By Michelle Chen. This article was first published on The Nation.
Relatives of victims of the Tazreen factory fire demonstrate on its second anniversary, November 24, 2014. The second sign reads, “Sumaya Khatun, a victim of Tazreen Fashions fire—where is compensation?” (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)
Walmart marks the holiday season this Friday with deals on its Faded Glory women’s sweaters. But this time of year marks a different occasion in another corner of Walmart’s empire: In Bangladesh, survivors and families remember the second anniversary of a massive fire at the Tazreen factory on the outskirts of Dhaka.
After the fire on November 24, 2012, as families mourned over the incinerated bodies in the factory ruins, activists dug up some damning shreds of evidence: they uncovered a Faded Glory label, proving that the workers had produced Walmart-branded clothes.
Today, two years on, Walmart seems eager to put the horrific legacy of Tazreen behind it. But the victims, including 112 dead and many others left injured and impoverished, can’t move on.
The disaster left Maliha partially blind, with severe leg and head injuries, leading her husband to abandon her “to avoid taking care of me.” She recounted in a 2013 report by the Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), “The money I used to earn at Tazreen helped me support my ill mother in the village. Now, I wonder everyday how to survive and feed my children who are so young.”
Some of the world’s largest corporations should have an answer for her, but on Tazreen’s second anniversary, labor and human rights groups have reminded the many multinationals linked to the factory that they have yet to take responsibility. A coalition led by the Clean Clothes Campaign and other labor groups declared, “Walmart still hasn’t paid any compensation to the victims nor has it engaged worker organizations to find a solution.” In addition, the workers at the “death trap” factory had “also produced clothing for Delta Apparel, Dickies, Disney, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, El Corte Ingles, Sean John Apparel, Kik, Piazza Italia, and Sears. None of these companies have paid a cent towards compensation.”
To date, activists report that workers have been left with only meager, piecemeal payments from charitable funds from the government and some local business associations.
Clothing with Walmart’s Faded Glory label was found in the burnt-out factory (AP Photo/Ashraful Alam Tito)
ILRF Director of Organizing and Communication Liana Foxvog tells The Nation via e-mail that activists have criticized the domestic compensation programs, observing that “the distribution that has happened has been nontransparent, has not reached many of the injured workers and affected families, nor has it been disbursed equally or fairly.”
Some companies have responded to public pressure to pay up. Recently, a foundation tied to the European retailer C&A announced an agreement with labor advocates, the union federation IndustriALL and the International Labour Organization, to create a formal compensation scheme to provide for victims’ lost income and medical treatment.
Still, the main challenge will be compelling the major apparel companies to actually fund the program, as corporate contributions continue to lag the toll of dead and injured.
The Tazreen tragedy was a prelude to an even larger disaster, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory compound, which killed more than 1100 people and galvanized international outrage. Though both incidents have led to some compensation offers (a separate program has been established to support Rana Plaza victims, with some donations from Walmart, but still underfunded), workers still face massive physical and economic hardship.
The two tragedies show that industrial catastrophes happen so routinely in Bangladesh’s garment sector, the devaluing of workers’ lives is structured into the gears of the production chain, reflected in the abysmally low wages and astronomical profits generated by high-paced overseas mass production.
Walmart has launched its own factory safety initiative, a multi-brand coalition known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Yet despite well-publicized efforts to “promote accountability” and “ensure that garment workers remain at the heart of our efforts,” the Alliance’s statement on the Tazreen anniversary was terse, commemorating the tragedy as “an important wake-up call about the need for urgent reforms,” without mentioning any of the companies’ links to the factories.
The retail giant was undermining corporate accountability in the days leading to the Tazreen fire as well. In addition to relying on notoriously weak and corporate-friendly auditing services for supplier factories, the company helped scuttle an earlier proposed agreement for the retailers to cooperate on investing in safety renovations. Walmart balked at the proposed requirements, calling them “not financially feasible for the brands.”
Tazreen Fashions garment factory after the fire (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)
The corporate stonewalling continues today. To prevent future industrial atrocities, labor groups have launched a framework to administer independent factory monitoring and remedial measures, known as the Bangladesh Accord. Meanwhile, Walmart and Gap have rejected that accord and promoted its Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety as an alternative. But rights groups have sharply criticized that initiative because it allows multinationals to escape full legal liability for safety violations, rendering it comparatively toothless.
The problem isn’t simply that Walmart’s alternative scheme distracts from the broader, more comprehensive Bangladesh Accord (with about 180 signatory brands). It’s that the lack of support from North American industry giants ultimately undermines the social compact underlying the Accord’s emergent network of labor and community groups, government and industry.
If the overall culture of the workplace remains hostile to workers, they will remain unprotected in terms of both physical safety and protection of their labor rights. Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity testified to Congress in February that currently in the factories:
Their right to refuse dangerous work is denied. When I say this, I’m thinking of the workers at Tazreen who were ordered to go back to their sewing machines when the fire alarm went off and then when it became really clear that it was a real fire, the exit doors were locked and the floor managers with the keys were nowhere to be found…. This is why I fear that until the largest U.S. companies the buy from Bangladesh–companies such as Walmart, Gap and VF Corporation–join the Accord, garment workers will continue to die on the job in my country.
So past tragedies will be repeated. And Miraj, who survived Tazreen with severe injuries, will still be haunted by his ominous exchange with his boss before the disaster:
Once I asked the manager, how can we get out if there is a fire? The manager told me that they would build stairs outside, but they did not do anything. This was long ago.
Walmart can argue that it doesn’t have to be held to account for factory accidents, and it can perhaps try to make a business case for avoiding the cost of safety investments. But on the question still seared into Miraj’s memory—how can we get out if there is a fire?—there’s no excuse for the industry’s silence.