Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Dhaka Fire, Designer Clothes and Workers Rights

Yesterday's lethal fire in a clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, highlights the culture of death inherent in the outsourcing of labour in the age of globalisation.

The fire caused the deaths of over one hundred workers at the Tazreen Fashion factory in the Ashulia district on the outskirts of the capital. The details of the incident make harrowing reading:

  • an electrical short circuit may have caused the disaster
  • all three building exits were on the ground floor - where the fire broke out
  • many victims were trapped inside the burning building and bodies were found on different floors of the factory
  • some people died after jumping from the building to escape the flames
  • the factory had no fire exits on the outside of the building
  • the nine-storey factory is located down a narrow lane which made access difficult for the fire services 
  • the district is home to hundreds of similar clothes factories, mostly supplying clothes to western markets
Although the exact final destination of the clothes made in this particular factory at the time are currently unknown, records show that the company Tazreen Fashion exports over 90% of its products to the western, north American and middle eastern markets. Clients include Lord Daniel Sportswear in Florida, who sell to JC Penney, Kohls and Sears via the brands Palmland, Cotton Traders, La Moda, and Courtside Classics. Lord Daniel also own the Fairway Golf & Resort and Astra labels in the United States.

Tazreen Fashion also has very close relations and supplies products to other leading clothing exporters in Bangladesh, including NASSA Group, Palmal Group and Givensy, who in turn supply such western outlets as Levi's, Buffalo, and Wal-Mart in North America, and C & A and H & M in Europe.
The outsourcing of cheap labour to Asian factories, many with poor safety records, is an integral aspect of the process of economic globalisation. There are approximately 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, employing more than two million people. Clothing production accounts for up to 80% of Bangladesh's £15bn ($24 bn) annual exports. Attempts at organised boycotts of such companies by western activists protesting poor working conditions have often resulted in job losses and increased suffering for such workers. At the same time, voluntary codes of conduct within the western retail and clothing sector have proved ineffective and are easily avoidable on the ground.

Earlier this month, Bangladeshi civil rights campaigner Khorshed Alam wrote an open letter to Bob Geldof ahead of his meeting with UK Development Secretary Justine Greening. The UK government is increasingly seeking to carry out its overseas development aims through partnerships with the private sector. Describing this move as "a mistake", Alam informs Geldof that: 

"UK aid money is being used to set up ‘special economic zones’ in Bangladesh. In zones that already exist, multinational companies pay workers less than £1 a day, trade unions are not allowed to function properly, and police crush protests with rubber bullets.

This kind of ‘aid’ is not helping the poor. It is only helping the multinational companies.

Special economic zones in Bangladesh are established to attract foreign companies, especially those from the garment industry. They are like mini tax havens, giving companies ten year tax breaks and subsidised land as an incentive to invest.

Companies like Nike, Reebok, Adidas, H&M and Gap all have factories in existing zones in my country. They provide jobs for local people, but at a cost of sweatshop-style working conditions."

In the UK, War on Want believe that an effective strategy for improving working conditions among Bangladesh's garment workers is through legislation that requires UK businesses to ensure that overseas workers are guaranteed a living wage, decent working conditions and the right to join a trade union in their home countries. War on Want's campaign in pursuit of this legislative change is called Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops.  

Update: 26/11/12

AP are reporting that in response to the recent fire, workers in the capital Dhaka have taken to the streets in protest over poor safety standards in the country's garment factories. The protesters have blocked roads and forced the closure of around 200 clothing factories. A major highway has been blockaded and factories have stones thrown at them. 

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