Thursday, December 5, 2013
Julhas Alam / The Associated Press
(Continued from page 1)
Bangladeshi garment workers march in protest on Tuesday to mourn the victims of Saturday's fire in a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. Bangladesh held a day of mourning for the 112 people killed in the weekend fire, and labor groups planned more protests to demand better worker safety in an industry notorious for operating in firetraps.
Bangladeshis prepare on Tuesday to bury the bodies of some of the victims of Saturday's fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The country's factories were closed as a mark of respect, and prayers for the dead were held in places of worship across the Muslim-majority South Asian nation. The national flag flew at half-staff in government buildings.
Authorities buried 51 unidentified bodies in a grave outside Dhaka. Many of the dead were charred beyond recognition. Some other bodies were buried in the same grave Monday.
Also Tuesday, about 2,000 members of 14 labor organizations held a rally in central Dhaka where leaders accused the government of neglecting the rights of garment workers.
About 15,000 workers protested a day earlier near the burned factory to demand better safety.
The factory itself is gutted. Its eight floors are littered with burned clothes, yarn, machinery and furniture. Broken windows and black ashes are scattered on the floors and staircases.
Authorities have formed three committees to look into the incident. An industry group has suggested that sabotage may be to blame, though fire officials have said it was not the fire itself, but the poor safety measures that caused the high death toll.
"It was complete darkness," said Mohammad Zakir Hossain, a Tazreen worker who survived the fire. "I couldn't see anything but I started moving forward. I can hear shouts from many of my colleagues in the darkness, 'Oh Allah, save me, save me.'"
Hossain says he was making 4,500 takas ($55) a month, plus about 30 takas (37 cents) an hour in overtime.
Wal-Mart has said the Tazreen factory was making clothes for the retail giant without its knowledge. Wal-Mart, which had received an audit deeming the factory "high risk" last year, said it had decided to stop doing business with Tazreen, but that a supplier subcontracted work to the factory anyway. Wal-Mart said it stopped working with that supplier on Monday.
Wal-Mart and other companies linked to the factory's products have expressed sympathy for the victims and a commitment to improving worker safety.
The European Union's delegation to Bangladesh said while it recognizes the importance of the garment industry to the local economy and European consumers, "the EU has always been very clear about the need to improve working standards and safety in this sector."
Dan Mozena, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, also expressed his concern over labor rights and warned that any chaos in the sector could drive global brands away.
The United States and even many global buyers have been pressing Bangladesh to allow garment factories to form trade unions, but the government and industry have resisted.
The industry fell under more pressure after a labor leader was killed in April, his body found in a roadside ditch. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised concern about the killing, and workers' rights issues overall, during a visit to Bangladesh the following month.
Aminul Islam had complained before his death about police harassment, wiretapping and even being abducted and tortured, allegedly by a domestic intelligence agency. Authorities are investigating his death but have revealed nothing about their progress. Meanwhile, the leading Bengali-language Prothom Alo newspaper recently reported, citing an anonymous source, that top officials of the National Security Intelligence had regular contact with the main suspect before and after Islam's death.
Even as it fends off criticism, Bangladesh is seeking more business from the West, including pressing the United States for quota-free and duty-free access for its garment products to the U.S. market.
Earlier this month, senior executives from more than two dozen global brands and retailers visited Bangladesh in a bid to forge long-term agreements to source garments from its factories.
In September, Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive of the Swedish retail chain H&M, visited Bangladesh and said his 2,600-store group would increase its business relationship with the country.
Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Center for Policy Dialogue, Bangladesh's leading independent think tank, said there is "hypocrisy" among buyers who "talk about ethical buying and ethical sourcing, but when it comes to price they refuse to offer a good rate. They often go to less compliant factories for a cheaper rate. Being compliant is not cheap."
At the same time, Rahman said Saturday's fire "highlights inner weaknesses of a giant industry very essential for the country's survival."
"This has come as a strong warning," he said. "But it was too costly."
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, blames a "nexus of influence" between senior government officials and factory owners that "allows impunity to flourish." Until that changes, he said, government vows to improve safety should be treated with skepticism.
"Six months or eight months down the road, if history is any indication, we will have another factory fire, and more workers will be killed," he said.