Not one more fire


Thousands have taken to the streets in protest in Bangladesh as two garment factories erupted into flames within two days of each other.

The first, on 24 November, at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd factory, has already claimed the lives of over 100 workers.

Fortunately, the second has so far not led to any fatalities.

These fires call to mind the recent garment factory fires in Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan, in September which claimed over 300 lives.

The cause of the recent fires is suspected to be faulty wiring, often caused by using cheap and un-insulated wiring which overheats and causes these catastrophes.

Sadly, these fires are nothing new, and hundreds have perished in Bangladesh in recent years.

To keep costs as low as possible (and profits as high), Bangladeshi garment factories often cut major corners on health and safety.

Each time there is such a fire, the industry associations like Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), to which Tazreen Fashions is affiliated, publicly resolve once again to take the matter seriously and set up fire safety initiatives.

However, the fires over the last two days are evidence that any such industry efforts are woefully insufficient. Government inspections are nearly non-existent and are a farce when undertaken.

The anti-union stance of the industry as a whole has also foreclosed any opportunity to resolve critical industrial relations issues such as safety and health through dialogue and collective negotiation.

Of course, with a union in the workplace, workers would be empowered to press the employer to create a safe working environment and, if necessary, remove themselves from a dangerous situation.

Instead, the industry, with the support of the government, is fighting to keep the industry union free.

Indeed, the government has routinely refused to register trade unions in the garment industry when presented with complete applications.

Instead, the industry is promoting participation committees, which have no power to bargain over the terms and conditions of their employment, and which are frequently dominated by management’s hand-picked representatives from among the workers.


Rethink the certification industry

In the last 48 hours, media has reported that the factory produced garments for US retail giant Walmart, among others, and that previous private inspections in 2011 had revealed serious problems.

However, it is unclear what those problems were and whether the factory complied with any of the report’s recommendations.

It has been reported that the last inspection was undertaken on August 2011, and that a follow up inspection was to have taken place within a year.

No information has yet been made available by Wal-Mart or the Tuba Group, which owns the Tazreen Fashions factory.

Of note, the deadly inferno in Pakistan took place only days after inspector contracted by US-based Social Accountability International (SAI) had given the company a clean bill of health.

The families of the victims of that fire have been offered a paltry sum by the German retailer KIK.

These recent fires call into serious question once again the value of industry-led monitoring and certification schemes, which have repeatedly failed to lead to compliance with industry codes or international labour standards.

Indeed, more easily observable problems like health and safety (as opposed to freedom of association) are assumed to be the least that these initiatives can do. Yet, time and time again, workers are paying with their health and their lives for corporate gain.

The research indeed shows that such inspections are deeply flawed from the outset (too superficial and at times with notice to the employers) and that brands are slow if at all to take action to respond to the problems identified in these reports.

A major rethink of the multi-billion dollar monitoring and certification industry is urgently needed.

This is not to say that there are no good initiatives. For example, on March 21, 2012, Phillips-Van Huesen signed an agreement with Bangladeshi unions, IndustriALL, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and Maquila Solidarity Network to establish a comprehensive two-year fire safety program.

The GAP, however, pulled out of those negotiations to form its own program which critics claim is neither transparent nor accountable.

The time is now for governments and garment manufacturers and retailers to get serious about labour rights in their supply chains.