Walmart & Other American Retailers: Ensure basic safety & human rights for workers in Bangladesh
My name is Sumi Abedin. I sewed clothing for American retailers at Tazreen garment factory in Bangladesh for a year and half. On November 24th we were working overtime at 6:30pm, when one worker came back from the restroom and shouted, “there’s a fire in the factory!” We started to smell smoke and we panicked. But when I ran towards the exit stairs, my supervisor told me it was a false alarm and ordered me to go back to work. Five minutes later it became really clear that there was a fire but we couldn’t get out through the main stairs because the supervisor had locked the collapsible metal gate.
Eventually, I saw a coworker break a window on the third floor and jump. I jumped right after him. My decision to jump was not so that I could save my life – I doubted that I could survive a jump from a third story window. I jumped to save my body so that my parents could find me; if I had stayed in that factory my body would have been burned to ash. Unlike 112 of my coworkers, I survived.
I feel lucky that I survived the fire last November, but my heart hurts for all the victims of the Tazreen fire, the recent Rana Plaza building collapse and for the hundreds of other workers who have been killed in Bangladesh at factories where clothes were being manufactured for Walmart, Sears, JC Penney and other American retailers.
Over 380 people have been killed in Bangladesh since last week after the collapse of an eight-story factory building where clothes were being manufactured for American and European consumers. Although workers had their doubts about entering the building since cracks had developed on the facade, managers forced the workers to enter the building and work as usual.
The disaster at Rana Plaza is now the deadliest incident in the garment industry in known history. Two of the brands identified in documents found in the rubble are sold at JC Penney. The building collapse is but one in a series of disasters that could have been prevented, had the largest apparel buyers learned from earlier tragedies and adopted the safety measures urged by unions and labor rights groups. In December 2010, 29 workers perished in the That's It Sportswear factory fire, where clothing destined for JC Penney was found. Then, just last fall disaster struck again. The fire at Tazreen, a supplier to Walmart and Sears, took the lives of 112 garment workers. These are only three of the dozens of preventable incidents that have taken garment workers' lives in Bangladesh. This pattern of fires and building collapses will not end unless retailers make real change in their sourcing practices.
As noted in a poignant New York Editorial, “the severity and frequency of these disasters are an indictment of global clothing brands and retailers like Walmart, H&M and the Gap, which buy billions of dollars of clothes from Bangladesh but have so far refused to demand and pay for adequate safeguards at the factories that fill their orders.”
This is unacceptable. We can't allow US corporations to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in profits while continuing to offer woefully inadequate responses concerning the safety of workers in countries like Bangladesh. We must pressure them today to lean on their suppliers in Bangladesh and lobby the government of Bangladesh to enact and enforce meaningful labor laws and safety standards which on paper should provide basic protections to workers.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s government in Bangladesh should also make a commitment to allow workers to form unions and ensures their rights to bargain with management on wages and working conditions. It is up to the American companies that produce their clothing in Bangladesh to ensure that Hasina’s government does not ignore these rights despite making repeated promises to do so to international agencies.
Enough is enough. We cannot let American companies like Walmart, Sears and JC Penney get away with ignoring the human rights of the workers who sew their clothes.
Photo via http://laborrights.org/.