In 1911, a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City killed 146 workers because the company had blocked the exits and stairwells to prevent employees from taking a break or leaving the premises. Workers were trapped, and their only escape was to jump from the windows 10 stories high to their deaths. The public outcry prompted the reform movement and worker protections ushering in the unionization of American factories.
Over 100 years later, on Nov. 24, 2012 the same kind of incident occurred in Bangladesh, killing 112 people. Bangladesh is is second only to China in worldwide output for garment production, with more than $18 billion a year in exports. Three million workers, most of whom are women, are employed in the country’s 4,500 garment factories. The garment industry is the essential industry feeding the domestic economy and an important source of foreign currency aiding the government’s purchase of imported oil, according to the New York Times.
On Monday, thousands of garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, protested angrily, demanding justice after the deaths last weekend in a fire at a factory where labor advocates found the remains of clothing brands sold at global retailers like Walmart.
As reported in the New York Times, a Walmart spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of this tragedy. The spokesperson continued: “While we are trying to determine if the factory has a current relationship with Walmart or one of our suppliers, fire safety is a critically important area of Walmart’s factory audit program, and we have been working across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”
A document posted on the Web site of Tazreen Fashions appeared to be an inspection complaint by Walmart, although it could not be authenticated according to the Walmart spokesperson. In the document, an “ethical sourcing” official flagged violations at the factory in May 2011, without detailing the problems.
According to the Economic Populist, labels for Faded Glory, a Walmart private label, along with labels they said could be traced back to Sears and a clothing company owned by music impresario Sean Combs.
The factory fires aren't exclusive to Bangladesh. Another top outsourcing destination for textile factories is Pakistan, which had a fire in September that killed 315 people. There are also reports of murder and torture against workers fighting for safety and rights.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, a European group opposing sweatshops, said that more than 500 Bangladeshi laborers have died in factory fires since 2006. In 2010, 29 workers died from a fire inside a Bangladeshi factory making clothing for Tommy Hilfiger.
History has shown that most industries will not institute appropriate reforms to ensure fairness in wages or safety for workers. The recent employee strikes by Walmart employees in the United States demonstrates the power of worker unity even in a non-union environment. Walmart is notorious for opposing unionization of their employees in the United States, and nothing less is expected in foreign countries.
The problem in foreign countries is that basic protections like the eight-hour day, humane working conditions and minimal safety and environmental precautions are not regulated by foreign governments. Industries,therefore, can take advantage of the unregulated working environment. This increases profits, but disregards workers’ rights and even leads to deaths. In order to counter-balance the lack of government controls, the establishment of labor unions abroad could begin the long process toward worker protections that the US started 100 years ago.