“These workers paid with their lives to make cheap clothes for Western brands,” a global labor union tells MintPress, calling on the factory’s largest customer, Wal-Mart, “to take responsibility and pay up.”
WASHINGTON — Survivors of a major fire at a Bangladeshi garments factory in 2012 are still calling for adequate compensation from some of the most well-known brands in the United States.
These companies include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., reportedly the largest buyer at the Tazreen factory, as well as The Walt Disney Co., Sears Holdings Corp. and others. Yet advocacy groups say these brands continue to refuse not only to offer adequate compensation but to even enter into discussions with representatives of survivors and their families on how to move forward.
“The companies don’t need to be doing direct outreach to workers, but they do need to be working together on meaningful compensation plans for the victims,” Liana Foxvog, organizing director at the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), a watchdog group, told MintPress News.
“The victims have shared their stories, and everyone knows the problems. Yet none of the American companies have paid any compensation whatsoever for the Tazreen victims.”
On Nov. 24, 2012, the lower floors of the nine-story Tazreen Fashions factory, located on the outskirts of Dhaka, burst into flames. Packed with cloth and yarn, the fire spread quickly, killing some 120 people and seriously injuring more than 300, according to labor groups working in Dhaka. The tragedy, compounded by locked doors that obstructed escape, was the country’s worst ever industrial fire.
Bangladesh in recent years has emerged as a key global supplier of low-cost clothing, with the garments sector having revolutionized the country’s labor market, particularly for women. On the day of the fire, more than 1,600 people were reportedly working at Tazreen Fashions, where they sewed and produced garments for major retailers in the U.S. and European markets.
Most of those retailers have yet to offer a substantive response, according to many working on the issue.
“Walmart has yet to take any responsibility for the workers killed and injured,” Babul Akhter, with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, said last week in a statement released by IndustriALL Global Union, an umbrella group with 50 million members worldwide.
IndustriALL reports that several other U.S. brands, including those noted above as well as Dickies, Delta Apparel and Sean Jean, likewise continue to refuse to move forward on compensation talks. “None of these brands have paid a cent towards compensation,” IndustriALL states.
Last year, when a spectrum of stakeholders met in Geneva to discuss potential compensation approaches, neither Wal-Mart nor Sears even sent representatives.
It’s important to note that such a stance does not constitute the broad corporate response to supply-chain disasters. Late last month, for instance, C&A, a major European retailer that had also been doing business at Tazreen Fashions, arrived at a landmark initial agreement on how to proceed with the compensation process and contribute to a special fund for survivors. C&A had also made available some initial funds in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
“We have been able to identify the names of people who have died and been injured. This means that when it comes to delivering compensation to the victims and their families, the process should be quick and straightforward,” Monika Kemperle, IndustriALL’s assistant general secretary, told MintPress.
“C&A has made a significant contribution to kick-start the fund and cooperated with us to get an agreement in place. We are now asking the other brands involved, especially Tazreen’s number one customer, Wal-Mart, to take responsibility and pay up. These workers paid with their lives to make cheap clothes for Western brands.”
Under the new C&A agreement, compensation will include coverage for income loss as well as for ongoing medical assessment and treatment. This latter element is critical, as many Tazreen workers continue to suffer from debilitating injuries, particularly as a result of being forced to jump out of windows in the factories’ upper floors.
“I jumped from the fourth floor. I lost my eye and broke my spinal cord and leg,” Shahnaz Begum, a Tazreen worker, told ILRF’s Foxvog, who visited Dhaka in October.
“I can’t stand straight and I can’t lie down. I can’t work – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to. I’m still waiting for fair compensation.”
Another worker told Foxvog that on the day of the factory fire, “management had just sent a shipment to Wal-Mart.” The worker, Jorina Begum, called for Wal-Mart to offer compensation to injured workers and those who lost family members. She also noted she wants “to make an example from Tazreen … so that it never happens again.”
Foxvog says many of the workers she met continued to be in visible pain. While some had received the small initial compensation from C&A, these payments did not cover medications or higher-quality care – much less address the fact that many are no longer able to engage in physical work.
“The economic situation I heard about was quite dire. There was a lot of both helplessness and anger,” Foxvog said.
“These people have clearly spoken with so many people, had so many medical assessments, provided all of this personal information and yet still haven’t received any meaningful compensation.”
A Tazreen worker reportedly died in August due to unaddressed injuries suffered during the factory fire.
Rana Plaza model
In part, the difficulty in arranging for compensation stemming from the Tazreen Fashions fire is due to its unfortunate proximity to a second major industrial disaster – the collapse of Rana Plaza, another Dhaka-area garments factory. That event, which killed nearly 1,130 people, took place just five months after the Tazreen fire.
The Rana Plaza collapse quickly rose to distinction as the world’s worst industrial disaster. It sparked widespread outrage, including a unique level of consumer engagement around the issue of supply-chain accountability.
Wal-Mart was also purchasing from Rana Plaza contractors, and the sudden spike in consumer pressure following the collapse led the company to offer $3 million, a significant portion of which was meant for compensation. Another brand, Children’s Place, likewise made available some $450,000.
That money was funneled through BRAC, a prominent Bangladeshi NGO, rather than be put into a specific fund as requested, and part was earmarked for broader humanitarian purposes. Yet a Wal-Mart representative told MintPress that a portion of this money was also used “to establish a reserve fund to support relief efforts for other factory tragedies, including Tazreen.” Some 5,000 bank accounts have been created to receive this compensation, the spokesperson noted, citing BRAC statistics.
Still, from the point of view of the Tazreen survivors and advocates, the furor over the Rana Plaza disaster appeared to derail talks around their compensation. Now, the recent agreement with C&A has been able to copy the Rana Plaza-related compensation mechanisms, and many are hoping to use the new momentum to address outstanding Tazreen claims.
“Interestingly, Rana Plaza ended up being a distraction both in terms of the media shifting its attention away and in terms of the fact that much of the compensation work ended up focusing instead on this bigger disaster,” Foxvog said.
“Nonetheless, now that the Rana Plaza compensation is underway there is a clear mechanism for calculating the amounts due and a system for distributing compensation.”
The Rana Plaza collapse also spurred the creation of substantive agreements from Western brands to take on stronger roles – and liabilities – in ensuring safety and some labor standards in the factories in which they subcontract work.
While this is indisputably a major step forward, these actions have taken the shape of two separate collective agreements, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. While the latter has been broadly embraced by labor groups, the former has been criticized for being a voluntary, rather than legally binding, mechanism.
Several of the most prominent U.S. brands, including Wal-Mart and Sears, are founding members of the alliance. A spokesperson for Sears notes that the company learned lessons in the aftermath of the Tazreen fire, though he wouldn’t comment directly on the issue of compensation.
“Tazreen remains a reminder of the work needed to continue to build a stronger and safer garment industry in Bangladesh,” the spokesperson told MintPress in a statement.
“Although we don’t publicly disclose contributions to worker funds, we can assure you that Sears Holdings remains committed to making factories in Bangladesh safer for all workers. As part of this effort we regularly audit our factories on to identify fire safety issues as well as many other social, labor and human rights issues.”
New safety processes under both the alliance and accord are currently going forward, and the latter has reportedly finished a first phase of inspection of more than 1,600 factories. This, together with new labor rights provisions, constitutes a clear sea change in the context of the Bangladeshi garments sector.
In the event of future industrial disasters in the country, however, neither the alliance nor the accord will be of much use in resolving the inevitable demands for compensation. Neither agreement includes guidelines on the issue.