DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Rescue workers in Bangladesh freed a woman buried for 17 days inside a prayer room in the wreckage of a collapsed garment factory building. The amazing rescue took place Friday as the death toll from the disaster raced past 1,000, making it one of the worst industrial tragedies in history.
The rescuers discovered the woman Friday afternoon in the wreckage of the basement of the building and ordered the cranes and bulldozers to immediately stop work. They used handsaws to cut through the rubble, as hundreds of people who had been engaged in the grim job of removing decomposing bodies from the site, raised their hands together in prayer.
“Allah, you are the greatest, you can do anything. Please allow us all to rescue the survivor just found,” said a man on a loudspeaker leading the supplicants. “We seek apology for our sins. Please pardon us, pardon the person found alive.”
When the woman, who soldiers identified as Reshma, was freed after 40 minutes, the crowd erupted in wild cheers.
Inside the garment factory, hundreds of poor women sewed the clothes that filled our shops. The factory’s owners had been warned that the place was hazardous; they ignored the warnings. When disaster struck, the death toll was horrendous.
That describes the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 Jewish and Italian immigrants, many under 18, roasted or plunged to their deaths after the owner of the Manhattan clothing factory ignored fire-safety warnings and locked workers inside.
It also seems to be what happened this week on the outskirts of Dhaka when an eight-storey complex collapsed after its owners had reportedly ignored government warnings about dangerous fractures in the building. The death toll has topped 300. Many of the clothes they were sewing were for European and North American consumers, including some being made for Joe Fresh, owned by grocery giant Loblaw Cos. Ltd.
That leads to uncomfortable questions: If you’re wearing Joe Fresh, do you have hundreds of deaths on your hands? Are our clothing bargains creating poverty, misery and death in poor countries? Would the world be better off if we didn’t buy clothes made in Bangladesh?
Those questions are understandable, but they miss the larger context.
Factories that churn out consumer products around the world feed the insatiable appetite of consumers around the world, including the US. Bangladesh has turned into a major exporter of clothing and the garment industry there is a major political backer.
The factories where these clothes are produced operate 24/7/365, with multiple shifts operating to keep the output going. The owners operate them as little more than sweatshops straight out of the American 19th and early 20th Century. That is, they operate like how American clothing manufacturers used to operate until the criminal tragedy that was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire revealed just how deadly these factories were and New York State imposed sweeping safety rules for industry.
Locking emergency exits and lacking sufficient safety gear meant that those trapped by the flames could never escape, or their only means of escape was jumping to their deaths.
Fires have claimed dozens of lives across Bangladesh in just the past year. This past November saw a fire at another factory in Dhaka kill 112. The building housing that factory lacked sufficient exits or safety gear, meaning that victims simply could not get out of the building before succumbing to the smoke and heat.
Today another major incident occurred.
A building housing at least four clothing manufacturers collapsed, killing at least 100 and trapping dozens more. That’s despite news reports in the local papers that the building was suffering from structural problems yesterday. Cracks had appeared in the building and no one moved to inspect the building or shutter it to make sure that it was safe to occupy. Factory owners ignored warnings not to allow workers to enter the building.
Workers in the Rana Plaza building said it had developed such severe cracks the day before that it had been reported on local news channels. They hesitated to enter the building Wednesday morning, said Abdur Rahim, who worked in a garment factory on the fifth floor.
But a manager from the factory assured them there was no problem, so they went inside, he said.
“We started working. After about an hour or so the building collapsed suddenly,” he said. He next remembered regaining consciousness outside the building.
Bangladesh, like other developing countries, is going to have to reevaluate its safety rules and crack down factories that are operating without proper safety systems in place. Moreover, these countries have to make a concerted effort to make sure that worker safety is not trumped by business concerns for the bottom line that treats workers as disposable assets.
American businesses and consumers expect cheap products, and have gone to places like Bangladesh to get clothing made. The cheap costs come at a price - and the price is working conditions that are dangerous and deadly. Businesses will continue to chase cheap manufacturing across the globe, dipping into countries that have lax regulations on worker safety because it adds to costs. That means consumers have to demand that businesses have to choose sources that are not putting their workers into dangerous conditions. For instance, Walmart terminated its relationship with a Bangladeshi company after the November 2012 fire though critics claimed that the company knew about the unsafe working conditions and thwarted efforts to correct them.
Bangladesh’s government has ordered an investigation into allegations that the sole emergency exit was locked at a garment factory where a fire killed seven female workers, an official said Sunday.
The fire Saturday at the Smart Export Garment Ltd. factory occurred just two months after a blaze killed 112 workers in another factory near the capital, raising questions about safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry, which exports clothes to leading Western retailers. The gates of that factory were locked.
Government official Jahangir Kabir Nanak said an investigation has been ordered into the cause of Saturday’s fire and allegations that the emergency exit was locked.
Wal-Mart Nixed Paying Bangladesh Suppliers to Fight Fire
By Renee Dudley & Arun Devnath
Dec 5, 2012 8:57 AM MT
At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly.Bangladeshi people identify the bodies of their relatives who died in a fire at a garment factory in the Savar neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday Nov. 25, 2012. Polash Khan/AP Photo
Details of the meeting have emerged after a fire at a Bangladesh factory that made clothes for Wal-Mart and Sears Holdings Corp. killed more than 100 people last month. The blaze has renewed pressure on companies to improve working conditions in Bangladesh, where more than 700 garment workers have died since 2005, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.
