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article imageOp-Ed: Tazreen lost safety licence months before the tragedy

By Raluca Besliu     Dec 7, 2012 in Politics
Last month, a fire at Bangladeshi Tazreen Fashions Ltd. garment factory producing clothes for Walmart, Disney and other important Western companies killed 112 workers.
It was just discovered that the company had lost its fire safety certification in June, five months before the accident occurred.
Fire officials had denied licence renewal, due to the building’s lack of proper safety arrangements. The factory did not have any fire exits for its around 1,400. Had there been at least one emergency exit, significantly fewer deaths would have occurred, claimed the case investigators. At the same time, fire extinguishers were not used during the incident, either because they weren't functional or the workers did not know how to use them.
Although a factory must be certified in order to operate, the Bangladeshi authorities nevertheless allow it some time for upgrades to be made. In case of failure to comply, the authorities can file a court case to force its closure, but that rarely happens. It certainly did not happen in the Tazreen case.
While failing to provide its factory adequate safety measures, the owner of the Tazreen factory had nevertheless illegally expanded its building to eights and was in the process of adding the ninth one when the fire occurred, even though he had only received permission to build a three-storey facility. While the Capital Development Authority could have implemented a wide variety of sanctions to punish the owner for his illegal additions, it chose not to take action rather than confront one of Bangladesh’s most powerful industries.
The recently discovered information about the Tazreen factory brings to the forefront the lack of safety enforcement at the country’s over 4,000 garment factories, which, according to safety inspectors and labor rights activists, remains a common practice, since many of them block any attempts to shut them down.
The Tazreen fire incident caused public outrage. Around 100,000 people attended the burial of 53 workers whose bodies were unidentifiable. In direct response to the fire, the government has started investigating all of the country’s 4,500 garment factories. Of the 232 factories situated in the area where the Tazreen factory is located, 64 of them has been discovered to lack safety authorizations or any safety measures, such as fire extinguishers.
This government initiative is one of the positive outcomes of the tragic incident at Tazreen. Another important consequence is that it brought to the forefront a crucial question. Who is responsible for these types of tragedies?
Most parties involved benefited from the factory’s functioning, whether or not this meant a respect for international labor standards. The big Western companies enjoyed the factory’s low costs and quick production. Therefore, even though Walmart and a European organization investigated and faulted the Tazreen factory, it nevertheless happily continued to receive orders. C&A admitted to ordering 220,000 sweaters from Tazreen.
Much of Tazreen’s business came from subcontracts with suppliers. After the fire, Walmart and Sears have stepped out to say that they had fired the suppliers who subcontracted work with Tazreen. They were, therefore, passing exclusive responsibility to the suppliers as the only ones who should have been aware of Tazreen’s state. In fact, they are also responsible for the conditions in which their own products are created, because, ultimately, they are the brand, the big name that can get called out for international standards’ abuses, whenever something goes wrong. Yet, the Tazreen case indicates that, in order to get cheaper goods, companies are not only willing to allow people to work in extremely dangerous conditions, but that they will eschew responsibility, as soon as incidents take place.
The Bangladeshi government was also profiting from the factory’s substantial production. The garment industry currently ensures 80 percent of Bangladesh’ total export earnings and, therefore, remains virtually unchallenged by the government. Bangladesh is currently the second largest apparel-exporter country in the world, after China. At this moment, the government is failing to accomplish its responsibility to protect its citizens’ rights, because it chooses to let severe labor and human rights abuses run rampant rather than confront its key main revenue suppliers.
Finally and most importantly, consumers around the world are responsible for the tragedies that occur in these factories, because sadly most of them care more about buying cheap products rather than products created in a decent manner. Most consumers do not currently hold companies in any way accountable for their production system, to an important degree because of the profound disconnect between the Western consumer and the laborer working in factories mostly situated in the developing world. Found in stores’ impersonal environment, clothes and other products seem to be produced impersonally as well. But behind every product created, there are often dozens of people forced to suffer during the production process.
Whether it is children collecting cocoa in Western African countries for our daily coffee, people picking up roses in Latin America for us to give to our loved ones or working on our clothes in factories in South Asia, various types of abuses regarding labor standards and human rights are being inflicted on them by their employers and tolerated by their countries’ authorities. An incident such as the fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh should trigger Western consumers’ anger against the manner in which big companies allow their goods to be produced and incentivize them to start holding these big brands accountable for their practices.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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