used for storage. Staff are rarely trained in fire safety and factories tend to lack emergency lights, public announcement systems, smoke detectors, fire blankets and extinguishers, and often do not even have enough water to douse fires. Faulty electrical wiring and switchboards are commonplace. Fires, collapses and stampedes are regular, with hundreds killed in the last 15 years.

In November 2005, 48 workers in Shibpur, near Dhaka, were killed and 150 injured in another of the worst factory fires in the history of the country. In May 2004 seven female workers were crushed to death in a stampede at a factory in Mirpur after a transformer blast nearby.

Another fire killed 22 people in Narayanganj in January 2005, which was followed several months later by a collapse of a nine-floor factory in Palashbari which killed more than 70 workers. In February 2006, at least 54 workers died and over 100 were seriously injured in a fire at KTS Composite Textile Mill in Chittagong. Many of the fatalities were caused because security guards had locked the entrances in order to ‘monitor’ the 600, mainly female staff. Some workers attempted to escape by jumping from windows, plunging to their deaths. The same building had previously caught fire less than three weeks earlier but on that occasion all the workers managed to escape. The authorities were not notified of the initial fire and no measures were taken to prevent another; in fact, management ordered one of two collapsible gates on each floor be locked.

Only five days after the first fire, six people died when the Jamuna Spinning Mill in Gazipur burnt down where gates were also locked, and two days after the second fire the Phoenix Textile Mill in Dhaka collapsed, killing at least 21 people. Despite child labour being banned in Bangladesh, some of the KTS factory victims were found to be under 16 - some as young as 12. Twenty-nine workers died in a fire in December 2010 at the That’s It Sportswear garment factory, which produces clothes for brands including Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

At the Eurotex Ltd factory (manufacturers for Peacock, H&M, Marks & Spencers, Tommy Hilfigher, Zara and Gap) two workers died in December 2011 after an explosion was heard and panic led to a stampede. Another fire in March 2012 led the Tommy Hilfigher brand’s parent company PVH Corp to donate $1m towards ‘factory safety initiatives’ to save face after 29 people died while producing clothes for the high-end brand; items which sell for more than several times the workers’ monthly wages.

In September 2012, anger at conditions and the murder of Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity organiser Aminul Islam five months earlier led to violent protests which saw over 100,000 workers from over 300 factories in the Ashulia industrial zone on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, take to the streets to demand better rights. Hundreds of protesters were attacked by baton-wielding Rapid Action Battalion officers, an elite police force combining army, navy, air force and border control officers, who fired rubber bullets and several rounds of tear gas. Footage emerged of children and women being savagely attacked: one woman was beaten as she lay unconscious, another was shot in the head.

Aminul’s group led protests in 2010 against low wages and poor working conditions, which succeeded in raising the minimum wage from 1,662 taka to 3,000 taka - the equivalent of £23 per month. Shortly after the protests, Aminul and several other activists were arrested, tortured and charged with instigating riots. When his body was discovered at the side of a road in April, clear signs of further torture were visible.

Apparel tycoons with interests in politics and media, such as AK Azad (who owns one of the biggest garment factories in the country along with a Bengali-language newspaper and television station) see protesters as a nuisance. The government also complains that ‘protests of this magnitude send a wrong message’, as companies like H&M are forced to say that more must be done to ‘address the needs of workers’.

As labour costs grow in China, Bangladesh’s potential to be a sourcing hotspot grows but at a terrible price. Humanity and basic dignity are stripped away from the workers, many of whom can find no other work. As the capitalists continue to exploit and as the shoppers continue to hunt for a bargain, so too does the suffering of the impoverished find a deeper iron grip.

Nazia Mukti 

 

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