At the April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, retailers discussed a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories prices high enough to cover costs of safety improvements. Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Wal-Mart director of ethical sourcing, told attendees the company wouldn’t share the cost, according to Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, who attended the gathering. Kalavakolanu and her counterpart at Gap reiterated their position in a report folded into the meeting minutes, obtained by Bloomberg News.
A fire that broke out in a 12-storey building housing four different garment factories in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, has been almost brought under control, police say.
There were no reports of deaths in Monday’s blaze in the suburb of Uttara, but eight workers were injured due to heavy smoke, Abu Nayeem Mohammad Shahidullah, fire brigade director-general, told Reuters news agency.
The fire occurred just days after a similar incident killed 110 textile workers in a different facility in the city.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from the scene of Monday’s fire, said many workers coming out of the building were angry because the fire happened just two days after the deadly blaze.
“These are workers who make clothes for the world’s leading brands, so it’s expected that they should have international standards in these factories,” he said. “But since 2006, 600 factory workers have died in fires like this one.”
He said the new fire happened in a densely populated area and that had helped workers escape.
“They made their way up to the top floor and jumped out onto nearby buildings,” he said.
The garment factory in Bangladesh where a weekend fire killed at least 112 people had been making clothes for Wal-Mart without the giant U.S. retailer’s knowledge, Wal-Mart said Monday.
In a statement, Wal-Mart said that the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Wal-Mart, but that a supplier subcontracted work to it “in direct violation of our policies.”
“Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier,” America’s biggest retailer said. “The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”
The blaze on Saturday was one of the deadliest fires of its kind in Bangladesh and threw a spotlight on the way the country’s garment factories often ignore safety in the rush to supply major retailers in the U.S. and Europe. More than 200 people have died over the past six years in garment factory fires in Bangladesh, including a blaze that killed 63 in 2006.
The blaze broke out at the seven-story factory operated by Tazreen Fashions late Saturday. By Sunday morning, firefighters had recovered 100 bodies, fire department Operations Director Maj. Mohammad Mahbub said.
He said another 12 people who had suffered injuries after jumping from the building to escape the fire later died at hospitals. The death toll could rise as the search for victims was continuing, he said. It is thought to be the country’s worst ever factory blaze.
Local media reported that up to 124 people were killed in the fire. The cause of the blaze was not immediately clear, and authorities have ordered an investigation.
Bangladesh has some 4,000 garment factories, many without proper safety measures. The country annually earns about $20 billion from exports of garment products, mainly to the United States and Europe.
Relatives of the factory workers were frantically looking for their loved ones. Sabina Yasmine said she saw the body of her daughter-in-law, who died in the fire, but had no trace of her son, who also worked at the factory.
“Oh, Allah, where’s my soul? Where’s my son?” wailed Yasmine, who works at another factory in the area. “I want the factory owner to be hanged. For him, many have died, many have gone.”
Mahbub said firefighters recovered 69 bodies from the second floor of the factory alone. He said most of the victims had been trapped inside the factory, located just outside of Dhaka, with no emergency exits leading outside the building.
Many workers who had taken shelter on the roof of the factory were rescued, but firefighters were unable to save those who were trapped inside, Mahbub said.
He said the fire broke out on the ground floor, which was used as a warehouse, and spread quickly to the upper floors.
“The factory had three staircases, and all of them were down through the ground floor,” Mahbub said. “So the workers could not come out when the fire engulfed the building.”
“Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower,” he said.
Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition. The recovered bodies were kept in rows on the premise of a nearby school.
Army soldiers and paramilitary border guards were deployed to help police keep the situation under control as thousands of onlookers and anxious relatives of the factory workers gathered at the scene, Mahbub said. He would not say how many people were still missing.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed shock at the loss of so many lives in the blaze and asked authorities to conduct thorough search-and-rescue operations.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said it would stand by the victims’ families.
Bangladesh’s garment factories make clothes for brands including Wal-Mart, JC Penney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour and Tesco.
Much to the distress of Indian leaders, on January 19 the Bangladesh army announced it had thwarted a coup attempt against the government, conceived and nearly executed by some mid-ranking officers. Five army officers, including a lieutenant colonel and two Majors have already been arrested, while a top army officer is under investigation. The attempted coup was instigated by Islamic radical military personnel, including some Bangladeshis living abroad and retired and serving officers.
Ever since the India-friendly government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came into office in December 2008, her arch-rival Begum Khaleda Zia and elements of Pakistan’s military establishment have been plotting a coup. Hasina’s overly friendly gestures to India, including cooperation in such diverse fields as security, counter-terrorism, trade, infrastructural linkages and, above all, her diplomatic outreach to India have worried her political opponents in Bangladesh and critics in the Pakistani strategic establishment. The biggest ‘provocation’ from Hasina, as seen from the viewpoint of her detractors, came recently when Bangladesh embarked upon the war crimes trial to punish those army officers who committed excesses during the 1971 Liberation War.
Whoever reads this, please point it out to ProLifeLiberal. Bangladesh is an area of focus for him.